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.