There is a scene in the documentary “Tapia,” which debuts on HBO Tuesday night (11 PM ET), where “Mi Vida Loca,” the New Mexico native who epitomized ‘talented but troubled,’ in a sport no stranger to that type, has just learned he lost a fight.
The fight occurred back near his heyday, toward the tail end of if, and Tapia recalls his thinking as the others guys’ hand was raised. He admits that his thoughts went to his wife, his beloved Teresa, and he said he knew he let her down. It was clear, more than a decade later, the emotions still stung him.
Now, when I saw the video of Tapia reacting to the loss, and saw Teresa’s face, I noted that I saw the same look on her face as was always present, when she was in his presence. I saw a look of love; adoration; concern; a love mixing romantic and maternal yearnings. I saw the look of love that all of us should be so lucky to enjoy.
Teresa Tapia was present at HBO headquarters in new York City on Wednesday evening to view the documentary “Tapia,” which was produced by the ace HBO crew, and multi-media mogul Lou Dibella in concert with rappetrepeneur 50 Cent.
I gravitated to her after paying respects to some of the persons instrumental in the superior finished product, including director Bentley Weiner, who put her stamp and attention on exemplary footage collector by film-maker Eddie Alcazar. After admitting my severe envy of writer Aaron Cohen, whose words were made to sing by Liev Schreiber, I tracked down Mrs. Tapia. She seemed in decent spirits; I didn’t note any teariness, or red eyes signaling a state which would send me away, to give her privacy.
My first question: was it love at first sight when you set eyes on the prizefighter, who comes off as a complex package of turmoil and sweetness who was destined to go from hell and back, and hell and back, as long as his perpetuity would last on this earth. “No, I think it was more of, he was interesting,” she said, her mind drifting back to Albuquerque, where both grew up, and where young Tapia rose in the ranks from the amateurs, into the pro scene, where he won crowns at super fly to feather before retiring in 2011 with a 59-5-2 mark. “And he didn’t give up. Him, he’d say it was love at first sight, but I though, ‘Gosh this person is pushy,’ she said chuckling lightly.
“I think what I loved about Johnny the most was his sense of protecting me,” she said of the man who battled the turbulent stream of thoughts and emotions which clouded his brain after his mom was murdered, when he was a little boy.
Producer DiBella weighed in on Wednesday, and said, “Everyone should watch this. Boxing fans are going to love this, there’s a lot of boxing in it, but this is not a boxing movie. This is a movie about life, about demons, addiction, drug use, mental illness, but it’s also a movie about the enduring nature of the human spirit, to not quit, to keep getting up. That’s one of the things I’ve alway loved about boxing,” the former HBO exec continued, “the metaphor about being knocked down and getting up. As sick as Johnny was, as many times as Johnny died, and was revived, Johnny never gave up on life, and most importantly, Johnny never gave up on love.”
Rick Bernstein, executive producer of HBO Sports, shared his thoughts on the film. “Johnny Tapia’s life story was an incredible journey, and we are eager to celebrate his biggest accomplishments and chronicle the toughest and most difficult moments of his turbulent life,” Bernstein said. “Tapia was so much more than just a world champion, and we want to share this gripping account with our subscribers, many of whom may have seen Johnny in his five fights on HBO, but may not know the amazing story behind the fighter.”
50 Cent, too, said the Tapia tale affected him. “Johnny’s is a story that needed to be told,” he said. “Everyone can relate to some aspect of it, which makes it that much more powerful. Personally, his journey is one that has touched me greatly.”
I shared the notion of that “hell and back and hell and back” phrase with Teresa, because it was she who was there after Johnny would make a foray into the dark zones where cocaine’s crooked finger beckoned him, for days long benders. It was she who’d dust him off, admonish him, and then hug him, when it became clear that the drug was controlling the man, and he was not of his own volition when he was off and running.
That scene when Johnny admitted it stung him to lose, because of how it would disappoint the saintly Teresa, she picked up on it, too. “He didn’t want to disappoint those he loved the most, but when I’m looking at him, I’m looking at him in utter disbelief, and with an almost maternal instinct. You just want to comfort him.”
That could occur, but then the waves would wash over him again. The powerlessness at being unable to stop fate from taking mom, the inability, despite being a man amongst men in the squared circle, to be able to conquer emotions like ring foes. He couldn’t keep them at bay, though boxing being a reason for being gave him respite.
I shared with Teresa, and by the way contemplated not doing so, but decided to do so because I think it’s valuable for many folks to hear, because they might identify with the situation, that my mom was something of a troubled soul.
She didn’t interpret things in a way that would enable her serenity, most of the time. And I really comprehended that back in 1994, which was the year Teresa married Johnny. I’d gotten into a legal scrape, and asked my father for counsel. He and I were chatting, and he then made a phone call to his wife, my mom.
Hey dad, can I say hi to mom?
He asked her, and she spoke for a span. He was silent. He then turned to me, with a grave look in his eyes.
“She doesn’t want to talk to you right now,” he informed me.
Oh that stung. Still does, more mildly now.
But…but…aren’t parents supposed to be there for you through thick and thin, I protested after he’d hung up the phone. He took a moment to compose his thought: “Your mother… is the sort of person who will not ever be truly at peace while on this earth.”
I nodded, and I got it. Not fully…but enough so that when mom died in 2009, and was, to the end, a difficult sort, I didn’t wallow in what ifs, or whys, as in, why was she the way she was. She was what she was, and she tried her best. Some people really aren’t so much built, emotionally, for the coaster ride of life. Stomaches can’t take it. Brains too frazzled to process the daily dose of indignities and slings and arrows and demonic twists fate hands us at times. My mom was one of them…and I think Johnny was too. That’s why you will talk to many folks who knew him well, and they weren’t bowled over, or catastrophically felled when they learned he’d died on May 27, 2012 from a heart attack. In a better place, they’ll say…
“There’s a part of me that, if there’s any bright side, it’s knowing that he’s crossed over to where for so long he’d wanted to be,” Teresa said. “And you feel that he’s still there…but still there’s a huge void in my heart. And nothing can fill it.” Two years on, and the pain lingers, and hasn’t dissipated the way some might expect.
Yes, she said, that man was the love of her life and she could never love that way again. There will be no remarriage in her future, she said. “I think he would be a hard act to follow,” she said, understating furiously.
Three sons, Johnathon, age 22, Johnny Lorenzo, age 14, and Johnny Niccolai, age 9, remain on earth; Teresa will now deal with children left behind, as Johnny was when his mom was taken away. They will know that mom stood by their dad every time he won crowns, did his signature backflip, and when he back-slid, back to the grotesque mistress of his, cocaine. “The addiction, I looked at it like someone who has diabetes, or whatever,” she told me.
That acceptance of a flawed being kept Johnny alive for maybe longer than many would have predicted. There were so many ODs and some suicide attempts…
The thought of seeing him again helps her when the gloom overwhelms. “One of these days,” Teresa Tapia said, “we will see each other again. I believe that that time will come. Where he’s buried, I have a spot right next to him. Not to be morbid, but I know we will be joined again.”