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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 39. Johnny Tapia

Johnny Tapia

1 Dec 1995: Boxer Johnny Tapia prepares to meet opponent Willy Salazar in the ring. Tapia defeated Salazar in the ninth round by technical knockout. Mandatory Credit: Al Bello/Allsport

If there was ever a fighter who mirrored my father in terms of dealing with personal inner demons, it was Johnny Tapia. Tapia’s struggles with substance abuse was eerily similar to my father’s fight with the same illness. Like my father, Tapia was an extremely kind man who would transform into an unlikable person when under the influence. Eventually, both men fell victim at a young age due to years of substance abuse.

When Johnny was eight years old, he witnessed his mother being dragged out of their home one night. She was stabbed 26 times, raped and drugged. She fought to survive, but four days later, she succumbed and died. This traumatic experience I’ve always felt was the catalyst behind the demons that Johnny fought for the rest of his life. It also ignited the fire inside him that helped make him the 39th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

After a very successful amateur career, the Albuquerque, New Mexico native turned pro in 1988 as a super flyweight. For the first two and a half years of his pro career, Tapia dazzled boxing fans along the west coast with his excellent hand speed and supreme counterpunching. He was undefeated in 22 fights when after his fight against Santiago Caballero in October of 1990 he failed the post-fight drug test. Tapia was found with cocaine in his system and was immediately suspended, a suspension that was honored throughout the entire United States. At the age of 23, Tapia’s burgeoning career had been stalled. His boxing license would be suspended until early 1994.

Tapia wasted no time after his 41-month forced exile from boxing by fighting seven times in 1994. The sixth fight that year saw Tapia pummel Henry Martinez over 11 rounds to win his first world title, the WBO version of the super flyweight title. Tapia was brilliant as champion, as he successfully defended his title 10 times before signing to fight what at the time was the biggest fight in the history of the 115-pound division. It was a fight between his former childhood friend turned rival, the IBF super flyweight champion Danny Romero.

The tensions between Johnny and Danny began when Danny’s father Danny Romero, Sr. was training both fighters as youths. A bitter dispute between Johnny and the elder Romero led to an angry Johnny leaving the Romero camp which resulted in a years long feud that was the selling point for their July 18, 1997 title unification fight in Las Vegas. That night I took my girlfriend at the time and my five-year-old son to my parents’ house to not only watch the fight, but to also celebrate my son’s fifth birthday as his birthday was the day before. It was that night that both my parents and I realized the striking similarities between my father and Johnny.

Tapia was sensational that night as he bedazzled Romero with his precision of a left jab and pinpoint counterpunching of the overly aggressive Romero. He followed the blueprint laid out by his legendary trainer Eddie Futch to a tee. It would be the last significant fight Futch would lead a fighter to victory as he retired soon after.

My mother kept remarking how Johnny’s facial expressions throughout the fight reminded her of Pop. My mother, who has always been frank and up front, asked me if Tapia had substance abuse problems. I told her about his suspension due to cocaine abuse, and she said it figured because “he looks like he’s used coke cause he has the mannerisms of a coke user like Silva (my father).”

My girlfriend sheepishly smiled as both Pop and I agreed that my mother was right. Tapia put on the performance of a lifetime that night, winning the decision and hugging both Danny Sr. and Jr. and declared their feud was over. From that moment on until the day he died, my mom would ask me from time to time if Johnny was okay.

Tapia would successfully retain his 115-pound title two more times before moving up to 118 pounds and defeating Nana Konadu to win the WBA bantamweight title. His first defense would be against Paulie Ayala on June 26, 1999, also in Las Vegas. It would be one of the greatest fights in the history of the bantamweight division.

Ayala was a gutsy fighter who always fought way above his skill level. My father and I didn’t think his solid skills stood a chance against the brilliant counterpunching skills of Tapia. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, Tapia fought a phone booth type war with the overachieving Ayala despite pleas from his trainer Freddie Roach to box on the inside. The result was Tapia losing his WBA 118-pound title via unanimous 12 round decision in a fight that was named Ring Magazine Fight of the Year. Fifteen months later the two would fight again in one of the worst decisions in boxing history.

My father died on July 30, 2000 due to throat cancer. He and my mother were only 52 at the time of his passing. I had my mother move in with me immediately after we buried my father as a way for her to keep her sanity. When Tapia and Ayala fought each other in the rematch on October 7, 2000, my eight-year-old son told my mother that the man who acts like Pop was on television fighting. My mother sat with my son and I watching Tapia put on a coruscating display of counterpunching and boxing acumen. It was wonderful to see my mom get a pleasure out of Tapia fighting because it made her love for my father manifest in happiness instead of the sadness that she had been going through caused by his death. When all three judges scored the fight for Ayala, my mother broke down in tears. As my son consoled her, I turned the television off and stared at the blank screen. What a pathetic joke of a robbery.

Tapia rebounded from his disputed loss to Ayala by winning the IBF featherweight title on April 27, 2002 from Manuel Medina. He would vacate the title and accept the biggest payday of his career against Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera. Tapia, now 35, clearly had lost a step and was thoroughly outfought over 12 lopsided rounds. He would part ways with Roach after this fight and soon after would begin a series of cocaine overdoses that almost cost him his life on several occasions. Tapia’s nickname was “La Vida Loca.” Indeed, Tapia’s life was getting more bizarre with each passing year.

Despite becoming a hardcore drug addict, Tapia won seven of his last nine bouts before finally retiring in 2011 with a final record of 59-5-2 with 30 knockouts. Almost a year after his final bout, Tapia died of heart failure at the age of 45 on June 4, 2012. Through thick and thin Tapia’s wife Teresa, just like my mother did with my father until his death, stayed with Johnny. Upon learning of Johnny’s death, my mother lit candles all over my apartment in honor of Johnny’s soul. She told my that Johnny was now at peace and could now hang out with Pop in the afterlife because they were so much alike. Johnny Tapia was a man haunted by the traumatic experience of seeing his mother dragged and kidnapped at the tender age of eight. Despite years of drug abuse and mental issues surrounding his mother’s death, Johnny went on to be one of the greatest fighters of his generation.

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