La Vida Loca de Johnny Tapia

The following post was originally published in the January 2019 issue of Collected Magazine.


“He hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico,” builds the announcer as Johnny Tapia lightly punches his own jaws with red gloves.

Johnny never ceases to hop around. He parades the licensed weapons that are his hands through the air while the announcer speaks to the audience.

“Johnny ‘Mi Vida Loca’ Tapia...” trails out over the loud speaker for the Las Vegas crowd. The arena is electrified, filled with excitement. While maintaining the bounce in his stationary step, Johnny crosses himself, then brings his gloves together in front of his mouth as he bows to the crowd.

It's July 18th, 1997. Johnny’s wearing black trunks with a gold “TAPIA” on the front of them. For his pre-fight getup, he has on a black robe with a hood. His wife, serious, stands behind him on his right in a black and gold dress. His opponent, a young pretty boy named Danny Romero, stands on the other side of the ring in gold and red shorts, his shiny hair slicked back. If it wasn't for the boxing shorts, you'd think Danny was going out for a night on the town. 

Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero are both from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a claim to the city is the prize for this fight. A rivalry, a turf war, a grudge match: all accurate descriptions of the event.

As Johnny and Danny land their first blows in the early rounds, the tension slowly breaks. The crowd bursts into a chant of “Johnny, Johnny!” egging their energetic fighter on. Boxing analyst Larry Merchant notes on the broadcast, "Every punch is thrown with mean intentions. Every punch is meant to hurt the opponent.” He's 100% right.

Between rounds three and four, Tapia finds his seat in his corner of the ring where his trainer awaits with as much energy as his fighter.

“You look good, son!”

“We look good!” says Tapia. “Not just me. Us!”

After nearly 36 minutes of fighting, the twelfth and final round ends with a flurry of punches and a bit of taunting. Romero lands one last blow that catches Tapia off-balance. Tapia plays it off, backpedaling toward the ropes right as the bell rings, and as Romero walks away, Tapia immediately does his signature backflip. Tapia's trainer rushes into the ring and hoists his fighter in his arms, Johnny raising his gloves in victory for the crowd. Romero also raises his gloves as if to claim victory, though it's far less spirited than Tapia's victory lap. Both fighters feel they've won the fight. Neither of them know that as of yet.

The announcer steps back into the ring to announce the final scores from the judges ringside. The television broadcast shows a calm but seemingly defeated Romero on the right side of the screen, and an excited Tapia on the left, occasionally screaming, “I love you, Grandma!”

As the announcer is about to reveal the winner’s name, Danny Romero throws his hands up. But the name that gets called is Johnny “Mi Vida Loca” Tapia. Romero's hands fall and his face betrays defeat—it doesn't look like he believed he had won at all. The crowd erupts in screams and whistles for their hometown hero. Tapia raises his gloves. He is crying, moving to hug his wife in victory.


*

Johnny Tapia was two things to the boxing world: exciting and troubled. Johnny was only eight years old when he witnessed his mother’s final screams as she was dragged from the back of a pickup truck to her death. The murderer was never found[4] or charged, and perhaps for the better: if Johnny had known who did it, there only would have been more brutality. Instead, it seems he channeled this energy into the boxing ring (and into less-than-stellar extracurricular activities, such as drugs.)

He put his wife and many around him through hell. A troubled childhood and spending time with the wrong people led him to cocaine addiction, which stifled his career as early as 1990, only a short time after it began in 1988. He wouldn't fight again until '94.

“Probably a lot of stupidity, basically...lot of depression, lot of anger, that I couldn't control.”

Those years without boxing would be the hardest of his entire life. Without a home and without money, he began to take on brawls in the giant refrigerator of a bar for $300 and a case of beer. They were not sanctioned boxing matches: just fights where the only weapons not allowed were loaded guns. He describes these times as the worst of his life. “I just never could cry out to my mom to help me.” [1]

During these times without boxing, he met his wife, Teresa. Johnny hid his cocaine addiction from her for an extended time. Some acquaintances gave her a hint as to his problem, and one day, she caught him using a short few months after they married. Displeased, of course, with this development, Teresa decided to lock Johnny inside of the house, forcing him to quit the cocaine he called his mistress, cold turkey.

Johnny recalls breaking things in the house because of the intense withdrawals. He was angry, deprived, and wanted nothing more than to escape the house and never come back. Teresa, being the one pillar of consistent strength that Tapia had, told him that it was fine: he could break everything, and she would still stay with him. Determined to return not to his mistress but to his true love—boxing—he began to exercise in the house. After weeks of being locked up inside the house, his trainer picked Johnny up to start running again.

When Johnny did return to the ring, his deep sensitivity and burning anger were on display for all to see. One moment, he would be hugging his opponent after a round of spirited fighting, and in another he’d demonstrate his killer instinct with brutal punches, and by the end of the fight he was lifting his opponent up in victory, despite Tapia being the clear winner. If you want to know who Johnny Tapia is, all you need to see is him in the ring.

Freddie Roach, the legendary trainer who worked with Tapia, confirmed what many knew to be true despite Tapia's demons:

"He's one of the greatest fighters in the world today, and he's probably the most exciting fighter in the world today. He wouldn't be Johnny Tapia without those demons, I guess. If he was just a straight-laced, real nice guy, he probably wouldn't be as good as he is."

By the end of his first year back in boxing (1994), Johnny had won over a half-dozen fights, including a championship bout against Henry Martinez, which earned him the WBO World Super Flyweight Title. Only one of those fights during his first year back went to the scorecards: the rest ended in knockouts.

*

"Tapia seemed to think it wasn’t fair for Romero to go around winning fights and fans while Tapia had to suffer a four-year banishment from the sport for his cocaine abuse. (He’d resumed his career three years earlier.) And Romero looked upon Tapia as a has-been coke fiend who ought to slink back to the gutter where he belonged." [2]

Seven years younger, Romero was a rising talent with no drug convictions to his name. Also from Albuquerque, Tapia's sudden return to boxing had stolen his thunder as a new star in the boxing world—so much so, that in a post-fight interview, he referred to Tapia as a “little gnat” that needed to be taken care of. This, along with Tapia's trouble outside the ring, was the background for the fight that solidified Tapia as Albuquerque's champion.

The crowd witnessing Tapia vs. Romero understood "La vida loca" de Johnny Tapia. It's part of what makes his story so appealing. His struggles forged a personality and force that could not be tamed, inside and outside the ring. He fought the way you would expect a man of his background to fight: with intense passion and determination. It's not hard to imagine him exhibiting the same excitement and enthusiasm in a violent street brawl, but it's also not hard to imagine this same intensity translating to a deep love for his wife, trainers, and fighters who he mentored later in his life.

Tapia's tragedy made him who he is. It just so happens that Tapia's experiences created the perfect brew for an exciting, inspiring, and troubled boxer. He had something that the rest of us do not, a drive that the rest of us may never know. The tragic nature of his life makes him an appealing underdog for us to support and love. But hopefully not to emulate.

*

A rough childhood or traumatic experience changes you for the rest of your life. You cannot choose it. There is no avoiding it. Tapia did not have a say in whether his mother would be murdered, and if he did, he certainly would have decided against it, even if it meant he turned out a different person. Those of us who grow up unbothered, in decent homes and with loving families, often feel guilt for the ease with which we grow up. “What is my story?” I ask, though in the same moment I fear what my future would look like if I had faced the tragic circumstances of Johnny Tapia’s life.

Nonetheless, transformation is part of every hero's journey. As the hero of my own life, I am required to put myself through something. Not a punishment, per se, nor a tragedy, but a struggle that changes the way I view the world.

I don’t wish to manufacture struggle to have an interesting story. I don’t do it so that I can one day triumph out of my self-inflicted bad circumstances and call myself self-made. Struggle is for transformation only. It may be as simple as taking a risk and putting myself in an uncomfortable situation where I have to learn.

After all, Johnny Tapia's extraordinary experience was a set of lessons. Whether they were good or bad is irrelevant: he learned anger and passion after the death of his mother and channeled that into his fighting. He learned hurt, loss, even hopelessness, which likely lead him to abuse drugs. It so happens that the former of these lessons resulted in a remarkable fighter that boxing fans cherished, the latter being a nasty byproduct of the first.

Tragedy in your life is nothing more than learning: go experience more with the purpose of learning, and you will make up for the deficiency of tragedy in your life and become the result of your lessons. As to how you and I can experience these transformations, I can't answer. I know only what I learned from Johnny Tapia: go at it with all your heart.

“Yesterday is gone, tomorrow never comes, today I'm okay.” —Johnny Tapia

 

Notes


[1] Tapia Directed by Eddie Alcazar, with Johnny Tapia. HBO, 2012

[2] "Johnny Tapia versus Danny Romero — What a Night!" by Ivan G. Goldman for Boxing Insider, May 30, 2012

[3] Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia, by Johnny Tapia. 2006

[4] The murderer of Tapia's mother was found later on in Johnny's life and career, right before he lost his first professional match to Paulie Ayala—however, the murderer had been killed 6 months earlier in a hit and run. Johnny never felt like that was the closure he wanted.

CollectedDiego Segura