One of his tattoos bore the legend “Mi Vida Loca,” (my crazy life) and it was an apt description of the tragic life of one of the greatest fighters ever to enter the ring, John Lee “Johnny” Tapia, five-time boxing world champion from Albuquerque, New Mexico. His father was in the state penitentiary while his mother was pregnant with him. His mother was stabbed to death when he was eight. Johnny remembered a truck passing by the house where he lived, with his mother in the back, wrapped in chains, and screaming for help. He saw, and he heard, but was not believed by the adults he frantically appealed to. There was the horror and helplessness of an eight year old, pleading for help for the one person he cared most for, his mother, and he was not believed. She was raped, hanged, and stabbed repeatedly with a screw driver. Police found her later on the side of the road, to which she had crawled, traversing over a hundred yards to get there. She lapsed into a coma, from which she never regained consciousness.
Not surprisingly, he was fueled by an inner rage which he carried into the ring. The effects of his mother’s brutal killing followed him to the end of his days. His uncles put that rage to work immediately after his mother’s death. At the age of nine, they’d match him up against bigger boys and bet on him. If he lost, they beat him. It was then that Johnny began picking up pugilistic skills from his grandfather, Miguel, an amateur boxing champion. He eventually turned to Golden Gloves boxing, and to an outstanding amateur career, becoming the National Golden Gloves National Golden Gloves Light Flyweight Champion in 1983, and the 1985 National Golden Gloves Flyweight Champion.
Moxey? Johnny had moxey to spare. He was utterly fearless in the ring, brassy in each and every fight. Smack talk? Johnny didn’t need to talk it, he personified it. With such an attitude, and an inclination to drug use, as well as rumors of past connection to a gang, it was no surprise that he would draw the attention of law enforcement. Albuquerque cops hounded him, and he saw jail time for drug possession. After winning his first 22 professional fights, he tested positive for cocaine in 1990, and was suspended from boxing for three and a half years.
Outside the ring, his problems were legion. Safety for Johnny Tapia, and an escape from the demons which incessantly pursued him, was to be found only inside the ring, where, as he saw it, he was untouchable! Inside the ring he was king. Inside the ring , he was brassy, and pure genius. He was utterly fearless, and in virtually every fight, he demonstrated his mastery of the sweet science. For the observant student of fighting and ring warfare, there is much to be gained by viewing his fights. If one enjoys watching a warrior do what he does best, ya gotta love Johnny Tapia!
Have I described him as brassy? He took that brass into the ring, and fought for the sheer love of fighting! Turbulent though his life may have been on the outside, in the ring Johnny was in complete control; in control of the fight, and of himself. Even in the rare instances when he was losing, one finds himself in deep admiration of Johnny Tapia’s ability to keep his cool. The smile. The smile appeared more often when he was in trouble, than when not. Here was a ring general if ever there was one! Machine gun like punches; beautiful hooks, uppercuts and crosses; pause, dance back, and bounce off the ropes; smile, bob, weave, evade, and boom! Repeat the process! No less a fighter than Mike Tyson called him one of the greatest boxers who ever lived.
One of his finest matches was one he lost, after a 46 fight winning streak, when he faced Paulie Ayala, the youngest of the fighting Ayala brothers of San Antonio, Texas. It was a war from fight to finish, and it began with a pre fight shove, Tapia to Ayala. Brassy, I called him? Was there ever any fighter with more brass than Johnny Tapia? He took that brass into the ring to face an equally talented warrior in the person of the southpaw, Paulie Ayala. He lost this fight, breaking his 46 fight winning streak, but it is a classic, because we get to see Tapia fighting an equally gifted fighter, and a southpaw at that.
How does a champion and consummate warrior deal with adversity in the ring? How does one counter a gifted southpaw? How does one keep his wits when being out fought? How does one regain the initiative? That, and much more, is in this fight, and though the fight began with a shove, his sportsmanship at the conclusion of the fight is rarely paralleled. Brassy he may have been, but in the ring, at the conclusion of a fight, Johnny Tapia was also a genuine class act.
Johnny Tapia, a survivor of five drug over doses, finally passed from this life on May 27, 2012. His wife, (and manager) Teresa, had earlier remarked, “I don’t know how this story is going to end. I’d love to think that in 30 years we’ll be old together and surrounded by family. But when I ask Johnny how he sees himself in the future, he says he’s not even sure he’ll wake up tomorrow.” Johnny Tapia was 45 at the time of his death. His funeral was attended by thousands who came to view his casket, situated in the middle of a boxing ring, an appropriate setting for a man who had lived to fight, winning world titles at 115, 118, and 126 pounds over the course of 23 years.
Johnny Tapia was freed at last from his struggles with bipolar disorder, and his lifelong battle with cocaine addiction and alcoholism. The revolving door which conducted him to jail and drug rehabilitation programs had closed at last.
One is, and ought be, reluctant to judge the life of John Lee Tapia. His childhood experiences were horrific, especially so at a time when a boy is most attached to his mother. He was not spared the awful agony of seeing with his own eyes her terrible plight, and hearing with his own ears her piteous cries for help. He saw, and heard, and was left alone. His birth father did not appear until the last years of Johnny’s life. John accepted him and forgave him. Just like that.
For all his trials, and his numerous mistakes notwithstanding, Johnny Tapia loved people, and people loved him. His fight against Paulie Ayala began with a push, but ended with an embrace and heartfelt congratulations to Ayala for defeating him. He’d lost, he admitted with a shrug of his shoulders. So what? Life goes on. And immediately after that fight, a contentious reporter tried to draw out of Johnny words critical of the decision. Johnny refused to take the bait. He said simply, “the best man won.”
A loving and merciful God will take into account the grief of a little boy grown into a man. He will look at the slips and the flaws, some of them grievous, but in His tender mercies will give an abnormal amount of credit to Johnny’s good deeds, exacerbating the good in Johnny’s behalf. He will be mindful of Johnny’s love for his wife Teresa, who never abandoned him. Of her he remarked, “the wife that I have is unbelievable, she loved me when I was nothing, and she still loves me now that I am nothing.” Their love for each other will count for much in the Lord’s eyes. And He will be mindful of Johnny’s ability to be a much, much, better father than the one he never had. He will also take into account the many simple and unassuming people who loved Johnny, because in their eyes he was a good man. Indeed, the Lord’s tender mercies will be much evident in behalf of John Lee Tapia, whose earthly travails are no more.