Playboy is proud to present, online for the first time, Katherine Dunn’s profile of world champion boxer Johnny Tapia, which ran in our February 2004 issue. In that issue’s Playbill section, Dunn gave us this characteristically vivid glimpse of her time with with the tormented athlete: “He took me out in his 1950 Mercury. These elderly ladies with silver hair and trifocals are waving and smiling at a shaven-headed fighter as they drive by in their Buick. He was so thrilled they loved his car that he waved back. Waving at each other were these dainty little hands and then this big boxer’s arm covered with black tattoos.”
It’s a clear January afternoon in Golden Valley, Arizona, and Johnny Tapia is in trouble. He sits in a house trailer surrounded by gray-uniformed Mohave County sheriff’s deputies. For nearly an hour a deputy has been barking through a loudspeaker, “Come out with your hands in the air.” Faces pop up in the windows, but there is no other response. The 35-year-old Tapia–five-time world boxing champion in three different weight divisions and the pride of Albuquerque, New Mexico–waits inside the mobile home with two of his cousins, one of whom is wanted on charges of aggravated assault and armed robbery. The cousin asked Tapia for help, sure of his loyalty. Tapia brought them to this trailer in the desert.
With the deputies giving orders to come out, Tapia phones his wife, Teresa, in Las Vegas. She jumps into a car and drives for the Arizona border. Worried about weapons, the deputies back up an armored truck to the house trailer and hook a towrope to the door handle. They rev the truck and yank open the trailer door. At five P.M. the next order to surrender comes. Within minutes three men emerge one at a time to be handcuffed. A search of the trailer reveals cocaine. Tapia sits on the running board of the armored truck, his thick fighter’s arms cuffed behind him. One cousin is routed back up the dirt road and on to Albuquerque and trial. Tapia is released from custody within hours. Teresa picks him up at the sheriff’s office and drives him the 90-odd miles back to Vegas.
“He was talking on the ride back,” says Teresa. “He seemed fine.”
Back in their elegant Vegas home shortly after midnight, Tapia is in the downstairs bathroom, vomiting. Teresa sees him come into the living room, grab his chest and collapse to the floor, unconscious. As she rushes to his side, her cousin Ruth Montoya grabs the phone to dial 911. The operator notes “possible overdose, taking painkillers, thinking attempted suicide.” The comatose Tapia is taken to the hospital, where he is placed on life support. He later admits he had been using cocaine for days.
For the fourth time in his life this gifted boxer and Latino hero is declared dead from a drug overdose. No opponent has been able to stop him in 57 pro bouts. He’s never been knocked out in the ring. But his own deliberate escapes from consciousness have been brutally effective. Trainer Freddie Roach visits him in the hospital in Las Vegas and is frightened by what he sees. “He didn’t respond, no matter what they did to him,” says Roach. “He was like a corpse lying there.” The doctors ask Teresa if she wants to pull the plug.
Tapia’s future once again has the bleak look that prompts newspapers to update their obituaries. Even if he recovers, it seems he will never box again. While he is hooked to a respirator the hospital is bombarded with so many calls from fans, friends and the media that a special Tapia information phone line is installed.
He was a 5-1 underdog to survive his own childhood.
After 36 hours he wakes and asks for a cheeseburger. Medical tests show no sign of damage to his brain or heart. After two days he checks himself out of the hospital to go home. Three days later he goes into a drug rehab center. When he completes the standard three-week detox course, he re-ups and stays on. Tapia has been in a dozen rehabs before, often under court orders. This time is different, he says. “I wanted to do it. The other times I was forced to go in.” But that last little death was “terrible, terrible,” he says. “I’ve used up my nine lives. Next time it’s for good.”
In September 2003–nine months after the siege and the coma–Tapia claims nine months of sobriety and moves back to his beloved hometown of Albuquerque. “He’s a changed man,” says his wife. And on September 26 he returns to the boxing ring in Tingley Coliseum determined to prove it. Tapia doesn’t seek out an easy opponent for his comeback. He demands a fierce prospect who will test his ability to become a champion again. He chooses a Mexican fighter almost 10 years his junior, snake-tough Carlos Contreras, who vows to knock out Tapia in front of the hometown crowd.
Tapia’s motto, Mi vida loca, is tattooed across his belly. His crazy life is a complicated saga. He is a brilliantly disciplined and determined boxer. Over the course of his 15-year professional career he has held five world titles in three different categories: junior bantamweight (115 pounds), bantamweight (118 pounds) and featherweight (126 pounds). Now in the twilight of his career he’s a shoo-in for the Boxing Hall of Fame. He’s an engaging man, a loving husband and father. But when the drug lust rises in Johnny Tapia, things go bad. Very bad.
Outside the ring his life has been riddled with overdoses and tangles with the law. In recent years he has been diagnosed as bipolar and hospitalized more than once for suicidal depression. Half laughing, he counts on his fingers the drugs his doctors have given him to beat back depression, lifelong hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder: Ritalin when he was a kid, of course, and more recently Wellbutrin, Depakote, lithium and Zoloft. His 125-page collection of police reports fills a three-ring binder in his home office. He’s been diving into the dark his whole life. He’s staring into the abyss. He says he’s kicked drugs and will quit boxing soon. The question he now faces daily: Will these be the final withdrawals that kill him?
Before a fight most boxers’ dressing rooms are quiet and serious places. Only cornermen are allowed–everyone is focused on the coming event. Under the grandstands of Tingley Coliseum, Carlos Contreras’s dressing room is like that. But around the corner, Johnny Tapia hosts an open house. Darren Cordova’s mariachi blasts from the boom box, and dozens of fun-loving pals sail in and out. Tapia is in constant motion. He smiles as he interrupts his shadowboxing with greetings, hugs and introductions all around: “He saved my life that day!” “We grew up together!” He’s eager for friends’ family news, reminiscences and jokes–he pushes for this, soaks it up. He’s as interested in them as they are in him. “It’s always like this,” says Teresa.
“I don’t want it to be a funeral,” says Tapia. “I’m doing what I love. It should be a celebration.” His compact body vibrates, bouncing with excitement, yet his white T-shirt shows no sweat. He has a classic fighter’s build: skinny legs, big shoulders, wood-solid arms and a round, shaved head on almost no neck, the better to absorb punches without effect. His battered face creases and folds around eyes that are always alert.
The friends come in Italian suits and work denim. They are businessmen, musicians, boxers, old cronies from the neighborhood and probably the old lady who sells him Snickers bars at the mini-mart. Tapia talks to every one of them. They call him Johnny or JT. They bring kids to meet him. One Tapia pal recognizes another as the cop who arrested him, and the two reenact the capture to Johnny’s delight.
The jammed room is complicated by a video crew, reporters and photographers. An on-camera interviewer catches JT with the question “What do you think about in the last 24 hours before a fight?”
“If it weren’t for Darren’s music, I’d be thinking all crazy,” says Tapia, and then he reaches for Teresa. “I wouldn’t be able to do this without my wife. She’s my rock. I love her so much.”
The women in the room are politely ushered out to the hall for a few minutes so JT can change into black-and-silver trunks that convey a tuxedo dignity. Tapia’s hometown rival, Danny Romero, appears, and the two talk like the friends they have become since Tapia trounced Romero and took his title in 1997.
Most boxers rest on the day of a fight, but even back at his new house outside Albuquerque Tapia had been edgy. He paced and shadowboxed for hours. The night before, he attended a charity benefit where he auctioned his own sports memorabilia. He’s torching what seems like thousands of calories in his prefight party, but a 10-round bout is to come. He’s only five-foot-six and 126 pounds, and he’s lost 27 pounds in a month to make the contract weight. The skin beneath his religious tattoos is uncharacteristically loose.
Tapia sits still while cut man Ruben Gomez wraps his hands. Engineered layers of tape and gauze transform his fists into blunt instruments, but Tapia chews a plastic drinking straw and keeps an eye on the room, swapping cracks with the watchers.
The stillness comes over him as Gomez paints Tapia’s scarred forehead with a clear mixture intended to protect him from cuts. His opponent is known to head-butt. Tapia closes his eyes for this process and is silent as the mixture dries. The party is over. The glad host is gone; his attention turns inward. As if some signal has sounded, the crowd thins to its essentials.
After prayers and a blessing from a silver-haired priest, Tapia turns his back on the room and begins intense warm-up exercises and stretches. This is Tapia the fighter, concentrated, crossing himself repeatedly. Tucked into his trunks is a gold medal of St. Ignatius Loyola, the warrior, a gift from the priest. Trainer Eddie Mustapha Muhammad tapes red leather gloves onto Tapia’s fists, and then he holds mitts for the fighter to punch as he practices his machine-gun combinations. Tapia stretches his face and jaw, grimacing fiercely. He catches himself glaring into a camera and apologizes to the photographer. “I’m not looking at you mean or nothing,” he says.
Then it’s time. “I need my robe! Where’s my rosary? Father, I need a prayer.” The priest rushes to him. Tapia tugs the hood of his satin robe down over his eyes and jogs out into the hallway. The priest is at his right shoulder, Muhammad at his left. The cornermen and Teresa guard the rear, with media types trailing behind. The noise of the crowd is loud now, and mariachi music blares. As Tapia breaks through the vapor of the smoke machine and into the spotlight, thousands in the arena leap to their feet with a sustained roar. The path to the ring is railed off, and bodies cram the edge. Hands reach for him as he moves past. The ring announcer shouts into the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, Johnny ’Mi Vida Loca’ Tapia!”
His voice has that hoarse boxer’s squeak that suggests countless punches to the larynx. He’s had his nose broken a couple dozen times. Some of the rumpled scars around his eyes come from cuts in the ring. He’s had three shoulder surgeries, most recently after his November 2002 loss to Marco Antonio Barrera. But his hands, his weapons, have never been injured. He can’t tell you what miracle has allowed him to abuse his body so brutally and still come back again and again to world-class condition. “It’s just a blessing,” he says.
When Tapia was eight years old his mother was beaten and stabbed 26 times with a screwdriver.
Freddie Roach has worked with many champs. He calls Tapia “the best boxer in the world.” Mike Tyson goes further, calling JT one of the greatest fighters ever. Tapia is fast, intensely busy and bewilderingly hard to hit. He has knocked out half his opponents and made life a leather hell for the rest. He has lost only three decisions—two of them debatable. “Tapia’s greatest gift is that he’s very intelligent,” says his old rival Romero. “He’ll move you around, interrupt you so he can be faster.” But what elevates him in the hearts of fans is his instinct to fire back more and harder after he gets hit. The more you hurt Johnny Tapia, the more fight you get.
He is a gracious sportsman. No trash talk from Tapia. He respects his adversaries, and by the end of the fight he loves them. He hugs opponents at the final bell, chatting eagerly with them and consoling them if they’ve been stopped. He has nothing but praise for them in postfight interviews. “Anybody who’s willing to step into the ring,” he says, “deserves respect.”
But Tapia is open about his failings. He’ll tell the worst to anyone who asks—what he was jailed for, why he was hallucinating, what drugs he ingested. He doesn’t brag or apologize; he just states the facts. “There’s no use trying to hide what’s in the papers anyway,” he says. “If they don’t like the way I really am, they don’t like me.”
“He should retire,” says boxing writer Lucius Shepard, “but when he does, he’ll die. Boxing is all that’s keeping him alive.” Tapia disagrees. Obviously he exults in boxing—"my natural high,“ he calls it. But he will tell you flatly what it really is that keeps him alive. "If my wife ever left me,” he says, “I’d be dead in a month. Maybe six weeks if I was lucky.” His eyes slide sideways, checking Teresa’s reaction. She doesn’t smile.
After a hurricane decade of marriage, the couple hold hands, whisper and gossip. She goes to training camp with him. She doesn’t like to go shopping without him. He has to know where she is and dashes into their home office to check on her two or three times an hour. “Tree!” he calls her, and the house rings with “Tree! I’ve gotta tell you something” or “Tree, come and see this!” She is his wife and nurse, his business manager and boxing manager. She is also his chief bodyguard. When he slips away from her, it is the worst kind of danger sign.
He thrives in the limelight. She likes to engineer events behind the scenes and watch them unfold. He’s a physical dynamo with the reflexes of a mongoose. She lives in mental hyperdrive. “She reads all the time,” he says, pointing at the wall of best-selling novels and biographies in the office. He’s a TV news freak, eager to talk about Korea or the NBA draft. They both grew up in Spanish-speaking households. She graduated from high school honors classes. He graduated from what one reporter calls “special ed.” She says that, in many ways, he’s the smartest man she’s ever met. “He can walk into a crowded restaurant,” says Teresa, “and in one minute tell you who everybody is. People he never met, he can tell you who they are—an undercover cop, a pimp, a drug dealer. A good guy or a jerk. He remembers everybody’s name.”
Boxing analyst Larry Merchant says Tapia was “a five-to-one underdog to survive his own childhood.” He never knew his father, who Tapia believes was murdered before he was born in 1967. He was diagnosed early as hyperactive with attention deficit disorder, but he was a tough kid. At the age of seven he was riding in a bus when it drove off a 100-foot cliff. He was thrown free in the crash but survived, suffering only minor injuries, while the pregnant woman sitting next to him was killed.
When Tapia was eight years old his mother, Virginia, was beaten and stabbed 26 times with a screwdriver. She managed to crawl out of the quarry where she’d been left to the and then collapsed near a streetlight. Tapia says he woke that night and saw his mother, chained in the back of a truck, being hauled away. But when he ran to tell his grandparents, they thought he was dreaming and told him to go back to bed. Tapia’s mother spent four days in a coma in the hospital before she died. Her family found her on the second day, when a newspaper article described her as a Jane Doe. Tapia wasn’t allowed to visit her, which still grieves him. “I never got to say good-bye,” he says. “I never got to say ‘I love you.’” The murderer was never caught, and the specter of his mother’s death haunts Tapia. Virginia was 32 years old when she died, and her son feels guilty for outliving her, as if every year he lives beyond her is a betrayal.
Tapia won’t abide profanity in front of women. “Johnny fired a world-class trainer,” his friend Bob Case says, “because the trainer was talking about banging some broad. Johnny doesn’t want to hear degrading talk about women because of what happened to his mother.”
Virginia’s parents adopted eight-year-old Tapia. His grandfather was a former amateur boxer and a city employee. His grandparents had 14 children and also raised 10 of their grandchildren—"in a three-bedroom house,“ Tapia points out.
The Tapias’ old neighborhood in Albuquerque is half a century’s worth of small wood and stucco houses packed close on snug lots. Some have chain-link fences and bars on the windows and doors. The general neatness is more a product of elbow grease than of money, and the streets and sidewalks are deserted on any weekday, with adults at work and kids at school. The blue-collar decency belies the daily misery caused by drugs. New Mexico has the highest per capita overdose rate in the nation.
Teresa’s bridal night was spent alone in a sleazy motel. Tapia went to make a call and didn’t comeback.
Tapia’s life was formed by family, fighting and drugs. He refers to all his grandparents’ children and grandchildren as his brothers and sisters. Some are aunts and uncles; some are cousins. One of Tapia’s brothers is currently awaiting trial for stabbing another brother to death. In 1992 Tapia was acquitted of charges of intimidating a witness in a cousin’s murder case. Counting off names on his fingers, Tapia rattles off a list of those who have served time. "Every one. It’s all drugs,” he says.
When Tapia was nine his uncles would set him out in the playground to take on all comers ages eight to 15. “If he won,” Teresa says, “he’d get the pride of winning and a dollar.” If he lost, “I’d get my butt whipped,” says Tapia. “It was just one of the challenges I had to overcome to be allowed to hang with the big boys. I had to learn to fight for the family.” Bob Case calls it the human equivalent of cockfighting and believes the uncles were betting on him.
He went to the gym to train, then home for more training with his grandfather. He studied videos of fighters he came to admire: Sugar Ray Leonard, Julio Cesar Chavez, Roberto Duran, Salvador Sánchez. “I’d watch some move and then go try it out on the bag. I was training all the time, following in my grandpa’s footsteps. He’d been a coal miner and he had black lung, but he’d get me up early in the morning and go running with me.”
Over the next nine years Tapia assembled an amateur record of 101 wins and 21 losses. Fighting in the 112-pound Junior Fly division, he won the National Golden Gloves, PAL and Junior Olympic championships. When Tapia was 21 he turned pro. Fighting seven or eight times a year as a flyweight he stormed the division, winning the USBA title. He had a promotional contract with boxing powerhouse Top Rank. He was being offered soft drink commercials and other endorsements.
Tapia says he never did drugs while he was an amateur, “because I wanted to be champion of the world, and I wanted my grandpa to be proud of me.” By the time he had turned pro, however, “it was an on-and-off thing.” In 1990 Tapia was undefeated in 22 pro bouts when he tested positive for cocaine three times. He was banned from the sport until he could clean himself up.
“I was out for three years and seven months. That was the worst time of my life,” says Tapia. He was homeless, jobless, in and out of jail and strung out on cocaine and heroin.
Teresa Chavez first ran into Tapia at a party in 1992, when she was 20 years old. He approached her, and she brushed him off. “I had no idea who Johnny Tapia was,” she says. The snub only challenged him. He kept cropping up. He went out of his way to meet and befriend one of her brothers. He started hanging out with her cousins. “My grandmother had known him for years,” says Teresa, “because one of his favorite things was going to the senior center to dance with the old ladies. They were friends.”
He was living on the street. He made money fighting in the back rooms and beer coolers of bars. “The only rule was that no guns were allowed,” says Teresa. “He’d sit me in a booth and tell me to wait. He’d come back after a while looking roughed up, with a case of beer under one arm and some money.”
As one reporter put it, “Johnny could charm the venom from a snake.” Teresa’s mother adored him. Her grandmother let him live in her house. He begged Teresa to marry him until the older women got sick of hearing about it and urged her to say yes just to shut him up. In 1993 Teresa and Johnny were married by a justice of the peace at the Wells Park Community Center.
On the afternoon of their wedding Teresa was sitting on her mother’s sofa surrounded by wedding guests when one of Tapia’s cousins approached her. “If you want to see what you married,” he said, “go look in the bathroom.”
She opened the bathroom door and found Tapia with a needle in his arm. He tried to shove her out of the room. “What a mistake I’d made,” she says. “It was a slap in the face. Reality.” Tapia later got into a fight on the lawn, and the police arrived. They let him go when he agreed to leave for his honeymoon.
Teresa’s bridal night was spent alone in a sleazy motel. Tapia said he had to make a phone call, then took her car and didn’t come back. “I was too humiliated to call anyone and tell them I was alone,” she says.
The next morning her mother took her to the hospital, where Tapia was in a coma from a drug overdose. The doctors told the weeping Teresa that they didn’t know if he would make it and that if he did there might be brain damage. They asked if she wanted a priest. Then Tapia awoke, ripped the tubes out of his arms and ran out of the hospital with the gown flapping over his butt. He thought the cops were coming for him. Teresa drove around the hospital until he came out of hiding, then took him home.
A pattern emerged. He’d disappear on a drug binge and come back days or weeks later to be nursed back to health. Then he’d do it again. She tried moving him out of Albuquerque to a town nearby. She went to Mexico with him, where his grandparents paid to have a witch pray over him. In their first year together she had two failed pregnancies and decided not to try for children again.
Teresa eventually had had enough. She found her own apartment in Albuquerque and worked two jobs, focusing on saving money, getting a divorce and starting over. Tapia was in jail. His manager, Paul Chavez, begged Teresa to take her husband back when he got out. Teresa told Chavez to take Tapia into his own house to clean him up. “He said, 'What if he robs me? Or kills me?’” says Teresa. “It was obviously okay if Johnny robbed or killed me.”
She finally agreed to take him back on her own terms. Her tiny one-bedroom apartment had iron bars on all the windows and doors. Tapia agreed to be locked in for two months. Teresa had saved enough money to quit her jobs and lock herself in with him. Her mother brought food every day and shoved it through the bars of a window. The first weeks were horrible, with Tapia screaming in withdrawal, then raging or weeping, begging for at least a beer. “We fought like crazy. He hated my guts,” says Teresa.
At one point Tapia erupted in fury at the confinement. He ripped through the apartment, breaking dishes and ornaments. Snatching a heavy iron-framed mirror from the wall, he swung it at Teresa, meaning to hit her, but it smashed on the floor. Fed up with feeling threatened, Teresa grabbed a shard of mirror and leaped at Tapia, stabbing him in the thigh. Shocked and bleeding, Tapia ran around the small rooms, yelping and spraying blood. Furious, Teresa “pulled a Johnny” herself, yelling and throwing things.
He showed her his bleeding leg. “Look what you did to me!” he screamed, and she kicked the wound. He was afraid of her then.
The fourth week, she says, “we actually started talking. Finding out a lot about each other and feelings that he had of inadequacy as an adult that stem back to childhood problems.” He began to get in shape, running in place and doing jumping jacks and sit-ups and push-ups in the apartment. “He started to transform into this awesome human being. That’s when I fell in love with him. Because I knew there was a good person under there, and he didn’t mind it anymore that we were locked in.” Tapia gets a goofy grin remembering Teresa’s apartment. “It was a safe place,” he says, “where Big Macs just appeared, sliding through the bars.”
In March 1994 Tapia and his trainer flew to Oklahoma for his first legal bout in years. For the first time Teresa would see her husband fight. She was terrified. On the phone before the match she begged him not to go through with it. Tapia knocked out Jaime Olvera in the fourth round. In July he won the North American Boxing Federation championship, stopping his opponent in the third round.
“He got paid $10,000 for that fight, one of his biggest paydays at that time,” says Teresa. “After the manager’s cut, we had $7,000 left. We were going to pay bills.” The couple stopped at a cafe for lunch, and Tapia began to pick at Teresa, deliberately trying to set off an argument. He’d been clean for seven months, and she had forgotten the signs of his wanting to use again. Back on the road, he pulled over, pushed her out of the car and drove off. Then he made a U-turn and came back. She expected him to invite her back in. Instead he grabbed her purse, took all the money, threw down the purse and drove off again. She made her way home by bus and heard on TV the news of Tapia’s arrest for selling cocaine. It turned out to be soap.
“Every three or four months,” says Teresa, “he’d slip up. He’d take off. I wouldn’t see him or hear from him.” She would bail him out and clean him up and get him back in the ring, where nobody could touch him. In October 1994, in his hometown, Johnny Tapia won his first world title, the World Boxing Organization championship, and he cried for joy in the ring. A few months later the couple adopted their first child, Jonathon, from a relative of Teresa’s. (The Tapias adopted Lorenzo, the son of a family friend, about three years ago.)
The following year, while Tapia was training for a tough defense of his world title, one of Teresa’s brothers was in the hospital. Teresa came home from visiting him to find Johnny gone. According to police reports, he then showed up high at five in the morning and threatened Teresa with a gun, accusing her of having an affair with his boxing rival, Romero. He shoved her around; when she went to call the police, he ran away and left the gun behind. She filed charges. The police couldn’t find him, and he came back later that day. He didn’t remember what he’d done.
The couple’s lawyer made a deal that Tapia wouldn’t have to appear in court until after his title fight against Arthur Johnson. He squeaked by with a majority decision. Then, with the check for his $60,000 share of the $100,000 purse, Tapia disappeared once more. He had to be in court the following week. He surfaced again in a hospital; someone had driven up to the emergency room door and thrown him out onto the pavement. Overdose. As soon as he woke up and was released, he disappeared.
Tapia now faced serious time. Desperate, Teresa went to Judge Frank Allen. The judge laid out the requirements—get Tapia out of New Mexico and into rehab and probation programs. He didn’t want to see or hear about him anymore. Top Rank, Tapia’s promoter, put Teresa in touch with Oscar De La Hoya, who had a mountain training camp in Big Bear, California.
“Bring Johnny to Big Bear,” De La Hoya told her. “My trainer will work with him. He can train at my gym. We’ll help you make arrangements. You can get a temporary house.” She lined up the treatment programs in the vicinity—all without Johnny’s knowledge.
Fearing that Tapia would miss a court date during his latest binge, she tricked him into returning home. When he walked in the door, her family and his doctor were waiting in the living room. They grabbed him and pinned him down while the doctor administered a tranquilizer that put Tapia to sleep. With the doctor monitoring his condition, they kept Tapia tranquilized for days, allowing him to emerge for the court appearance and then medicating him again. They packed without his noticing. Teresa and her mother and brother put him into a car and took off for California with Tapia drugged. Whenever he was awake enough to eat during the trip, they drugged his food. He was in a stupor when they arrived at the house in Big Bear and wrangled him up to the second-floor bedroom. Tapia’s previous house had only one floor, so when he woke up during the night he fell down the stairs. “Teresa, I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he screamed. “I’m hallucinating so bad I see places I’ve never seen before.”
For a month Tapia hated the exile from Albuquerque. Then he decided to be a sport. “Oscar was a good influence,” says Teresa. “He would tell Johnny, 'You have a lot of talent. You have to do the right things. We have more to prove because we are Hispanic.’”
Tapia’s ring name had been the Baby-Faced Assassin, but the years and the scars were draining the juice from that moniker. De La Hoya and his trainer, Roberto Alcazar, gave Tapia his new name. “Whenever I walked into the gym,” Tapia says, “they’d say, 'Ah, mi vida loca!’ Because I was so crazy all the time.” The 18 months of court-supervised exile from New Mexico kept Tapia clean. He fought regularly and took frequent drug screens. When he had a bout in New Mexico, he had to ask permission from the court and file a detailed in-and-out flight plan. By the time the restrictions ended, Tapia had his own gym and house in Big Bear and stayed on. But then the binges began again.
By 1995 Tapia’s old manager, Paul Chavez, refused to work with him. Teresa took over. Four of his world titles were won under her management. He is one of the few boxers in the “little guy” divisions to earn a million-dollar purse. She negotiates contracts with promoters and television networks, accepts or rejects opponents and handles all finances and business affairs. “Johnny always waits outside or in another room,” she explains. “Fighters never sit in when contracts are being negotiated, because it would hurt them. They are talked about like meat.”
To this day Teresa struggles to maintain her calm during bouts. “He is always looking at me. If I show him a worried expression, he gets worried. When it’s fight time he is not my husband; he is my fighter. You can’t baby a fighter, because he is out there putting his life on the line and he needs every ounce of ferociousness to do what he has to do. I have learned not to hinder that. You have to be strong. You can’t show your fear, because he reflects your emotion and absorbs it.”
A cruel reality is that athletes spend a lifetime developing skills that shape their identities. They are still young when they must stop and become someone else entirely. When Johnny Tapia retires from the ring, the change will be almost as dramatic for his wife as it will be for him.
Teresa is trying to figure out what life after boxing will mean for both of them. She has been negotiating with producers for a movie of her husband’s life. Meanwhile she is buying a building in Albuquerque to renovate as a boxing gym where Tapia can train other fighters. Various charities would like to be involved with him. A restaurant and bar business might be a good investment. Teresa is considering Tapia cigars, Tapia tequila, Tapia clothing. Asked if she can be sure Johnny won’t end up dead broke in a gutter, her eyes flicker. “He might still end up dead in a gutter,” she says, “but he won’t be broke.”
Tapia Day Camp
It is a hot August afternoon in Las Vegas, and Johnny Tapia and his two adopted sons have been in the swimming pool for hours. Jonathon, 11, demonstrates his submarine skills and says, “My dad’s been teaching me since I was two.” The toddler, Lorenzo, charges off the diving board, and the session ends in giggles when Tapia hoists him out and runs inside through the patio doors to change his diaper. “I didn’t think I’d ever be a father,” says Tapia, shaking his head.
The big stucco house has a bewildering number of rooms, including Johnny’s memorabilia museum, a boxing gym and Teresa’s office. Thick walls keep out the desert heat and the kids’ noise. The home sits in a gated community of similar houses, and by late afternoon what Teresa calls Tapia Day Camp has the backyard swarming with neighborhood kids, who are swimming, playing basketball and bouncing on the trampoline. The children clamor for Tapia’s attention, and he’s there for each one, tireless. Or maybe his restless motion provides protection as much as pleasure. If he were forced to sit still, the storm in his head might take over.
Their house is always bustling with live-in relatives, visiting friends and business associates. “I have to have a lot of people around all the time,” says Teresa, “because I never know what Johnny will do.” She tells about a guest suite that is fitted with special locks. When Tapia was on a drug binge, Teresa barricaded herself and the children in the suite. “I took lots of videos and toys and books and food and the cell phones,” she says, “and told them we were camping out.”
They have weathered the binges, including one when Tapia crept through their house with a knife, sliding the blade beneath each closed door. “Now Johnny’s happiest time,” says Teresa, “is when he falls into bed at night and knows he’s managed to get through another day. His hardest time is waking up, knowing he has another day to face.”
Tapia tries to do good. There is the tale of the diner waitress who served meals to the Tapias for months. One day she broke down crying because her husband had been laid off from work. The parents and their kids were living in their car. Within 24 hours Johnny Tapia had bought them a decent house.
Sometimes there are mixed messages about what’s good. Maybe family loyalty should end short of going on the lam with a violent cousin. But high drama is part of Tapia’s charm. Teresa agrees: “We joke about it. Johnny says, 'If I don’t give you any problems, how are you going to handle it?’ I say, 'Johnny, I don’t think that will ever happen.’ But I think I could do with 20 years of peace and quiet.”
Neither peace nor quiet are in evidence on September 26 in Tingley Coliseum. Spotlights and big video screens flash ring close-ups to the highest reaches of the grandstands. It is obvious from the scent that this creaking arena on Albuquerque’s permanent fairground hosted a rodeo only a week earlier.
The hometown fans have cheered and groaned through Tapia’s tabloid roller coaster life. Tonight some 4,500 are here to hail his resurrection. “Without the crowd I’m not who I am,” says Tapia. The preliminary bouts limber up their lungs, and the shout goes up the instant Tapia appears in a cloud of smoke. The familiar chant is “John-ee, John-ee” in a collective baritone.
The roaring crowd generates enough heat to make Tapia young again in this, his 58th professional fight. For 27-year-old Carlos Contreras, this will be his 29th. Fighting out of the hungry warrens of Juarez, Mexico, Contreras is strong, skilled and intent on a win.
When the bell rings Contreras charges, and Tapia nails him with a three-punch combination—jab, hook, Tight hand. Tapia’s left arm, practically disabled after his last bout, against Barrera, is back, and it is fast. His reflexes are tuned high. His old legs pivot constantly to fresh angles. Tapia doesn’t have to stay at a distance or run. He makes Contreras miss from inches away. He is so elusive that his opponent grows desperate by the third round and twice tackles him to the floor. Contreras tries everything: grappling, head banging, elbow-flying fouls and straight hard punching. The referee shows his irritation, but Tapia seems to enjoy it all.
Tapia pays Contreras the compliment of gut-wrenching hooks and jaw-jarring uppercuts—the respect of a nose-to-nose battle. With the 10th round in his complete control, Tapia leans over the ropes to greet New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who’s sitting ringside. “But then Carlos hit me,” Tapia would explain later, “so I had to get back to it.” The kid stays dangerous to the final bell, and Tapia comes through with a solid decision against a tough, young and determined opponent.
The crowd’s voice shakes the roof. Black and silver balloons rain down. Tapia lifts Contreras onto his shoulders and asks the crowd to honor him. Not as polite as Tapia, they boo.
At the news conference afterward Tapia’s face is swollen and cut, but he says he is ready for more. He hopes for two or three more bouts and then a championship fight soon. He wants to retire on a winning note. “This was a big experience,” he says. “People say I’m too old, don’t have anything left after the coma. I was really nervous. But I’m glad to be home. I couldn’t believe the atmosphere, with everybody screaming.”
Speaking through a translator, Contreras says he hadn’t expected Tapia to be in such good condition. “He’s a little crazy, but in Mexico craziness is recognized as part of sanity,” he says.
As for the other craziness—the drugs and the violence—Tapia will say only, “I’m trying. I want to live with my wife and boxing and my kids. I’m trying.” Everyone close to him wonders what will replace that electricity in Tapia’s high-voltage life when the boxing is over.
“I don’t know how his story is going to end,” says Teresa. “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.”