CHICAGO – Fabian Mascarenas had the right idea for me when I arrived at the restaurant Nuevo Leon to see Johnny Tapia on the city’s south side.
Mascarenas sat patiently with his fingers laced and his elbows propped up on the table. He was waiting for Tapia to return much the same way one waits for the main entrée. Well, he was actually waiting for his food; Tapia’s return was secondary.
“I’ve chased him around enough,” he said later on. “I just stay here.”
Mascarenas has been there for Tapia’s drug abuse rehabilitation, just one of several the former five-time world champion has undertaken in his life, for the last five years as a sponsor.
“He’s really intrigued with my law enforcement background,” said Mascarenas, a retired Department of Justice agent. “I was interested in his radical lifestyle, so we just kind of clicked.
“This is the first time I’ve been associated with someone who’s been through what he’s been through and I didn’t have to throw him in jail.”
Mascarenas handles Tapia’s security for fights, which isn’t an enviable position. The energy that keeps Tapia at a fevered pitch normally is exponentially greater before a fight.
I suggested a leash and harness for the fights, but Mascarenas’ coolheaded approach seems slightly more befitting a resolution for a future hall-of-famer.
Tapia finally returned to the table. My thumbing through his new book, “Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia,” was shallow at best: merely the introduction. I didn’t want to ask too soon as his meal has just arrived, and his appetite was greater than any I’ve seen for a man his size.
He hunched over the plate of eggs, steak and rice with his elbows cocked at 90-degree angles. Tapia slashed and impaled the steak with the same ferocity that was key to his boxing success.
I looked away for a moment, thinking at least he’s using a knife and fork. My gaze returned to the carnage and he’d tossed the utensils aside and shredded the meat with his bare hands.
It wasn’t a prudish response on my part. Watching a former world champion break the social norms of dining etiquette without anybody making so much as a disgusted face is fascinating. Many people would be hard-pressed to find any authors at a book signing face down in a plate of pasta.
Everybody around Tapia just passed it off as normal – for him. Since etiquette wasn’t a concern at this table, I asked Tapia about his book. If it were somebody else’s life story in his book, how would he feel?
He sits back, wiping his mouth with one napkin. He used another to wipe the perspiration from his chest.
“I’d feel sad. I would cry,” he said, then looked at the cup of chicken soup in front of me.
“Hey, are you going to eat that,” he asked.
My fiendish craving for endless restaurant tortilla chips long arrested my appetite for anything else at the table, so it wasn’t much for me to give up my soup.
A few television, mostly Spanish language, and print writers came through for interviews. But nothing resembling a media blitz. I stopped jotting notes and recording conversations with Mascarenas and Tapia. Watching Johnny Tapia in motion was much more telling than he could ever put into words.
“What you see is who he is,” Mascarenas said. “He’s so down to earth, and he’s so sincere.”
Tapia greeted everybody with a smile, handshake and sometimes a hug. They all wanted a piece of him, and some of them wanted to give back. A young man with tattoos stretching to his wrists offered up ink on the house at his brother’s parlor.
The box of books went quickly as word spread around the primarily Hispanic neighborhood. For $25, the price of the book, one could get an autographed copy of the book. The conversation and hugs were still free. The book supply ran low long before the advertised start of the signings, which Tapia attempted to remedy by handing a child a wad of cash to buy boxing gloves.
I never saw the child return, but I never took it as a naïve showing on Tapia’s part. He just did what he wished someone else would have done for him around the Albuquerque barrio in which he grew up.
His childhood wasn’t easy, as the book will note. The text itself isn’t much of a book on boxing as it is a dark tale that leads to personal triumph. Film director Jerry Bruckheimer wants to make a movie based on the book, but the script is in rewrites. The biggest complaint from the Bruckheimer is that the story is too dark.
“If it’s not [dark], then it’s not my story,” Tapia said.
So now Tapia is the one waiting. He’s just not sitting still for it.