Johnny Tapia, Tortured Professional Boxer Beloved To Many, Died This Weekend

It was October 1989 when we went to the Arizona State Fair for a boxing card that included our friend Michael Carbajal, then an up-and-comer straight from the Olympic Games in South Korea one year earlier.

On the undercard was a 22-year-old from Albuquerque who weighed in at 115 pounds, about 10 pounds more than Carbajal was fighting at the time. His name was Johnny Tapia, and he was a bouncy, good-looking kid who couldn't wait to fight.

The records show Tapia won an unanimous decision over John Michael Johnson in an eight-round contest, but that's not what we remember about that day other than he seemed lightning-fast in the ring and tough -- a good combination.

A prospect, in other words.

We were hanging out in a funky dressing room area when Tapia literally ran in after his fight, jumping up and down with joy.

We congratulated him, and soon found ourselves chatting with him.

I'm on my way to being a world champion, man, he said, sounding more matter-of-fact than puffing himself up. He was hard not to like, then or in the next decade or so, when he battled a bevy of personal demons and some of the best fighters in the business to a career record of 59-5-2 and a bunch of championship belts.

Tapia was found dead in his Albuquerque home on Sunday night of unknown causes at the age 45. Odds are that drugs will be involved -- Tapia lost his boxing license for three and a half years as an undefeated fighter after failing several drug tests.

Cocaine addiction, alcohol abuse, what have you, threatened to steal his career but somehow didn't.

Tapia spent much of his adult life in and out of jail.

Here's a poignant piece on Tapia that appeared in yesterday's New York Times that referred to the boxer's "chaotic life that included jail, struggles with mental illness, suicide attempts, and five times being declared clinically dead as a result of drug overdoses."

The Spanish phrase, "Mi Vida Loca," was tattooed on his belly, and it spoke more than volumes.

Another good retrospective, this one by Ivan Goldman of, has the perfect headline:

"Johnny Tapia, Age 45, Scores Draw Against the Devil."

That about sums it up.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin