La Vida Loca - The Fall and Rise of Johnny Tapia
Johnny Tapia's life has been crazy. In fact, his motto for years has been "Mi
Vida Loca," Spanish for My Crazy Life. For those not familiar with this
charismatic athlete, Johnny Tapia has led an incredibly interesting...and at
times tragic...life. The three- time world champion boxer from Albuquerque, New
Mexico is one of the most intense characters in the sport. He has honed his
overwhelming emotion and boundless energy throughout his career to overcome
every obstacle in his way. The incredible story below is a chronicle of the fall
and rise of Johnny Tapia.
Johnny Tapia's life began with tragedy. When Johnny entered the world on
February 13, 1967 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his father had reportedly already
been murdered. At the age of seven, Johnny was riding on a bus that drove off a
100-foot cliff, hurling a pregnant woman seated next to him out the window to
her death. Tapia was also thrown through the window, but luckily escaped with
only a concussion.
When Johnny was only eight years old, his mother Virginia was kidnapped,
raped, hung, stabbed 22 times with scissors and a screwdriver, and left for dead
by her assailant. Johnny recalls being awakened in the middle of the night by a
noise that he was certain was his mother's screams. He looked out the window and
saw her chained in the back of a pick-up truck. He woke up his grandparents to
tell them what he had seen, but they thought it was just the overactive
imagination of a little boy and sent him back to bed. He is still haunted by
these memories to this day.
After crawling 100 yards through a gravel pit to a road following her brutal
encounter, Johnny's mother was found by the police and taken to the hospital.
Because she was found with no identification, she remained in a hospital bed as
a "Jane Doe" for two days. Finally, after a story and photo ran in the paper,
Virginia's sister ran to the hospital and sadly confirmed her identity. Johnny's
aunts and uncles went to visit his mother over the next few days to make their
peace, but would not allow Virginia's 8-year-old son to visit. Though Johnny
desperately pleaded with his family for the opportunity to say good-bye to his
mother, he was denied. She died four days after the attack without regaining
consciousness. No one was charged with the murder.
Raised thereafter by his grandmother, Johnny turned to boxing at the age of
nine and the future appeared to be brighter. He enjoyed a 101-21 (65 KOs)
amateur career that included two National Golden Gloves titles. He turned
professional in March of 1988 and streaked to a 21-0-1 (12 KOs) record and the
United States Boxing Association (USBA) junior bantamweight title.
His early success in boxing led to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, it also
led to an addiction to cocaine. Johnny's reckless behavior eventually led to
several DWI convictions and an arrest record that grew to 125 pages, resulting
in repeated stays in the Bernalillo County Detention Center.
With a world title shot on the horizon, Tapia tested positive for cocaine
three times in 1990 and 1991. The positive drug tests led to a suspension from
the sport he loved and he would not re-enter the ring for more than three years.
During that time, Tapia's life nearly ended three times from drug overdoses.
With his life in utter chaos, some calm would come to him in the form of
Teresa Chavez, his future wife and manager. For Johnny, it was love at first
sight. Unfortunately, Teresa wanted nothing to do with the hyperactive young
boxer. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Johnny pestered her until she
agreed to go out with him. After numerous marriage requests, Teresa finally said
yes. Showing that his blinding speed was not confined to the ring, Tapia
returned two hours later with a wedding dress and an announcement that he had
booked a judge and building for three days later.
Still heavily immersed in drugs, it took Teresa's tough love to help Johnny
kick his habit. After a series of overdoses, being charged with spousal abuse
for pulling a loaded gun on Teresa and a transient lifestyle that included
infrequent visits home for food and shelter, their relationship had reached a
boiling point. Teresa gave her husband an ultimatum; either straighten up or get
out. Now faced with the real threat of losing the woman he loved, Johnny
reluctantly agreed to try and put his life back together. Teresa locked the door
and the two of them stayed in their apartment for more than a month without
leaving. Her mother passed them food through the security bars on the windows.
With Teresa's love and support, Johnny overcame his drug addiction. "I'm
clean for today," said Tapia. "I never think about yesterday because it's gone
and I never worry about tomorrow because it may never come."
Clean and sober for the first time in years, Johnny rededicated himself to
boxing. His suspension was lifted in 1994, allowing "The Baby Faced Assassin" to
re-enter the ring. Picking up right where he left off, Tapia would reel off five
straight wins, including a victory for the North American Boxing Federation
(NABF) title over Oscar Aguilar on July 15, 1994.
Tapia's impressive defeat of Aguilar set the stage for Tapia's first crack at
a world title; the World Boxing Organization (WBO) junior bantamweight crown
held by Henry Martinez. On October 12, 1994, Tapia would realize his dream in
front of more than 8,000 screaming fans in his hometown of Albuquerque, New
Mexico...posting a thrilling 11th round TKO victory over Martinez.
Tapia's incredible speed, defensive skills and ring generalship led to ten
successful WBO title defenses and Johnny was soon considered by most boxing
media (and by his many fans) to be one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the
world. Tapia was also the consummate showman, taunting his opponents endlessly
during bouts and celebrating his victories by doing backflips inside the ring.
One of Tapia's greatest victories inside the ring was against arch-rival,
fellow junior bantamweight world champion and Albuquerque native, Danny Romero.
The fight would ultimately unify the WBO and IBF junior bantamweight crowns, but
arguably more importantly, the victor would secure bragging rights in their
hometown. The Tapia - Romero fight was billed as a grudge match and, in every
sense of the word, it was one. The two shared a long and tumultuous history
together that included both being trained in the same gym by Romero's father,
Danny Sr. As Romero, seven years Tapia's junior, grew into a power punching
world champion, Danny Sr. lost interest in training the lightning quick Tapia.
Once both men garnered world titles, the call for a showdown between the two
became louder and inevitable.
On July 18, 1997, the showdown between Tapia and Romero took center stage in
the world of boxing. Although a war was anticipated, Tapia's combination of
blinding speed, defense and accuracy were too much for his opponent. In the end,
the power punching Romero couldn't connect solidly against his arch rival and
Tapia's superior boxing skills earned a well deserved unanimous decision victory
in front of more than 8,000 fans at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas,
Nevada. The victory helped further establish Tapia as a folk hero in his
hometown of Albuquerque.
On February 13, 1998, the eve of Tapia's 31st birthday, Albuquerque's
conquering hero returned home to defend his titles against the WBO's No. 9 world
rated contender Rodolfo Blanco. The night was a celebration, complete with a
grand ring entrance by "The Baby Faced Assassin" and a birthday cake. Tapia
supplied the punch in the SHOWTIME main-event, dazzled the capacity crowd of
more than 13,000 at "The Pit" and earned a 12-round unanimous decision victory.
Having fought at 115 pounds since his amateur days, Tapia decided after the
Blanco fight to move up to bantamweight. After winning a 10-round decision in a
tune-up against Carlos Hernandez in Las Vegas on August 28, 1998, Tapia
challenged hard hitting WBA champion Nana Konadu. Konadu, a three-time world
champion from Ghana, entered the ring having scored 32 knockouts in his 43
fights. Prior to the fight, Tapia added firepower to his arsenal, hiring
venerable trainer Freddie Roach to help him refine his defensive skills. Johnny
had total respect for Roach, who had trained several world champions, including
Michael Moorer, Frankie Liles and Steve Collins.
The relationship between teacher and pupil paid immediate dividends.
Headlining the first card ever held at the Atlantic City Convention Center on
December 5, 1998, the usually reckless Tapia used his improved head movement and
balance to frustrate and punish the champion with his sharp jab and effective
movement. In control throughout the bout, Tapia earned his third world title,
totally dominating Konadu to a majority decision victory. Once again Tapia had
beaten the odds and overcame the seemingly insurmountable obstacle in front of
In June of 1999, 24 years after the brutal murder of his mother, Bernalillo
County sheriff's homicide detectives announced the identity of her killer. But
the suspect, Richard Espinosa, won't be brought to justice. He was killed in a
traffic accident in 1983. Espinosa, who had been seeing Virginia for more than a
year, was the prime suspect from the beginning. The case mysteriously fell
through the cracks, despite an interview the sheriff's department had with
Espinosa the day after Virginia died, in which Espinosa reportedly had blood on
his shoes and a bloody rag and screwdriver were found in his car. A former
Bernalillo County sheriff's detective who was part of the initial investigation
into the slaying of Johnny's mother says the case was not solved then because of
corruption and incompetence in the sheriff's department.
Just weeks after the gruesome details of his mother's murder became public
information, Tapia suffered his first defeat as a professional boxer in more
than 11 years. Tapia challenged Paulie Ayala - the No. 2 world rated contender -
on a worldwide pay-per-view bout on June 26, 1999 from the Mandalay Bay Casino
& Hotel in Las Vegas. The card, titled "Warriors," more than lived up to its
advanced billing as both fighters engaged in what the Boston Globe would later
call "hand-to-hand combat of the fiercest and bravest kind." Contrary to many of
the reporters unofficial scorecards at ringside, Tapia lost a controversial
unanimous decision to Ayala. Following their epic battle, both fighters
displayed their great sportsmanship, taking turns lifting each other up in the
air to soak up the accolades from the crowd. "Anyone in the crowd who was not a
fight fan had to become one as bantamweights Paulie Ayala and Johnny Tapia put
on a demonstration of skill and courage over 12 frantic rounds," raved the
Associated Press of the classic bout. The Las Vegas Review Journal would echo
the opinion of many in the media, declaring that Tapia's bout with Ayala would
"not only go down as the leading candidate for 'Fight of the Year,' but as one
of the best fights in many years."
In August of 1999 Tapia held a press conference in his hometown of
Albuquerque. Though he is a three-time world champion, boxing was a distant
second thought for the 31-year-old who is hoping to wrap up another chapter in
his personal life. "I want to find out who my father is," Tapia said, explaining
the reason for the press conference. Rumors of his father's death and the
possibility that he is still alive have been floating around for years. "Johnny
needs closure on this," added Teresa. "He has closure on his mother. Now we need
to take care of this." "I want to find out how he lived, maybe how he died,"
Tapia continued. "I want to keep searching...whatever it takes."
Although Johnny still hasn't solved the mystery surrounding the father he
never knew, he is winning his all important fight with cocaine, having been
clean for almost five years. Astonishingly, Johnny Tapia has emerged from his
personal hell as a gracious, engaging, God fearing man with the will to
survive...the will to win. He has a loving wife and an adopted son, Salo, and
the support of his family and numerous fans.
Tapia will most certainly regain his dominance inside the ring, but right now
he is focused on letting the world know that you must NEVER GIVE UP! The inner
peace he has finally found has ignited a humanitarian crusade to educate
children about the destructive and addictive nature of drugs and alcohol, the
importance of education and the need to take responsibility for your actions. He
frequently visits homeless shelters, boys homes and churches in his hometown of
Albuquerque, throughout New Mexico and in Las Vegas, hoping to inspire others to
avoid the mistakes he made.
Mi Vida Loca? Johnny now thinks of his life as Mi Vida Nueva, My New Life.
"One day I'm in a jail cell, the next thing I know I'm in a castle," said Tapia.
"I've been through everything."
Johnny Tapia has risen from the tragic loss of his mother, his reckless,
self-destructive, checkered past and is now tirelessly devoted to preventing
others from following in his footsteps. He has become a true champion...inside
and outside of the ring.
A biography of his life is in production and Team Tapia is in the process of
creating the Virginia Tapia Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to
helping those less fortunate. The Official Johnny Tapia Home