May Johnny Tapia rest in peace

A gregarious but troubled five-time champion's tumultuous life ended too soon

Updated: May 30, 2012, 7:46 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Johnny Tapia himself often said he was surprised that he had lived past age 40. So when he died Sunday night at his house in his beloved hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., at age 45, it should not have come as a surprise to anybody.

It was sad, but not a surprise.

Tapia was haunted by the demons of his life, and everyone knew it. It is why he had the words "Mi vida loca" -- "My crazy life" in Spanish -- tattooed on his belly. "Mi Vida Loca" was also the name of his 2006 autobiography, in which he recounted his heartbreaking personal story of a deep drug addiction, a possible bipolar disorder and multiple suicide attempts.

[+] EnlargeJonny Tapia
Warren Little/Getty ImagesJohnny Tapia wore his heart on his sleeve and his often tragic story in full view of his adoring fans.

Tapia never got his issues under control despite the best efforts of those around him, including his wife, Teresa, who also served as his manager and with whom he had three children.

In his book, Tapia summed things up, explaining that he had been born on Friday the 13th in February 1967. When he was 8, he saw his mother murdered -- repeatedly stabbed with a screwdriver until she died. He believed his father had been murdered before he was born, only to find out a couple of years ago that he was alive and had just been released from prison.

As a youth, Tapia was forced by uncles to fight older, bigger men. He wrote in his book that he was "raised as a pit bull. Raised to fight to the death."

Tapia was incarcerated multiple times. And on five occasions, he was declared clinically dead from drug overdoses yet managed to cheat death, at least until Sunday.

Through all of the horrific things he endured, and all that he inflicted upon himself with his drug dependency, Tapia became a great fighter. He would say that when he fought, he would envision his opponent as his mother's murderer.

That chilling vision helped make him great. When it comes to picking the best fighter in the history of the junior bantamweight division, which was created in 1980, the discussion really can come down to only two men: Thai legend and International Boxing Hall of Famer Khaosai Galaxy and Tapia.

Someday, Tapia should also take his rightful place in the Hall of Fame. It's just so unfortunate that he won't be there to enjoy the adoration of the crowd that he liked so much.

Tapia wanted to be loved, and he was, in large measure, especially by his Albuquerque fans. He never forgot where he came from.

"With Johnny, the world has lost not just a Hall of Fame boxer but a special person, a fighter in life and in the ring," Teresa Tapia said in a statement, which also noted that results of an autopsy were pending. "I know Johnny will be missed by everyone who ever met him. He was a special light in this world. He loved people so much, made friends with everyone so easily and kept those friends forever. He will remain in our hearts and be missed by all of us very dearly."

Despite Tapia's drug problems -- Teresa found him shooting up drugs in the bathroom on their wedding day -- and lifelong issues that ate away at him, you could not meet a sweeter, gentler soul than Tapia. That's at least how I found him to be the many times we saw each other. He was always generous with a smile and a hug, and he would chatter away at the drop of a hat.

Through all of the horrific things he endured, and all that he inflicted upon himself with his drug dependency, Tapia became a great fighter. He would say that when he fought, he would envision his opponent as his mother's murderer.

I recall once going to a barbecue the night before a big fight in Las Vegas several years ago, and when Tapia arrived he found me talking with my pal Max Kellerman, the HBO broadcaster. Tapia came over and hugged both of us at the same time. It's moments like those that I won't forget.

The last time I saw Tapia was a year ago, during the week of the Manny Pacquiao-Shane Mosley fight at the MGM Grand. Showtime, which was doing the fight on pay-per-view and had a long history with Tapia during his heyday -- the network had him under a multifight contract and televised many of his bouts -- had brought him to the fight to do some fun interviews for its website coverage of the event.

So I found myself in the media center one day being interviewed by Tapia about the fight, when normally I would be the one interviewing him.

Whenever I would see Tapia, I always thought of one thing: Would this be the last time I ever saw him? It turned out on this occasion that it was.

He may be gone, but his accomplishments will not be forgotten.

After a strong amateur career, he turned pro in 1988. Tapia (59-5-2, 30 KOs) would go on to win five world titles in three weight divisions -- junior bantamweight, bantamweight and featherweight -- and usually put on an entertaining show despite the constant turmoil he was in.

Whether he was throwing a million punches, dancing around in the ring or displaying his animated body language between rounds in the corner -- where he would inevitably find the television camera, turn to it and give a shout-out to his grandparents or Albuquerque -- he was always exciting to watch, even though he wasn't a big knockout puncher.

After being out of the ring for 3½ years, suspended over his cocaine use -- he didn't fight from late 1990 until early 1994 -- Tapia returned and eventually won his first world title, knocking out Henry Martinez in the 11th round in Albuquerque to win the vacant WBO 115-pound crown.

Tapia would go on to make 13 defenses, including the biggest win of his career -- a decision in a WBO/IBF title unification bout with bitter crosstown Albuquerque rival Danny Romero.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Tapia
Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty ImagesJohnny Tapia, right, wasn't a knockout puncher, but he put on good fights and entertained with his engaging style.

Their rivalry was so divisive in their community that the fight wound up being held in Las Vegas because of security concerns in their hometown, although Tapia and Romero went on to put their bad blood behind them in recent years.

Tapia beat Nana Konadu for the WBA bantamweight title in 1998, but lost it to Paulie Ayala by disputed decision in the 1999 fight of the year. Tapia rebounded to win another bantamweight belt, the WBO version, in his next fight, outpointing Jorge Elicier Julio in 2000 before losing another close decision later in the year in a nontitle rematch with Ayala.

Tapia was considered by most to be past his prime in 2002 when he got an opportunity to fight Manuel Medina, a tricky veteran, for the IBF featherweight belt at the Madison Square Garden Theater in New York. In the only New York appearance of his career, Tapia won a majority decision to claim his final title. I covered that fight and remember seeing Tapia celebrating with tears in his eyes because he was overjoyed to have won another world title.

He never defended the belt, and his career mostly went downhill from there. He had given up the title for a big payday against Marco Antonio Barrera, a fight he lost by lopsided decision.

Tapia continued to fight well beyond his best days and, in fact, was riding a four-fight winning streak against modest competition. His final win came last June when he outpointed long-faded former junior flyweight titlist Mauricio Pastrana in Albuquerque. I thought for sure that Tapia would fight again before too long.

When fighters get old, there is usually an outcry for them to retire. I never felt that way about Tapia. I figured he should fight for as long as he possibly could. Boxing was the only thing that gave his life structure, and he would often say that the only place he was ever really at peace was, ironically, in the ring during the chaos of a fight.

I hope, now that he has left us, that he has found eternal peace.