Reprinted from Matthew Aguilar's May 2012 El Paso Times blog post.
To appreciate what Johnny Tapia achieved in boxing, you must first consider his childhood.
His mother was kidnapped, raped and murdered – by way of a screwdriver being plunged into her body over and over and over – when he was all of eight years old. He woke up in time to see her screaming, chained to the back of a pickup. He was ignored when he tried to tell others in the house.
Tapia’s father? Pretty much nonexistent most of his life.
The chances of Tapia turning into something meaningful in life were roughly equivalent to winning the Powerball – twice.
But, along his tortured path, Tapia – who died Sunday in his hometown of Albuquerque - learned to do one thing particularly well, and that was fight. And he honed that talent and harnessed the rage that burned inside him to become a New Mexico boxing icon and one of the greatest fighters of his generation.
This, despite a profound drug addiction that no doubt originated in his mother’s gut-wrenching screams.
MI VIDA LOCA
Through it all, Tapia, 58-5-2 (30 knockouts), was always happy, warm and downright jovial to friends and complete strangers alike. Once you met him, you were hooked. He had a presence and a spirit about him that was unique – part New Mexico charm, part little-boy mischief. All he wanted to do was hug you – and you back.
But once in the ring, Tapia wasn’t about hugging or being kind. He was a self-described pit bull who went about his job with a fierce dedication. When he dug that left hook to the body, he did it as though he was exorcising demons – his face etched with determination as he unloaded all of his body weight into the punch. When he fired off those multiple combinations, he was single-minded. And when he sat and sucked air in the corner, he had the look of a man possessed, killing time before he could go out and kill his opponent.
And though the man who personified the phrase “Mi Vida Loca” loved a brawl, he was an expert stylist and strategist. He could box your ears off, possessing the discipline to fire combinations and use those amazing little legs to effortlessly dart left or right to avoid the counter. His head movement, ring smarts and overall boxing I.Q. were right there with the best of his era. And he never looked better than in his most important fight.
R.I.P. JOHNNY LEE
On July 18, 1997, Tapia met New Mexico rival Danny Romero in one of the most anticipated bantamweight fights in boxing history. How big was this fight? Originally to be held in the rivals’ hometown of Albuquerque, there were concerns that the city of more than half-a-million people just wasn’t big enough for this particular fight. So the showdown was temporarily canceled, then moved to Las Vegas in the 11th hour.
Albuquerque or Las Vegas, it didn’t matter. Tapia was brilliant that night. He was right in the only place that mattered – his own head. And he thwarted Romero’s every advance to win a unanimous decision. It remains one of the more underrated pure boxing performances in recent memory. Because, make no mistake: Romero was the real deal back then. And Tapia made it look easy.
It’s sad that we’ll never see that beautiful ability again. Even in his 40s, Tapia was entertaining in the ring. But what’s sadder is that we’ll never see that Tapia smile again. Because as great as he was in the ring, he could be greater outside of it, despite his crazy life.