“Is this Johnny’s last fight?” someone asked him.
If anyone should know, it’s Tom Crego, a former drunk now sober 30 years. A roofer by trade, Crego, 63, is Tapia’s closest confidant. He is Pops. More than anyone around him, Tapia listens to Pops. Most of the time.
“I think Johnny’s sincere about stopping now,” Crego said. “But if somebody came along, like a world champion, well ... ” Tapia wants to make a difference in kids' lives, but this—Crego gestured toward the sea of fans—“this is his life.”
Tapia’s life on Saturday night could be heard in the repeated exhortations that have rolled across arenas for more than two decades. “Jaw-nee, Jaw-nee! Jaw-nee!”
For Tapia, a cocaine abuser for years, such adulation is an addiction, as strong as the white stuff.
It’s hard for Tapia to get clean from boxing when 2,000 people are screaming his name.
And yet all week long, before Saturday’s fight with Mauricio Pastrana of Colombia, Tapia talked in interviews with the Alibi of pulling the curtain on mi vida loca.
“I want to take my kids to the park and know what I’m doing. I want to be able to drive a car. I got nothin’ else to prove. I’m OK, but I want to stay all right, you know?” Tapia patted the side of his dome.
“That’s the downside of all this,” Tom Crego said, “the punches Johnny takes to the head.”
Saturday night’s punchfest, an eight-rounder that Tapia won on a unanimous decision, was his 66th bout as a professional. He’s won 59 of those. He’s claimed five different world championships and will soon be enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame.
Along the way, he’s been no Johnny Angel. He spent nearly a year in prison for a parole violation as a habitual offender. He’s been suspended for three years from boxing for failing a drug test. He’s OD’d, attempted suicide, nearly died on a handful of occasions. He’s slept on the streets and in cars, only to get up to hear Jaw-nee! one more time.
“This fight, when it’s done, I’m done,” Tapia says. “Nothin’ more.”
There are doubters. No one from local television covered Saturday’s fight. Reporters have been down this road before. Back in 2007, Tapia boxed in what was billed The Final Fury. Three fights later, he was still at it. After a while, such hurrahs only bring harrumphs.
Dennis Latta, a former sportswriter and Tapia’s PR hand, thumped the tubs for Saturday’s fight, renaming it The Final Finale. “He means it,” Latta said. “I’ve never seen him happier. Look, Johnny says he’s tired. He’s old. He’s 44. It gets harder and harder for him to find an opponent.”
As certain as Latta is about Tapia’s plans, Latta also knows that between fights, when Tapia has down time, is when he often gets in trouble. That’s when he summons his mistress, the white powder.
Yes, Evander Holyfield is still boxing at 48, the same age George Foreman hung up his gloves. And Bernard Hopkins, who spent five years in the slammer, won a WBC belt last month, at 46.
But Tapia is not a Heavyweight. He doesn’t knock out people anymore. In 1983 when he was just 16, he became the National Golden Gloves Light Flyweight champion. He weighed all of 106 pounds, sported a pompadour and nary a tattoo. His hair is gone now, his body fleshy, his torso barely left with space to add ink.
Jerry Padilla, 63, may have more tats than even Johnny. He’s a white-haired gent in a black A-shirt and black pirate pants, and a member of the Tapia entourage. Padilla, you may recall, is the fellow who last year walked up to Tapia and said, I’m your father. Genetic tests soon supported this claim. Padilla, who says he had a fling with Tapia’s mother in 1966, would have been around sooner had he not been residing in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta for drug trafficking.
Rocky Burke refereed Saturday’s bout and has done, he guesses, five or six Tapia fights over the years. “Everybody loves Johnny,” Burke said. “I love Johnny. A lot of people say he needs to retire. Gosh darn, he still has skills. He still attracts people. Nobody wants to see Johnny go back to jail and to rehab and that stuff. As long as he’s not jeopardizing his health, he should keep doing it.”
When Tapia’s not training, his weight can balloon to 180 or more. Mi vida gordo. At 5-foot-6, how healthy is that? For this fight, he got down to 130. Eating, it appears, is simply another addiction. “I stopped drinking Dr Pepper,” he said. “I used to put away a case a day. No more ice cream sandwiches. A box a day I was doing.”
Teresa Tapia, winner of five Purple Hearts for being wed to Johnny for 19 years, said, “I don’t want him to fight again.” But then this: “He doesn’t pay attention to me.”
That some fans paid $200 for a seat Saturday night reveals Tapia’s staying power. The worshipful simply won’t let Tapia leave. For them, each fight is like the summer of 1997. That’s when Johnny bested North Valley rival Danny Romero.
Those who did not bother attending Saturday’s fight clearly have grown bored with Tapia’s drug problems, the dragging on of these wearying revival shows, his neediness.
Saturday night’s ring announcer, a KOB-radio talk show host named Eric Strauss, labored to stir up the fight’s importance.
“This is a historic night,” Strauss intoned to a microphone. “A night of infamy.”
Hey, Eric, calm down. And while you’re at it, check your dictionary.
Does Tapia need money? Is that what’s behind these comebacks? On the surface, it doesn’t appear so. Teresa Tapia has her own business, All About You, a home health care service. And Johnny runs a gym, Team Tapia, where he and other pugilists teach youngsters to box and to dream big.
But Team Tapia recently filed for bankruptcy, according to Latta.
Tapia has done TV commentary on boxing matches, and more of such gigs likely await him. Meanwhile, a reality TV show is said to be in the works. The celebrated producer Jerry Bruckheimer is supposed to be involved. What is the show about? “You know, mi vida loca, Johnny’s life at the gym, at home,” said Chris Chavez, Tapia’s brother-in-law and business partner.
What then does the future for Johnny Tapia hold? He’ll work to survive, one day, one hour at a time, as Pops urges. This of course is hard when you’ve always been a mass of contradictions. Manic and depressive. OCD and who-gives-a-shit. Mean in the ring and oozing generosity out of it.
Latta explained Tapia this way: “If a friend was broke and asked Johnny for a thousand dollars, he’d hand it right over. But if a guy stole a dollar from Johnny, he’d kill him.”
A dramatic rendering of Tapia’s life is also coming down the pike, coincidentally being readied by a man named Pike. Charles Pike, an owlish playwright, was among those on hand Saturday night. The 49-year-old said he’s long been drawn to Tapia’s redemption story. “You know, from the depths of poverty and despair, he rises to great heights.” And then falls and then rises and falls again and again. That’s at least five acts, Charles.