CANASTOTA, N.Y. – Boxers, and their individual life stories, are often as unique as fingerprints. If that wasn’t already obvious, the paths taken by Marco Antonio Barrera and the late Johnny Tapia on their way to induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame should serve as conclusive proof that the prevailing stereotypes of championship-level fighters are often as riddled with holes as the car in which Bonnie and Clyde met their grisly fate.
Those paths intersected the night of Nov. 2, 2002, at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, when the 28-year-old Barrera scored a wide 12-round unanimous decision over Tapia, who at 35 was nearing the end of his long, frequently controversial and sometimes tragic run at the elite level. But while Barrera and Tapia were similar in some respects – both had an all-encompassing need to succeed in the ring, and the fire they brought to that shared task burned hot – they were for the most part polar opposites, one the outwardly tranquil child of upper-middle-class privilege, the other the product of crushing poverty and almost unspeakable heartbreak whose fiercest fights were as much or more against his inner demons as against gloved opponents inside the ropes. It is difficult to imagine Barrera fulfilling his destiny had he been thrust into the troubling world Tapia grew up in, and it is just as difficult to envision Tapia rising to the professional heights he did had he experienced the familial love which nurtured Barrera. Who’s to say which set of circumstances is most apt to produce pugilistic greatness?
Although Barrera, now 43, turned pro as a flyweight at the tender age of 15 in his native Mexico City, using falsified papers to obtain a boxing license, it was not as if he had to fight to earn a living. His father, who worked in the Mexican film industry, was a good provider and he and his wife had visions of their son someday becoming a lawyer. They were not pleased to learn he not only wanted to become a fighter, but was already doing so – and more successfully than anyone might have expected, given his youth – and they continued to plead with him to consider the career path they had mapped out for him.
“It (becoming a lawyer) wasn’t my choice; it was my parents’ choice,” Barrera, who did in fact study law at La Salle University in Mexico City, said here Friday afternoon after he took part in the IBHOF’s traditional fist-casting. “They wanted me to quit boxing. But when I got a big fight (a shot at WBO super bantamweight champion Daniel Jimenez on March 31, 1995), I told them, `I will make you a deal. If I win, I will stay in boxing and you will say no more about it. If I lose, I’ll become a lawyer.’”
Barrera won a 12-round unanimous decision for his first world title and when his hand was raised any chance he might have had to become a Mexican Perry Mason vanished. Then again, the 21-year-old Marco Antonio had a pretty good idea that he’d never have to worry about passing the bar. He was 34-0 with 23 KOs by the time he dethroned Jimenez, was drawing comparisons to Mexico’s most cherished boxing hero, Julio Cesar Chavez, and was the proud bearer of a catchy nickname, the “Baby-Faced Assassin,” which was conferred upon him by Forum Boxing publicist John Beyrooty when he just 18 and looked it, knocking out Esteban Ayala in four rounds in his United States debut, on Nov. 9, 1992, at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
Barrera looks as if he might need to be carded if he attempted to order a strong drink at another kind of bar, even if he is here in the adoring company of wife Sandra, sons Marco, Mateo and Mareano and daughter Ximena. His hair is still black, his face unmarked and unlined, and he appears to be as contented as a former fighter has any right to be. But despite having reigned in three separate weight classes – super bantamweight, featherweight and junior lightweight – and compiling a 67-7 career record with 44 KOs, the ride that was so smooth for so long had its bumpy patches.
There were the back-to-back losses to Junior Jones that cooled much of the enthusiasm that he was going to be the next Chavez, setbacks that so discouraged Barrera that he briefly retired. There was the three-bout blood feud with fellow Mexican and potential future Hall of Famer Erik Morales (Barrera won two of those fights), in which the tremendous two-way action inside the ropes was matched by the very real, very bitter animosity between two proud men who clearly despised one another. Morales, who is from Tijuana, sniped at Barrera for not having come up the hard way, or at least as hard a way as Morales had, and for currying too much favor with American audiences. On top of all that, Barrera underwent brain surgery to alleviate persistent headaches that left him with a small metal plate in his head and necessitated a stylistic change which improved his defense but somewhat tamped down his familiar attacking, aggressive style.
It was Morales who brought out a crueler side of Barrera, but maybe one that was there all along. All that was needed was a reason for it to emerge, and Morales wasn’t the only one that helped bring it to the surface.
“A member of the media started it,” Barrera explained. “He kept saying I was a terrible fighter, that Morales was better. The promoters picked up on that and kept making us out to be enemies until we actually were. What friction there was between us was definitely real. At one press conference, they had to keep us apart or we would have fought right then and there.”
As compelling as the Barrera-Morales trilogy was, however, it was a fight against a favored Englishman of Arab descent, “Prince” Naseem Hamed, that is as much a part of the Marco Antonio Barrera legacy as anything. As Barrera remembers it, he was a 11-1 longshot heading into his April 7, 2001, clash with Hamed at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, but that is incorrect; he was just a 3-1 underdog. What is beyond dispute is the manner in which he gave the undefeated Hamed a boxing lesson, winning a one-sided unanimous decision despite a fit of late pique that saw him being docked a penalty point for intentionally ramming Hamed’s head into a turnbuckle in the 12th round.
“After that fight,” Barrera said, “everything just opened up for me. I always thought I would beat Hamed. It bothered me that almost no one thought I would win. That made me even more determined to prove the doubters wrong.
“Hamed was a superstar, known all over the world. When I beat him, it was like everyone knew me everywhere. I was even hearing from people in Japan!”
The tale of Marco Antonio Barrera almost seems a fairy tale compared to the crazy life, “Mi Vida Loca,” led by Tapia. As an eight-year-old in his hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., Tapia was awakened one night by the screams of his mother, Virginia Tapia Gallegos. As the son looked out his window, he saw her chained to the back of a pickup truck and dragged. She had been kidnapped, raped, stabbed 26 times with a screwdriver and scissors and left for dead. She did, in fact, die several days later. Her murder went unsolved for years, and when the assailant was finally identified it was after he had been killed by a hit-and-run driver eight years after his unspeakable violation of Tapia’s mother.
That sort of traumatic experience could brand any child, and Tapia channeled his aggression into boxing, winning five New Mexico Golden Gloves championships and two National Golden Gloves titles before turning pro in 1988 at 21.
As a pro he was 59-5-2 with 30 knockouts and won five world titles, but his victories were never enough to blunt the depression and anguish he felt, and too often he chose to take the edge off his pain through hard drugs. On several occasions he attempted to commit suicide, but failed, and his heroin and cocaine addictions and violent outbursts contributed to suspensions from boxing commissions and the compilation of a 125-page rap sheet with the Albuquerque Police Department.
Tapia’s marriage to Teresa, who would bear him three children, proved to be less an emotional rescue for the husband than an ongoing ordeal for the wife, who showed remarkable patience in sticking by his side through thick and mostly thin.
“I have put her through hell more than anybody,” Tapia, whose tortured heart finally gave out on May 27, 2012, said in the HBO documentary Tapia, which debuted in December 2014. “She went through all the downs I went through, and she went through all the ups that I had. She should have left a long time ago, but she knew that there was a better Johnny in me.”
That “better Johnny” emerged only sporadically at home, but when it came time to fight, the best version of himself frequently was on display. He was a veritable fighting machine, a banger and a stylist rolled into one, an amalgam of skills that seldom failed to win critical approval. Try as he might, though, he never found the strength or the resolve to win the long fight within himself for possession of his mind and soul.
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