The Death of a Champion: Johnny Tapia’s Vida Loca

Thomas Gerbasi remembers the professional alcoholic, doper, addict, and five-time world-champion boxer.

Al Bello / Getty Images

Before he was found dead this week in his Albuquerque home of causes not yet determined, John Lee Tapia, world-boxing champion in three different divisions, had a habit of ending his interviews with a simple three-word line that wasn’t so much a request as a cry for help from a man who never really had a chance in his 45 years on this earth:

“Pray for me.”

In his gravel-soaked, sing-song voice, the words weren’t meant to send you running to your local church to light a candle, but instead to hope that one day, the man who dubbed himself “Mi Vida Loca” and had the words tattooed on his belly, would find peace.

“Crazy” doesn’t do it justice. Told that his father had been murdered while his mother was pregnant with him, he experienced the horror of losing his remaining parent when Virginia Tapia was raped, hung, and stabbed repeatedly in May of 1975. Just 8 years old, he saw his mother chained to a truck and driven away.

Not surprisingly, things went south from there. Constantly battling drug and alcohol addictions in between clashes with the law and suicide attempts, Tapia claimed to have been declared clinically dead five times, and anyone who knew him or followed his career didn’t blink an eye.

“Anything I do, I’m a professional at it—alcoholic, doper, addict, whatever you want to call it,” Tapia told me in a 2002 interview. “But for some reason, I’m still here. I’ve basically done everything I could do.”

He was right, which made his ascent to the top of the boxing world even more remarkable. Despite being banned from the sport for nearly four years after testing positive for cocaine, the two-time National Golden Gloves winner struck gold as a professional, winning five titles at 115, 118 and 126 pounds, not so much beating his opponents as simply beating them up. His style was a mix of speed, technique, and fury, as he seemed to be letting out all the pain of his past and present by inflicting it on the man standing next to him in the ring.

“I’m in there to win,” Tapia told me in 2004. “I’m not going to go down easy. You’d better be in good shape to try and take me out. Something will come out of my sleeve. And when something’s happening and the crowd gets behind me, I can go forever.”

When you fight like that, everyone loves you, and over the course of 23 years in the pro ring, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t love Johnny Tapia. Unlike many pro athletes, he loved the fans back, creating a bond that is sorely missing in boxing today, which perhaps explains why mainstream coverage of the sport has almost disappeared, save for bursts of coverage around Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao bouts.

These days, fan interaction is saved for Twitter and Facebook, if that, with a legion of bodyguards or hangers-on usually acting as buffers separating athletes from their fans, making the $60 that’s being asked for a pay-per-view event a tough sell, especially in this economy.

It makes you appreciate fighters like Arturo Gatti, Diego Corrales, and Tapia, modern-day action heroes with gloves who seemingly fought with such intensity inside the ring in order to exorcise the demons of their past and present—all the while maintaining a humanity that endeared them to millions.

Even when discussing what he called his finest hour—a 12-round clinic put on in Atlantic City against Nana Konadu in 1998—Tapia would recall what happened after he left the arena, when he fought five thieves who stole money he had given to a homeless man.

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“I’m a fighter,” said Tapia. “I love old people. I love people, and I just don’t like to see that happen.”

That was Johnny Tapia.

“For me, it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you pick yourself up and be successful,” he said in 2004. “I’m a people’s person. I love to be with them before the fight and after the fight. I’m always with the people, and it’s a sign of respect. People have made me what I am today, and when I fight, I fight for my fans. If I win, they win. If I lose, they lose. I’ve helped a lot of people, and a lot of people have helped me out.”

No one helped Tapia and loved him more than his wife. The former Teresa Chavez found out what she was getting into shortly after their wedding when she found Tapia with a needle in his arm in a bathroom. The next day, his heart stopped beating in the hospital, one of the five brushes with death he accounted for in his autobiography. But she never left his side and never wavered through all the ups and downs.

Tapia knew what he had with Teresa, who also became his manager, saying “the wife that I have is unbelievable. She loved me when I was nothing, and she still loves me now that I’m nothing.”

In the years after his untouchable prime (he made it to 46-0-2 before losing for the first time to Paulie Ayala in 1999), Tapia, like most of his peers, fought on, even managing to win his final four bouts in a career that finally ended in 2011. Outside the ring, there were more clashes with the law, more rehabs, more relapses, and even a drug-induced coma in early 2003. But as the boxing world lost an alarming series of its most revered figures to motorcycle crashes (Diego Corrales), random violence (Vernon Forrest), and suicide (Arturo Gatti and Alexis Arguello), it almost seemed as if Tapia was going to make it, that he was the one fighter nothing could kill.

“My blessing in life is to help people,” he said in 2004. “That’s the goal that I have in life. Not by going broke or anything, but if I can give them a word of advice and let them know what I’ve been through and how I’ve been able to make it, that’s a beautiful thing.”

One time I asked Teresa about her husband’s appeal, and she said “I believe it’s because they feel that they’re on the same level with him. There are so many people who are great fighters in the world, like Shane Mosley, Oscar de la Hoya, and Roy Jones Jr. But the average fan looks at them as great fighters but they feel that they’re untouchable. Whereas Johnny, because of the problems he’s had in his life and the tragedies that he’s endured and survived, they feel on the same level as him and they can relate to him … It may be a grandfather talking about his son or a mother talking about her loss, and Johnny has so many areas in his life where he can help people, whether it’s drugs, pain, losing a loved one, losing someone that was murdered, abandonment—there’s so many issues that he can cover, so that’s why people can relate.”

Tapia and Teresa opened a gym after he retired from the ring, and anyone who spoke to him about life after boxing would agree that “Mi Vida Loca” appeared to have settled into “Mi Vida Tranquila.” Still, when the news of Tapia’s passing hit on Sunday night, the boxing community was saddened, yes, but not shocked. It seemed almost inevitable for things to end this way. The previous 45 years demanded it.

There will be no more tragic stories though, no more heartbreak. If the cliché of someone finding peace after death is real, and if anyone deserves that rest, it’s Johnny Tapia.