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The couple separated for three months in 1993, and Teresa finally issued an ultimatum: Get clean or don't bother coming back. Tapia immersed himself in religion and kicked his habit, partly because he wanted Teresa and partly because he craved the ring. Says HBO fight analyst Larry Merchant, "He found a passion and it saved him as a human being."
Tapia returned to action in March 1994. He won a junior bantamweight (115 lbs.) title by outslicking Danny Romero in July 1997, then captured the bantamweight (118 lbs.) title in December 1998. The day after that triumph, Tapia was shopping on the Atlantic City boardwalk when his sister-in-law ran into the store and told him five thugs were beating a homeless man outside.
"The guy was like 70 years old," says Tapia. "I ran over and started hitting everybody. I zoned out. My wife had to grab me and hit me because I didn't know what I was doing after a while."
It was that kind of blind rage that led to Tapia's downfall in last June's title defense against Paulie Ayala. Tapia shoved his challenger before the opening bell and fought undisciplined, brawling instead of utilizing his superior technical skills. Though Tapia deserved the decision in a close fight many experts considered the best of 1999, the judges favored Ayala. Tapia believes the bout's promoter, Bob Arum, influenced the officials in an attempt to punish Tapia for leaving the Arum stable. Arum denies that.
Tapia's first pro loss, combined with the realization that he'd never get to face his mother's killer, plunged him into a frightening funk.
"I was gonna retire," he says. "Nothing felt right."
Adds Teresa, "For a while, he lost his passion for living. He wasn't the same. After a couple of months, I said, 'Do you really think you can live without fighting?' That got his attention. He thought about it for a few days and told me he wanted a fight."
Teresa's biggest relief is that her husband never tried to escape his depression with drugs.
"It was a struggle," admits Tapia. "Every addict can tell you. I get on my knees and thank God I'm alive after the stuff I've gone through."
Tapia, who owns a $1.7 million home in the New Mexico mountains, still hangs out in Wells Park, but only in an attempt to steer gangbangers away from trouble. After Tapia promised two tickets for Saturday's fight to anyone turning in a gun to the police, 57 weapons were handed over.
Tapia will need the hometown support against Julio, who's 42-1 with 31 knockouts. If he wins, Tapia could land a shootout with HBO poster boy Naseem Hamed or an Ayala rematch. But there is already speculation, even among some of his loyalists, that Tapia is in trouble, that he won't be as effective now that the quest to avenge his mother's murder has ceased providing motivation.
Being doubted, though, is nothing new to him. He wasn't supposed to overcome the white powder, or Danny Romero, or a lot of enemies in between. Maybe it's time to stop underestimating Johnny Tapia's heart. It's been heavy, broken, and has even stopped beating three times. But it hasn't failed him yet.