When I heard the news about Johnny Tapia’s death on Sunday night, I was immediately began struggling against a wave of complicated emotions—sadness, disappointment, anger, speculation, and compassion, to name but a few.
Police found the five time world-champion boxer in his Albuquerque home on Sunday night, dead at 45. A few hours later, the news spread around the boxing world, and among New Mexico’s fight fans, to whom Tapia was a legend.
Johnny was a complicated man. I got to know him four years ago, when he was living in Las Cruces. We had a mutual respect for one another; he enjoyed listening to me on the radio, and I appreciated his prowess in the ring. His time in Cruces was one of the least tumultuous times in his “crazy life.” He had been clean and sober for more than a year, was going to church, and was trying to help at-risk youth stay on the straight-and-narrow.
Sunday night was not the first time death visited Johnny Tapia. In 2008, I asked Johnny what he’s most afraid of. “Myself,” he said. “I’m my worst enemy. I have no fear… I’ve died six times. I’ve been stabbed in the head with an ice pick on my wedding night, and died. I’ve overdosed. I’m my worst enemy. My worst fear is doing the wrong things again.” And he would. In 2009, he was arrested for a parole violation related to cocaine use.
I sat down with Johnny in 2008, and had a long, candid conversation with him. Nothing was off the table, no question off-limits. We talked about his legendary cross-town rivalry with Danny Romero, and the friendship they developed in later years. We talked about gang life. We spoke about the ghosts that still haunted him.
Johnny spoke candidly about the death of his mother, who was murdered when he was eight—stabbed 22 times with an ice pick. In 2000, Johnny sought to avenge the murder, as a grown man. He tracked down the killer, rented a hotel room, and darkened the windows. “I was going to kill him. I was going to do to him what he did to my mother.” Before Johnny could get to him, the man was run over by a car and killed.
We spoke openly about his struggles with addiction, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. We talked about his time in the early ‘90s—already an accomplished boxer—when he was homeless, an addict living on the streets. And we spoke about Teresa, his loving wife stood by his side, saving him time and again.
Johnny’s story has all of the trappings of a Greek tragedy. It’s the story of a man who became the best in the world, against all odds. And it’s the tale of a man who threw it all away, more than once.
As I look back on the life of this complicated man, I feel blessed to have known him at his absolute best. Johnny had a huge heart, and was driven to help young adults that were headed down the hard road he travelled. You might say that he led by bad example; Johnny would never wish his life on anyone.
Johnny cheated death more often than the odds would permit, but death knew where to find him. He knew he wasn’t invincible, and that one day his luck would run out. I just pray that Johnny has found the peace that life so seldom provided him.
To hear my full conversation with Johnny, just push play on the interviews below. (The second segment is incredibly raw. No question or topic was off-limits, so you’ll get a great sense of who Johnny was, and what motivated him.)
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 05/31/12.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.