Albuquerque’s champion Johnny Tapia, revisited
“I’ll live and die here. This is my pride and joy, New Mexico.”
In November of 2003, the late, great Johnny Tapia welcomed the Alibi into his East Mountains home for a candid interview. The beloved brawler and Burque legend weighed in on topics including his relationships with Danny Romero and Mike Tyson, how family helped keep him afloat and what the broader picture of being a champion meant to him.
Former News Editor Tim McGivern's accompanying story fills in the gaps on how Tapia became the complex figure who overcame unimaginably tragic circumstances, yet always lived in the shadow of his horrific past. And Tapia's words ring with poignant prescience.
As for the Jerry Bruckheimer movie Tapia and McGivern discuss, Tapia's longtime friend Dennis Latta says that production—and several others—never came to fruition. Latta mentions that a Tapia documentary is in the works that will include footage from his June victory over Mauricio Pastrana—Tapia's last dance in the ring. Tapia died on Sunday, May 27, at the age of 45.
Johnny Tapia loves his new house in the East Mountains. He calls it his castle and to satisfy his hyperactive personality he’s got plans to build a basketball court and swimming pool to go along with the modest boxing gym that fills-out his garage. Yet while Tapia, 36, has the energetic presence of a moth on a light, oddly, he says one of his favorite things to do is lock himself in his room, watch TV and “take my guard down.”
And that’s the mystery of Johnny Tapia. On one hand, he’s the friendliest and humblest guy you will ever meet. But on the other hand, he is a fragile figure, frightened by the tragedies of his past, who can shift gears from cheerfulness to sorrow to an intense seriousness at the drop of a hat.
The five-time world champion boxer wasn’t guarded about anything when Teresa Tapia, his wife and manager for the past 11 years, arranged for the Alibi to talk with him in his living room last Friday. In the fashion of a man who knows it can be good to be the king, Tapia sprawled back in his recliner at the start and said, “Why don’t you ask me anything you want.”
Heroic words for someone with Tapia’s tragic and checkered history. His father was reportedly murdered before he was born. He nearly died at age seven when a bus he was riding plunged off a cliff, killing the pregnant woman seated next to him and throwing him through the window.
To this day, he is haunted by the sound of his mother’s screams and his vision of her being chained in the bed of a pick-up truck the night she was kidnapped and violently murdered by her boyfriend—back when he was just eight years old.
For example, it took nearly 25 years for his mother’s murder case to be closed. And not until the summer of 1999 did Bernalillo County detectives identify the killer, Richard Espinosa, who had died in 1983. Just weeks after Tapia learned the news, he had to fight Paulie Ayala in what was considered by some boxing analysts to be one of the greatest fights in the past decade. Although the outcome was a questionable split decision, it marked Tapia’s first loss as a professional boxer in more than ten years.
Like a true survivor, less than a year later, on Jan. 8, 2000, Tapia won his fourth world title against bantamweight champion Jorge Eliecer Julio before a capacity crowd of 13,000 fans chanting “Johnny! Johnny!” at the Pit.
His ups and downs as a boxer, however, pale compared to his chaotic life outside the ring. He’ll tell you about his struggles to overcome addiction to cocaine—a drug he calls “my mistress”—that has left him clinically dead four times and cost him several shots at a world title thanks to positive drug tests. His most recent overdose occurred this past January, when doctors and Teresa discussed funeral arrangements in a Las Vegas hospital just before Tapia revived himself and asked for a cheeseburger. “I was hungry,” he said in a recent New York Times interview. “I guess it wasn’t my time to die.”
His struggle with drugs and alcohol have led to a 125-page arrest record, including several DWI convictions, numerous stays in the Bernalillo County jail, numerous suspensions from professional boxing and getting kicked out of New Mexico for 18 months by a local judge.
His relationship with wife Teresa—the fact that she has stuck with him through the tough times—is perhaps as remarkable as anything he ever accomplished in the ring. And he’ll be the first person to tell you that. After charges of spousal abuse, including pulling a loaded gun on her when he was high on cocaine, Teresa gave Johnny one last opportunity to get clean. She locked the two of them together in their home for more than a month, allowing her mother to pass them food through a barred window. That was almost 10 years ago and what at the time seemed like the final step toward recovery was just another hurdle in his never-ending battle to stay clean.
Are you back in New Mexico forever?
Oh yeah, I was born and raised here and I’ll live and die here. This is my pride and joy, New Mexico.
Do you still look in the mirror, especially when you are in the gym, and see the baby-faced assassin?
No, because you know I’m going on 26 years in boxing and I’ve done everything you can do in the sport. I fought like a champion. I fought like a contender. I beat everybody. There’s a time and place when you gotta call it quits. I talk to my wife. I talk to my boy, and I just said, “You know what, I got a few more left, suck it up, do whatever it is going to take to keep it going.”
Are you going to fight Danny Romero again?
No, me and Danny are close. They made the whole rivalry bigger than what it was. You know, he’s a good guy. His father took very good care of me. You can’t go wrong with that. But (back then) I was struggling, using alcohol and cocaine, that was my mistress, you know, because of the tragedy that happened. But to your question: Me and Danny are very good friends. We always have been. It just happened we had to see who was the king of Albuquerque and that’s the situation that happened. He was just at my house today. …
Do you guys ever spar together?
No. I only spar two weeks before a fight. But we’re working, you know, helping each other grow bigger and better. He’s gonna be a champion again, you’ll see.
So because you guys are so close, you can’t see getting back in the ring with him, even if that’s the fight everyone wants to see?
I’ll tell you, we’re friends so there’s not gonna be no more fights. Whoever’s in the ring though, I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna hurt ’em. I got the skills to pay the bills, you know.
A lot of kids in Albuquerque want to be like you. Kids that go to Jack Candelaria Community Center and work out in the boxing gym. What do you say to those kids when they are looking at you and they see their dreams?
It’s hard to be a world champion. But I tell them look at who you hang around with and that will tell you who you are. If you want big dreams don’t follow the leader. They don’t protect you and take care of you. If you look at what I’ve done, a lot of people look at my history and don’t see what I’ve accomplished. When you fall you have to pick yourself back up to be successful. I don’t want to be a living proof, but I’ll tell you when I was in a coma, it makes you stop and think about who are your friends. … There’s a lot of bullies here, and I can’t stand bullies. I cannot stand bullies. … I’d say I would rather have friends than enemies. I got a (surrogate) dad who loves me, cares about me as an alcoholic and drug addict, not because I’m a five-time world champion. The situation is, I’m not an every day user, I’m a binger. To me, you can ask me anything you want, because I would love to tell you, so people can hear it, so they can learn from my experience. Everyone knows Johnny Tapia, the champion, the crazy guy. But I’ve got a beautiful wife that sticks with me through thick and thin. She can’t stand me sometimes, but you know what? That’s part of the relationship.
What they call tough love.
I tell you one thing, and I don’t mean any disrespect, but I’ve taken her through hell. Every time I die, I wake up and she’s right there next to me. That’s why I tell you to feel free to ask me anything. Because if there is a 100 kids out there and I get one to listen, then that makes me feel good. Seeing a smile on someone’s face.
Talk a little more about your message to kids.
My message is don’t be a follower, be a leader. You know, the first time you do drugs it’s a mistake, second time it’s a habit. It’s easy to go one way or the other. If I want to mess up, I’ll do it. I don’t put the rap on nobody but myself. If I don’t go straight, I can get divorced and be out on the streets away from my family. But those are the people that I really hurt—the ones that love me the most.
That’s what keeps you straight?
It’s every day waking up with my wife and kids. I got my Pops calling me every day. I’m not a needy person. But when I was going back and forth, messing up (gets emotional, pauses for a moment). …
How do you define love?
I don’t know love. I lost everything I loved when I was small. But when my wife puts her arms around me, or my boy smiles at me tells me he loves me, Pops calls me and tells me he’s really proud of me in my recovery, that’s what’s important. … I used drugs and alcohol to kill the pain. When I was young I lost my mom, my father. It was hard.
What’s your definition of a champion?
I’m not anybody. I’m just a guy that has a lot of problems trying to fix myself. Everybody in the boxing game knows me as Johnny the champion. But boxing is easy for me. I’m a natural. When I do have problems it’s out of the ring. I’ve always had problems out in the streets, but I’m taking my sobriety seriously. And I’m able to stay straight. It’s a lonely world out there, you know.
And a lot of people admire you as a survivor.
To tell you the truth, if my wife doesn’t hug me, or say I love you, I’ll cry. I’m a big baby. In the ring, you gotta kill me. If you don’t drop me, or put me a stretcher, I’ll get up and throw. I love the one-on-one combat. Nobody can help me; nobody can help my opponent. You just have to do whatever it takes. I’ve always trained like I was going to fight Mike Tyson.
You’re friends with Tyson, right?
Oh, we’ve been partners since the ’80s. We roomed together in the Junior Olympics when we were teenagers.
Do you stay in touch?
I talked to him about six months ago.
Do you see him now as a tragic figure?
I’ll tell you one thing, back in the ’80s he was the best in the world. But, you know, when you come into a lot of money really quickly, you run into a lot of yes-people. I’m not that kind of person. I’d rather you talk to me from your heart and say how you feel. (Teresa tells the story here of the last time Tyson called. It was just after Tapia awoke from a drug-induced coma in January. Tyson called to tell Tapia to see a psychiatrist or go to an institution, telling him he was crazy and needed help. Teresa recalled Tyson saying “I know I’m crazy too, so I’m authorized to tell you to get help.”) He’s a beautiful, intelligent person, who just got screwed up and now is just a money figure. You can have fame in two ways: You can have everybody saying yes, or you can have fame and still be around real people. A name will take you a long way, but money is very powerful. The real people will be right next to you through thick and thin. You find out who they are when you fall down. Without my fans, I won’t be where I am today. They have always supported and guided me in ways that they don’t even know.
I guess you’ve had a tough time deciding who you want to hang around with.
The truth is, sometimes it’s not about people that want to be with you, it’s about what they can get out of you. So you have to figure out who’s your friend and who’s not. I can go right now to Wal-Mart and sign autographs for an hour and a half and people there will be my friends. I can call my wife and my Pops and they’ll be there for me to hold me.
What will you do when you’re done boxing?
I’m going to call the pharmacist and tell them I want to be able to have four kids at one time (laughs). No, you know, if there’s a 100 kids out there and I can get one to listen, then that’s my job. I love to help people.
You want to work with youth?
If they call me, I’ll try to help. But I love being at home. This is my castle. This is my peace.
Being bored when you are a hyper guy can get you into trouble, right?
You know what, when stuff like that happens, I’ll call my wife and Pops. You know what really makes me happy, staying in my room. It’s all about keeping my life sober, getting my kids to go to college, explaining to kids and others that the way I went wasn’t the right way. College is very important. I wish I could have went to college. But you know what? I can’t complain. I’ve got food on the table and a beautiful wife that loves me; my boy’s as hyper as I am. But it’s not just that. I love to be in a room locked up, just a place to take my guard down. I enjoy that.
One last question about the new movie deal you signed.
Guess who’s playing me? Either Don Knotts or Gilligan (everyone laughs). Got you guys, huh? (Tapia’s smiling) Or, either Jerry Lewis.
Whoever it is, I hope they do a good job.
Yeah, me too.