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17 NOVEMBER 2018


Johnny Tapia: 1967-2012


By Derek Bonnett: October 12, 1994 was a very special day for me in terms of my twenty-three years of following professional boxing. I was a seventeen year old kid at the time and the only things that got my heart pumping were cheerleaders, Camaros, and, mostly effectively, boxing matches. That night in October ESPN featured Johnny Tapia’s first try for a world championship against Henry Martinez. It was for the vacant WBO super flyweight title and Tapia was 5-0 on his comeback trail after a nearly four year hiatus from the ring. Tapia prevailed after eleven intense rounds. He found himself behind early, on even terms midway, and on top of world after knocking Martinez to the canvas with a vicious two-handed assault. Martinez gamely rose to his feet, but his right eye was badly swollen. His heart said yes, but his countenance said no. Referee Dennis Nelson agreed with the fighter’s visage.


It was this electric performance which made Tapia a favorite of mine for as long as he laced up the gloves. Never before or since, have I witnessed a professional athlete feed more from the emotions of a hometown crowd. Tapia fought in his native Albuquerque twenty-one times in sixty six bouts as a professional; he never lost there.


Tapia described his reception from the Albuquerque crowd for his entrance to the Martinez fight in his biography Mi Vida Loca,"The love from the crowd was overwhelming for me, and that love strengthened me in the ring and throughout the fight, the whole way through."


The Albuquerque love Tapia felt carried him not just through that bout, but many more in presence or in spirit as he struggled with the likes of Ricardo Vargas, Arthur Johnson, Paulie Ayala, Manuel Medina and Marco Antonio Barrera or when he dominated Willie Salazar, Danny Romero, Nana Konadu, Jorge Elicier Julio, and Cesar Soto. Tapia’s career was one with ups and downs comparable to his lifestyle. Tapia benefitted from questionable decisions against Johnson and Medina, but had to endure two very questionable losses to Ayala at the height on his career. The end of his career was marred by embarrassing defeats to lesser opposition, but Tapia finished on a four bout win-streak including his finale, an eight-round decision over fellow aged, former world champion, Mauricio Pastrana.


The highlight of Tapia’s career was undoubtedly his battle with fellow Albuquerque resident, and cross-town rival, Danny Romero. Romero was a hard hitting flyweight and super flyweight champion with movie star good looks. Tapia had been trained as an amateur by Romero’s father, Danny Sr. The rivalry began when Tapia was exiled from boxing and Albuquerque sought a new favorite son or star in boxing.


"They needed [Romero] and he had come up big," Tapia recounted to his biographer Bettina Gilois. "And it bothered me at the time, but now I was back and we were both world champions, and there just wasn’t room for the two of us."


The Tapia-Romero bout split Albuquerque and the Bonnett household. My older brother favored Romero by KO, but I held onto my pick of Tapia winning a close, but clear decision. On July 18, 1997, the rivalry was settled. After twelve intense rounds, Tapia was declared a unanimous decision winner at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada by scores of 115-113 and 116-112 twice. Throughout the contest, Tapia actually appeared to be the stronger fighter in spite of Romero’s big punch. Tapia’s speed was the defining trait in this fight as it blinded Romero and made it difficult for him to assert his own game plan with success. Once the decision was announced there was no dispute any longer: Tapia was king of the Albuquerque boxing scene.



The only consistency in Tapia’s career was what fueled him internally. Sure, he was elevated by the support of New Mexico fans and kept alive by the love of his wife Teresa, but his only constant was his struggle to negotiate his feelings toward his mother’s death. Victoria Tapia never came home from a night of dancing when Johnny was eight. She was brutally beaten and stabbed and died days later in a hospital. The gruesome details have been recounted time and time again mostly coinciding with Tapia bouts. Tapia often joked about being born on Friday the 13th and whether or not it made him lucky or unlucky given the roller coaster ride his life mimicked.


Tapia’s story invokes both pity and pride. His style only evoked pure pleasure. In a career that touched four decades (1988-2011) and saw Tapia amass a ledger of 59-5-2 (30), "Mi Vida Loca", as he was appropriately nicknamed for his crazy life, captured two world titles at 115-pounds, two at 118-pounds, and one at 126 pounds. Regrettably, Tapia’s ring achievements were only matched for his battles with the law, drugs, and depression. Fortunately for the Albuquerque, New Mexico native, as copious other troubled men in history, he had the love of a woman, whose strengths outside of the ring far surpassed Tapia’s inside of one. When all is said and done, it is perhaps Teresa Tapia who deserves the majority of the credit for Tapia’s exceptional career. Life may have been cruel to Tapia, from his mother’s brutal murder to his many near death experiences from drugs and attempted suicide, but it just might have been harsher on Teresa, the woman unfortunate enough to love him.


Just three days before hearing the reports of Johnny Tapia’s death, one boxing fans had seen coming for all too long, I sat down to review some classic boxing on ESPN through my DVR. As I sifted through old bouts ranging from Joe Louis to Ray Mercer, I stumbled upon a gem: Tapia-Martinez. I re-watched this classic bout with unbridled anticipation for each round, having only partial recollection of the action being revisited. I remembered watching that bout for the first time with a fondness akin to the start of a new relationship. I knew I was going to be watching Tapia for years even then. Upon the rebroadcast’s completion, I sat and wondered if Tapia himself had been able to relive that action as well. At the time, I hoped he did. Days later, I am not so sure. I don’t know what impact seeing one’s prime can have on an individual once they have fallen so far away from it.


Rest in peace, Johnny. You fought for it.


"I was raised as a pit bull/Raised to fight to the death." - Johnny Tapia


For further boxing discourse, contact Derek DBO Bonnett on Facebook or at


May 27, 2012



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