By Brett Ater, PR/Social Specialist at TITLE Boxing
Johnny Tapia Documentary
For the hardcore boxing fans of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Johnny Tapia, Mi Vida Loca, was a well-known sparkplug at the top of the sport’s lighter divisions. For me, it wasn’t until HBO released Tapia (2013), a documentary on his life, that I learned the name and was captivated by Johnny, both the boxer and the deeply troubled human being.
In the ring he was a true showman. He moved around the squared circle with slick footwork, boastful facial expressions, relaxed but secure defense, lightning fast hands and the power to end fights quickly. On top of all that, he could take a punch. It seemed like he enjoyed that part. He reveled in the all-out action. After bouts, always a gracious sport, he’d greet his opponents with a hug, bow to the judges and then top off his night with an in-ring backflip. But all that joy he expressed in the ring couldn’t be replicated on the outside, at least not completely. It’s easy to see now that under the lights was where the Albuquerque native felt truly at home. Outside the ring was where life was hard and unforgiving.
Much has been written about the extreme lows of Tapia’s life. Even his nickname, Mi Vida Loca, doesn’t do it justice. Johnny’s father was murdered while his mother was pregnant with him. At just eight-years-old Johnny witnessed his mother, Virginia, being driven away from their home. She was chained to a truck. She was brutally assaulted and left for dead, but she fought and crawled more than a hundred yards before being found by police and taken to the emergency room. Sadly, she passed away a few days later. The sights and sounds of his mother’s last days forever haunted him. He told Boxing News in 2011, “My mom’s death kills me every day…I just want to say ‘Good night mama.’ I want to hug my mama.”
Johnny was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death and they steered him toward boxing. He was an extremely successful amateur fighter, winning the Golden Gloves National Tournament in ’83 and ’85. His professional career started off hot as well. He went 21-0-1 in his first 22 bouts, but at age 21 he tested positive for cocaine and had his boxing license suspended for nearly four years.
He returned from his suspension without missing a beat and rattled off four straight victories before getting his first shot at a world title. On October 12, 1994, Johnny Tapia, who’d already overcome so much, defeated Henry Martinez by technical knockout in the 11th round to be named the WBO Super Flyweight Champion of the World. He’d go on to become a five-time world champion and a member of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.
Johnny Tapia made his pro debut in 1988 and fought for the last time in 2011. He fought 64 professional fights and had his hand raised 59 times (30 KOs). His fan-friendly fighting style took him from a gym in Albuquerque to the bright lights of Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden.
Heartbreakingly, all the in-ring success, a loving wife (Teresa), happy children (three sons) and adoration from friends and fans were no match for the overbearing pain of loss and drug addiction. Tapia was hospitalized after a cocaine overdose in early March of 2007, and he was arrested for a parole violation (due to cocaine use) in February of 2009.
On May 27, 2012, Johnny Tapia passed away due to heart failure. He was found in his home and no drugs were found in his system. His story is a happy one, with a terribly sad beginning and end. To watch the documentary and to read the articles on his life, there’s no way to pass judgement on how Johnny lived; to not feel gutted when he tried and tried to overcome disturbing emotional trauma and drug addiction; just as there’s no way to not feel giddy when the music plays and he makes his way to the ring; or to not feel emotional when you hear fellow fighters and Albuquerque natives talk about all he meant to them. All you can say is that he was loved and that he loved with all his heart. Sometimes, for whatever reason, life is crazy.
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