For many people, their experience of “living la vida loca” is the Ricky Martin song released in 1999. Johnny Tapia lived his life to the extent that it became his motto.
His tale is one that would prompt many people to say it was too far-fetched. A life full of death and a love for boxing. Tapia’s biggest fights were almost all outside of the ring.
Death was a part of his life before he was born. Unlucky for some, Tapia was born on February 13th - it wasn’t a Friday as some have reported - but merely being born on the 13th was seemingly enough for Tapia to endure bad luck.
Tapia's father died whilst his mother was pregnant. This was refuted more than once but everyone who claimed to be Tapia’s Father was proven to be lying by DNA Testing. Jerry Padilla faked a DNA test which saw Johnny Tapia go to the grave thinking he was his Dad. Johnny’s wife Theresa pushed for a second test when it appeared Padilla was making money using the Tapia name and it came back conclusively proving he was not the father.
The defining moment of his life came when he just was eight years old. His mother, Virginia was murdered, having been kidnapped and abused, and a young Tapia was awakened by the screams which he was sure it was that of his mother and saw her chained to the back of a pickup truck.
When he woke up his Grandparents, they assumed it was the overactive imagination of the young boy. His mother was later found by the police, taken to the hospital, and died four days after the attack without ever regaining consciousness.
He remained haunted throughout his life by memories of his Mother. No-one was ever charged with her murder and Johnny never got to visit his mother at the hospital despite his pleas.
At eight, both of his parents were dead and he had already had a near-death experience. The prior year he was on a bus that drove off a 100-foot cliff. A pregnant woman seated next to him, hurled out the window to her death. A pole by the front door effectively saved Tapia by catching him with the result of just a concussion.
Maybe it was in his nature that made Johnny a fighter, or maybe it was the only career for someone who had already taken such a beating from life. Either way, his uncles were responsible for Johnny becoming a young street fighter.
Tapia was pitted by his uncles against other children in his neighbourhood for the benefit of adult wagering until the age of eleven. Being of legal age to now join a boxing gym, Tapia could now start his amateur career.
His Grandfather, Miguel had been a boxer himself and trained Tapia. He won two national gloves and won over one hundred bouts as an amateur. He made a strong start to his career despite a draw in his first bout, winning twenty-two straight bouts following that.
Tapia would miss the next three years of boxing, due to a year’s suspension for failing a drug test. During his sabbatical Tapia got himself into trouble with the Wells Park Loco Gang, ultimately stalling his boxing career even further.
Tapia’s life was furiously out of control - lucky to even be alive, - having had a fierce cocaine addiction, leading to three heart attacks in as many years.
In 1992 he was charged with threatening a witness in a murder trial. His arrests continued into 1993 as he was arrested for driving under the influence. During this period he met Teresa Chavez. Teresa would be a calming influence on the rest of his life and his rock, although that did not stop his frequent dalliances with drugs.
On their wedding night, his cousins told Teresa to check on Tapia where she found him on the bed injecting drugs into his arm. He fell into a coma and his heart stopped before being declared dead in her car. Somehow he pulled through.
March 1994 saw his return to the ring, but his troubles outside continued. He was charged with selling drugs to a policeman. Teresa chose to lock Johnny in their apartment for six weeks to avoid the drug.
Meanwhile his boxing career was taking off, winning four straight fights and going on to challenge Oscar Aguillar for the NABF Super Flyweight Title. Tapia stopped Aguillar in three rounds but the aftermath was tinged with controversy as Albuquerque Police claimed to have found cocaine in a bag after the fight. Tapia claimed it was just soap and eventually the charges were dropped.
On October 12, 1994, at The Pit, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tapia defeated Henry Martínez in eleven rounds to win the vacant WBO super flyweight title. It was a slugfest with Tapia at peak motivation with his raucous home crowd behind him. He then knocked out former champion Rolando Bohol in the second round. In his first title defence, Tapia defeated Jose Rafael Sosa by decision.
He retained the title with a nine-round technical draw with Ricardo Vargas and a decision in twelve against his onetime nemesis in the amateur ranks, Arthur Johnson. After two more wins, he gave Willy Salazar a title shot, knocking him out in nine rounds.
In 1996, he fought six more times, keeping his undefeated record and defending the title five additional times during that period, which included wins against Giovanni Andrade, Ivan Alvarez, future champion Hugo Rafael Soto, Sammy Stewart and Adonis Cruz.
His success in the ring was not matched by a peaceful life. He had two weapons charges and his bout against Hugo Soto was marred by riots in the crowd. That fight also saw Tapia turn up under trained but gut out a victory with an incredible late burst, before almost fainting in the locker room.
Arguably his defining fight had begun heating up by then. Tapia and Danny Romero hated each other. The two were both from Albuquerque and Romero’s father trained both boxers before a contentious split. Romero held the IBF title and despite a fuss about venues, the unification was made. A war was anticipated but Tapia combined blistering speed with defence and accuracy. He even had time to lean over and tell the media section 'he doesn’t hit so hard.'
Tapia's superior boxing skills earned a well-deserved unanimous decision victory before an embrace and apologies, which led to the two becoming friends and actually travelling to fights together. He continued to successfully defend his titles with wins over Andy Agosto and Rodolfo Blanco before vacating the titles to move up in weight. He defeated WBA Bantamweight Champion Nana Konadu to become a two-weight world champion.
Up at Bantamweight, Tapia would endure his first defeat. He took on Paulie Ayala in a fight that won The Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. Tapia chose to stand and fight with Ayala, a choice he told was a consequence of looking for the man who killed his mother. He said,
“I found out he’d been killed, he’d been run over twice. I was so focused on killing him that I didn’t train or anything. That’s why me and Paulie got fight of the year because all we did was bang.”
Tapia had not been in the right place in the build-up to the fight, surviving for a week on ice cubes in order to make weight. Even in the pre-fight introductions, Tapia chose to shove his opponent and after the fight would lash out in every direction. Not long after the loss to Ayala, he tried to commit suicide with a drug overdose and required hospitalisation.
He returned quickly from the defeat to Ayala and subsequent suicide attempt to win the WBO title over Jorge Eliecer Julio. Prior to the fight, Tapia joined forces with the Albuquerque Metropolitan Crime Stoppers to help get guns off the streets. A "Guns for Tickets" program was created, offering individuals who turned in guns two $30-tickets to the fight.
A total of 57 guns were turned in on the two days the exchange program was held,
"It's great that there are 57 less guns on our streets", said Tapia. "I also hope that this program got our youth to think about the ways they could live less violent lives."
Tapia regained his dominance inside the ring, winning his fourth world title. He defended his belt against Javier Torres before a rematch against Ayala.
Many believed Tapia to be the rightful winner but Ayala got the decision leading the Showtime commentators to state, “Something’s not right.” Tapia was coming down from above the Welterweight limit and it was fought with Tapia out boxing the aggressive Ayala.
Following his defeat to Ayala, he went up in weight and got three wins to position himself for a title shot. He would become number one contender for Manuel Medina, who held the IBF Featherweight title. Tapia this time won a debatable decision to win a world title in his third division. After that victory, he vacated the title so he could chase a fight with Marco Antonio Barrera. He would lose that fight against the great Mexican by unanimous decision. Barrera admitted afterwards that he carried Tapia through the fight merely because he liked him.
The troubles continued outside the ring. A few days after being stopped by the police for cocaine, he was again in a drug-induced coma. The end of 2003 saw him again in the hospital, although Tapia claimed that it was an unfortunate allergic reaction rather than the overdose that many suggested.
Tapia was a classy boxer. Years of street fights developed an innate sense of timing and range that most boxers just did not have. His defensive instincts were incredible, keeping cool as punches came from all directions whilst he ducked, moved and returned fire.
His smart footwork and feints were the opposite of what you would expect from the chaotic Tapia. The fire would come out though; Tapia would throw ferocious punches in a rapid-fire manner looking to cause damage to opponents, mainly with a brilliant left hook.
For a defensive genius, Tapia took a lot of shots. They often seemed to energise Tapia as he thrived off the roars of the crowd and punches on his face. He described how the love of the crowd would bring him such an amazing high, that returning home would only lead to a 'crash deep into darkness where the call of the addiction would come right back at me.'
After the Barrera loss, he went 3-2 against relative journeyman before claiming a fight in front of his hometown, it being his last fight. It was billed as “Final Fury” and Tapia promised he would win. He fulfilled that promise with a majority decision victory.
Less than two months after that fight, Tapia was found unconscious and not breathing in a hotel room. He was hospitalised in a critical condition from an apparent cocaine overdose. Death would again visit the Tapia family but somehow let Johnny live. As his brother-in-law and nephew traveled to visit Tapia in hospital, they were killed in a car accident on the US Highway 550.
It was the only time Teresa nearly walked from Johnny. She claimed “he would never be able to make that up to me.” Tapia almost fought his way back to the ring in 2008, but contractual disagreements kept him from boxing. In 2009 he found himself under arrest for drug charges and would serve time in jail. During that time death would against visit the close relatives of Tapia, His grandfather, his mother-in-law and gandmother of Teresa all died within weeks of him being incarcerated.
He did return to boxing for three more bouts, finishing his career on a record of 59-5-2. Even during that time he returned to jail on drug charges and filed for bankruptcy. Johnny attempted to surround himself with his safety valves in Teresa and boxing. He was training boxers and whenever he was around the sport, his love for it was evident.
Finally, death would come for Tapia. Almost 27 years to the day, he was where he wanted to be, he had joined his mother. Teresa had pointed to Johnny saying he would not last long after boxing and noting that he lasted a year.
For Teresa, a saving grace was that he did not overdose. Johnny was deservedly inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017. Teresa, the ever-suffering wife, dedicated it to his anybody who had ever supported him.
Johnny had three loves in his life. His Mother, whose death had the greatest impact of any moment in his life. It drove him crazy, constantly haunting him to the point where he dreaded his 32nd birthday and outliving her.
His wife Teresa, somehow kept Tapia as straight as possible -his indulgences into cocaine never came whilst his wife was with him and his final love was boxing. It was an outlet for Johnny who was spurred on by the roar of the crowd to a greater extent than any fighter in history. The “pit bull” inside of him pulled him through battles both in the ring and the four times he was declared dead.
Twice he saw the canvas of the ring, both times he got up to win. He was a natural, so good that he went through coach after coach because no one could help him. Tapia took the punches in order to hear the crowd roar. He pawed at his cuts and licked the blood off his gloves. He described the constant beating as a magnet and “the only way I didn’t feel the pain. The pain of being alone. The pain of being without my mother.”
He did have a significant other from his three loves though. His self-declared mistress, cocaine. The drugs were easily accessible for Tapia, even at the end of his life, when clean he described them as a phone call away. It was a mistress which constantly kept Johnny on the edge of death, but Johnny would never let it put him down for the count. He was a fighter at heart, a champion who fought momentous battles both in and out the ring.
Perhaps the only question was just how great could Tapia have been?