All Heart

Johnny Tapia Fights Again . . . for His Career, for His Life

The toughest fighter you've never heard of is at the crossroads. When Johnny Tapia answers the bell on Saturday for his 50th pro bout, he'll be a month shy of 33, an age at which most 118-pound boxers have exchanged the gym bag and jump rope for an AARP card and Geritol. Tapia will be coming off his only career loss, albeit controversial and unjust. And he'll be trying to reassure the executives of Showtime, which is televising his fight, that he's still the same showman who talks directly to the TV camera between rounds, executes celebratory backflips, and once kissed a rival during battle.

None of that, however, is what makes Saturday the most important night of Tapia's career, a 12-year gut-wrenching drama that could be entitled The Bantam of the Opera. The significance of his showdown with Colombia's Jorge Eliecer Julio in Albuquerque is that it's going to reveal just how badly Tapia's brain has been scrambled.

Scrambled not by the rigors of combat, considering that most of his 49 foes never even hit the defensively proficient Tapia solidly, but by the past six months. A period of time that saw Tapia lapse into a deep depression, stop talking to those closest to him, spend days at a time staring into space in his darkened bedroom, and contemplate giving up his livelihood.

Tapia is a two-time world champion who is headed to the hall of fame one day, but he could just as easily be in prison, a psychiatric hospital, or a coffin. Even for boxing, where there are as many wild survival tales as there are spitbuckets, Tapia's life story is incredible.

"A nightmare," says Tapia. "Tragedy after tragedy. I've been to hell and back."

Tapia has no idea who his father is, and he was only eight when his mother was brutally murdered on May 23, 1975. Richard "Mustang" Espinosa, a man Virginia Tapia had been dating, killed the 32-year-old woman in a rock quarry outside of Albuquerque. Contradictory autopsies and police reports, and the severity of her wounds, make it unclear exactly what happened. Virginia may have been raped, and was possibly hung. What's certain is that she was stabbed at least 21 times with an ice pick or screwdriver, and she staggered and crawled over 100 yards before dying. Virginia wasn't identified until three days later, when family members recognized her jewelry in newspaper photos.

Espinosa was considered a suspect in 1975, but was never charged. After an appeal from Tapia to the Bernalillo County (New Mexico) sheriff's department, the case was reopened in 1997, and in June 1999, Tapia learned that the crime had been solved. Sadly, the news that was supposed to provide closure only filled him with despair. That's because he also found out that Espinosa had been hit by a car and killed in 1983.

"I'm happy he's dead. But it hurts so bad that I can't do anything about it," says Tapia. "There's so much anger inside. I stillthink about killing him. If he was walking the streets, I'd be going to prison for life."

Revenge. It's the code Tapia lived by growing up on gang turf in the Wells Park section of Albuquerque. "Street fighting," he says, "is all I ever did." That, and frustrating the grim reaper. When Tapia was seven, a field trip from the local community center to Los Alamos ended with the bus plunging 80 feet down a cliff. Tapia watched in horror as the pregnant woman next to him flew out a window and was crushed against a tree. At age nine, Tapia was bathing in the Rio Grande and was swept away by the current. A border patrolman rescued him.

When Tapia got older, the near-fatal accidents came in the form of overdoses from a combination of cocaine and heroin. He had begun boxing when he was 11, eventually winning two National Golden Gloves titles as an amateur, and turning pro in 1988. But not even the thrill of a 20-0-1 record in his first 21 pro outings could keep him off drugs. He was suspended after testing positive for cocaine following a 1990 fight, and sidelined for three-and-a-half years.

Tapia spent much of that time on the streets, getting high. On three occasions, he overdosed and was considered clinically dead before being revived.

"A minute and three seconds, a minute and 17 seconds, and 47 seconds," his wife, Teresa, says, as though reciting the times of his most impressive first-round knockouts.

Teresa first dated Tapia in January 1993, after he had just gotten out of jail for DWI. (His rap sheet includes everything from assault to intimidating a witness in a murder trial.) Two months later, he proposed to her. Within three hours of Teresa saying yes, Tapia had finalized the wedding plans.

"We got married three days later," says Teresa. "He knew if I had time to think, I'd back out."

Many times she wished she had. On their wedding night, Tapia left their hotel room, disappeared with Teresa's car, and didn't return for two weeks.

"His pattern was, home for days, gone for a month," says Teresa. "I'd find him under bridges. Who knows what this guy's been through. Some things I still don't know. I was embarrassed, so I protected him. That's how it is with Hispanic women."

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.

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