Sorry end to troubled life of legendary Johnny Tapia

BACK in March 2003, Scott Harrison broke off from his post-fight media conference at the Braehead Arena to accept the congratulations of the diminutive figure who had just entered the room.

Johnny Tapia, at that stage already a three-weight world champion of iconic status, had travelled to Glasgow for a ringside view of Harrison’s emphatic demolition of Wayne McCullough in what was the Scot’s first defence of his WBO featherweight title. Showtime, the US boxing television network, were keen to see a match between Tapia and Harrison happen next.

It was just one of many mooted fights in boxing that failed to materialise. Tapia, whose turbulent life is over at the age of just 45, would in fact never fight for a major title again.

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The man who had the legend “Mi Vida Loca” – my crazy life – tattooed across his torso was found dead at his home in Albuquerque on Sunday night.

If there was a depressing predictability about Tapia’s demise, there was nonetheless an element of surprise that death had finally got the better of a man whose life story was both stranger and more disturbing than the most fanciful Hollywood fiction.

Just six weeks before he made that journey to Scotland, for example, Tapia had collapsed at his home in Las Vegas and was rushed to hospital in a coma. He had overdosed on drugs, not for the first time, and his wife Teresa had to keep yet another bedside vigil as Tapia somehow recovered.

It was just one more chaotic episode in a life which had dealt unimaginable pain and sorrow to the little man from New Mexico from the start. Tapia grew up without a father, having been informed, when he was old enough to enquire, that he was shot dead in a gangland killing while he was still in his mother’s womb.

When he was just eight, he lost his mother too, in a manner responsible for the mental scars which could never heal for the rest of his life. His mother was raped, stabbed 22 times and hanged by a group of assailants who were never brought to justice. Tapia, who heard his mother’s screams that night from inside his grandparents’ house where they lived, was not allowed to visit her in hospital where she clung to life for almost four days before succumbing to her wounds.

Like many lost souls, Tapia found some sanctuary and sense of purpose to his life in a boxing gym. A precocious talent, his amateur career began at the age of 11 and he was a Golden Gloves champion at light-flyweight and flyweight in 1983 and 1985 respectively.

Tapia had a swarming, aggressive style which quickly earned him a large fan base when he turned professional in 1988. Entertainment was guaranteed when Tapia was on a bill but his path to the summit of his sport was never likely to run smooth.

He was banned from boxing for three years in the early 1990s when his cocaine addiction first became public knowledge. In 1993, Tapia overdosed and when his wife arrived at the hospital, she was met by the sight of a priest delivering the last rites at her husband’s bedside. He had been clinically dead for a few minutes before being resuscitated.

In October 1994, his first recovery from his life-threatening demons was sealed when he became a world champion for the first time, stopping Henry Martinez in 11 rounds to life the WBO super-flyweight title.

Tapia successfully defended the crown 10 times over the next two and a half years, boxing providing him with a focus and drive which allowed him to somehow manage his ongoing craving for drugs and often suicidal tendencies.

“I had to stay in the ring, because it is the easiest way for me to stay alive,” he said in an interview in later years.

Tapia added the IBF title to his WBO belt in July 1997 with an attritional 12-round triumph over his local Albuquerque rival Danny Romero and went on to have another seven world title fights, culminating in his success against Manuel Medina for the IBF featherweight crown in April 2002.

But outside the ropes, Tapia’s life remained tumultuous. Two years ago, he discovered that Jerry Padilla, a man he had known all his life, was in fact his birth father. Genetic testing confirmed the news.

“Forty-three years of crying, saying my father was dead,” said Tapia. “And they said my father took off and just left. I had a lot of different situations when they said I never had a father.”

He continued boxing into his 40s, having his last fight in June last year when he recorded his 59th victory in 66 professional contests. But simple statistics can never properly tell the crazy tale of a man who will be mourned by boxing aficionados everywhere.