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.