Johnny Tapia, who won five world titles in three weight classes during a 23-year pro boxing career, was found dead at his home in Albuquerque on Sunday, May 27. He was 45 years old.
Boxing fans will remember Tapia not just for his energetic, exciting style in the ring, or for his time in the upper echelon of the sport, but also for being one of boxing's most colorful characters -- as well as one of its most tragic. Tapia's entire life was a whirlwind, starting with his father being murdered before he was born and his mother murdered when he was a child, abducted before his very eyes.
At nine, boxing came into his life. And he credited the sport with saving it many times over. He turned pro in 1988, at the age of 21, and in 1994 won his first world title, the WBO super flyweight belt. He defended that title ten times before unifying it with the IBF belt, and he defended those two belts twice more, before moving up to bantamweight in December 1998.
Tapia won the WBA bantamweight strap in his first "real" fight at the weight, losing the belt to Paulie Ayala in his first defense. Straight away, he fought for and won the WBO bantamweight belt. He and Ayala met again in October 2000, with Tapia unable to make weight, coming in six pounds heavy. Ayala beat him again by decision.
Still, "Mi Vida Loca" wasn't quite done, beating Manuel Medina for the IBF featherweight belt in 2002, though that decision was disputed by many. He vacated the title for a fight with true division champion Marco Antonio Barrera, losing a clear decision that same year.
After that, Tapia's career was never really the same, and he never again competed at the top level. He went 7-2 for the rest of his career, which spanned from 2003 until June of 2011, when he fought for the final time, beating Mauricio Pastrana over eight rounds in Albuquerque.
His final career is 59 wins, 5 losses, and 2 draws, with 30 wins by knockout. He was only stopped once, an impressive feat given how many good fighters he took on over his career.
Outside of the ring, people said there were two Johnny Tapias. The Johnny Tapia who was free from the influences of drugs was one of the true nice guys, a fun-loving, jovial, jokester who loved what boxing had given him, and loved to be around the sport. Then there was the Tapia who was drug-addled. Not the same guy.
Police say they do not suspect foul play in the case, and the cause of death is not yet reported. Tapia did attempt suicide in 1999, overdosing on drugs, and also overdosed in 2007.
He had most recently popped up in the boxing world as an interviewer working for Showtime, which he seemed to enjoy greatly. Tapia spoke with both Victor Ortiz and Andre Berto ahead of their original February fight date earlier this year.
Our own Matt Mosley reviewed Tapia's book Mi Vida Loca in November of last year. Here's a quick excerpt from the intro, from Johnny himself:
My name is Johnny Lee Tapia. I was born on Friday the 13th.
A Friday in February of 1967.
To this day I don't know if that makes me lucky or unlucky.
When I was eight I saw my mother murdered.
I never knew my father.
He was murdered before I was born.
I was raised as a pit bull.
Raised to fight to the death.
Four times I was declared dead.
Four times they wanted to pull life support.
And many more times I came close to dying.
But I have lived and had it all.
I have been wealthy and lost it all.
I have been famous and infamous.
Five times I was world champion.
You tell me. Am I lucky or unlucky?
Matt said of him at the time, "The ring seems to be one of the few places where he can find happiness in his life." I would have to guess that was true.
Johnny Tapia was one hell of a fighter, in and out of the ring. Boxing will genuinely miss one of its true characters. Rest in peace, Johnny, from all of us at Bad Left Hook.