The final bell has tolled for talented but troubled Johnny Tapia, the five time former champion who always felt most at ease inside a squared circle; “Mi Vida Loca” was found dead at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Sunday, according to the AP.
The boxer excited fans in the 90s with his fast hands, flashy combos and singularity of purpose in the ring. But outside of the ring, he was less sure of himself. Tapia battled drug addiction for decades, and cocaine was his drug of choice. He tried to blot out the dark memories, of his father not being there, and being murdered, and the sight of his mother being abducted, and then murdered, when he was just eight years old, with no success. He danced with death repeatedly, getting to the edge, but then the willpower evidenced in his ring wars kicked in. He was comatose a few times from drugs ODs, but managed to snap out of it, surprising his wife Teresa, who was there to pick him up time and again.
The AP reports that his death didn’t “appear suspicious.”
Fans clapped when Tapia got it done in super flyweight slugfests, but his admirers really grew when he signed on against Albuquerque rival Danny Romero, in 1997. Tapia had been absent from the ring from 1991-1993 because of his cocaine problem, so rooters were ecstatic when he beat Romero. They hoped that he’d be content with his success and shelve the drug jones. It was not to be. Before the biggest bout of his career to date, cops told him they knew who killed his mom. “There’s so much anger inside,” he said after. “I still want to kill him,” he stated in 2000, 17 years after the killer was dead. Tapia wasn’t able to focus on Paulie Ayala right after getting that news, and lost a tight UD12, in a “Fight of the Year” scrap in June 1999. Later in the year, he tried to kill himself, via drug overdose. But he survived. Always, till now, he survived. The fighter---yes, that term is so apt for Tapia, who fought in every realm of his life—couldn’t get past Marco Antonio Barrera in 2002, and more so contended himself with challenges in New Mexico from then on. Another sad chapter was added to his Vida Loca life in 2007. He was hospitalized from an OD in March 2007, after a win in what he said would be his last match. Teresa’s brother and his son were killed in a car crash enroute to visiting him in the hospital, and she had a hard time letting go of the fury at her husband for being the impetus for that tragedy. Chapters repeated themselves thereafter. He was arrested in 2009 for violating parole..but as always rooters were hopeful he’d put the worst behind him. Tapia told me in December that he’d been sober for three years, and was happy doing some work for Showtime, interviewing fighters ahead of bouts. He said his June 4, 2011 win over Mauricio Pastrana was indeed his last. His record stands at 59-5-2.
I shook his hand, and wished him well. Did I believe that he’d finally conquered the demons, reached a point where he’d found enough constant serenity to maintain a drama-free life? I didn’t, sadly. The news that Tapia is dead at 45 is not surprising. And while I don’t want to diminish the impact, and the pain and sadness felt by those closest to him, I’ve long seen Johnny Tapia as one who would not feel fulfilled on this earth. His life, I guessed, would always be a crazy one.
Rest in peace, fighter.
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