This is a terrific article that long time associate editor, Katherine Dunn, wrote as a Playboy feature back in 2003. It was later featured in the outstanding compendium of her work: "One Ring Circus: Dispatches From The World of Boxing.
The desert siege ended after the Mohave County Sheriff’s Deputies backed an armored truck up to the house trailer outside Kingman, Arizona, hooked a tow rope to the door, and yanked it open. It was the summer of 2002 when that trailer was surrounded by cops with drawn guns.
Inside, the five-time world champion, boxer Johnny Tapia was holed up with two of his cousins. The police were after one of the cousins, Raymond “Bones” Whiting, who was wanted on aggravated assault and car-jacking charges. When the woman driver resisted his demands he tried to cut her throat. Johnny Tapia was involved because Bones, already a convicted murderer, came to Tapia’s luxurious Las Vegas home asking for help. Without hesitation, Tapia went on the run with him, ending at this trailer where yet another of their cousins lived. The Sheriffs’ office got a tip that a BMW with Nevada plates was parked in front of the trailer, and surrounded the place.
For close to an hour the deputies used a loud speaker repeatedly to order the occupants to come out with their hands up. Faces could be seen popping up in the windows to look out from time to time, but there was no other response from the trailer. Inside, Johnny Tapia, phoned his wife, Teresa, back home in Las Vegas, and told her what was happening. Teresa jumped into a car and drove hard for the Arizona border. Once the door had been popped open, the stand off ended with neither blood nor bullets. The three men surrendered, emerging one at a time to be handcuffed and taken into custody. “Thank god there were no guns in the house,” says Johnny Tapia.
News footage shows a dejected Tapia in baggy jeans and t-shirt sitting with his hands cuffed behind him on the running board of the armored truck as gray clad deputies hustle by.
Whiting was routed to trial and prison, but Tapia was released the same day. Teresa picked him up and drove him back to Las Vegas but the drama was far from over. Tapia, upset about his cousin’s arrest, called a newspaper reporter, insisting that no flight charges should be filed against Whiting. That he, Tapia, had taken Whiting to Arizona against his will and was ready to be charged with kidnapping. He admits now that he had been using cocaine recklessly for days. At home, late that night, Johnny Tapia collapsed from a drug overdose and was hospitalized, unconscious and on life support.
Boxing trainer Freddie Roach visited him in the Las Vegas hospital and was frightened by what he saw. “He didn’t respond even when they were sticking needles in him…. He was like a corpse lying there.”
His future had the bleak look that prompts newspapers to update their file obituaries, and TV networks to edit potential memorial footage. The hospital was bombarded with so many calls from fans, friends and media that a special Tapia information phone line was installed. By his wife Teresa’s count, this was the fourth time that Johnny Tapia has been technically, however briefly, dead from a drug overdose.
After 36 hours, Tapia woke up. Medical tests showed no sign of damage to his brain or heart. Two days later he checked himself into an intensive drug rehabilitation center. When he’d completed the standard three-week course, he re-upped and stayed on. As of August, the 36 year-old Tapia was announcing his eighth month of clean sobriety. He was training for a return to the ring, and a return to his beloved hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. His wife says, “He’s a changed man.”
His motto, “Mi Vida Loca”, is tattooed across his waist and announced like a title when he enters the ring. His crazy life is a modern werewolf tale. When he’s good, Johnny Tapia is very good-- a dynamically disciplined and ferociously determined fighter who has held five world titles in three different weight divisions. Now in the twilight of his boxing career at the age of 36, he’s considered a future shoo-in for the Boxing Hall of Fame. He’s a class act in a grimy sport, a generous and engaging showman, a loving husband and father. Kids, dogs and little old ladies adore him.
But when the drug lust rises in Johnny Tapia, things go strange and bad. His life outside the ring is riddled by overdoses and tangles with the law. In recent years he has been diagnosed as bi-polar and hospitalized more than once for suicidal depressions. Half laughing, he counts on his fingers the mood stabilizers his doctors have tried to deal with his depression and life-long hyperactive/attention deficit disorder. Ridilin (sp) when he was a kid, of course. More recently Labutrin(sp), Depakote (sp), Lithium, Zoloft, his fingers peel back one at a time. The most recent prescription is, he says “helping me a little bit.” His history of police reports is in a three-ring binder in their home office, and the collection runs to 125 pages. Though his friends are pulling for him to succeed in life as he has in the ring, the darkness often seems as inexorable as the cycles of the werewolf’s moon.
Tapia has been in a dozen rehabs before, often under court orders. This time is different, he says. “ I wanted to do it. The other times I was forced to go in.”
HBO Real Sports taped a segment with Tapia while he was still in rehab. “I don’t cheat on my wife,” Tapia said. “Cocaine is my mistress.”
But that last little death was “terrible, terrible,” he says. “I’ve used up my nine lives. Next time it’s for good. I want to live with my wife and my family.”
Boxing trainer Freddie Roach, who has worked with many champions including Tapia, says “Johnny is the best boxer in the world.” He’s a fine technician, with a fencing masters’ perfect balance and surgical accuracy. He’s fast and smart and bewilderingly hard to hit. If he can’t get you one way he’ll pull fifty other tactics out of his arsenal. But what elevates him in the hearts of fans is that if he does get hit his every instinct is to fire back more and harder. He can beat you boxing, but if you push him past that icy composure, he’ll brawl nose-to-nose until blood splatters the ceiling or the bell rings, whichever comes first. The more you hurt Johnny Tapia the more fight you’ve got on your hands.
He’s had his nose broken a couple of dozen times and some of the scars around his eyes came from cuts in the ring. He’s had three surgeries on his left shoulder, the most recent just after his November, 2002 loss to Marco Antonio Barrera. His voice has that breathy boxers’ squeak that suggests punches to the larynx. But his hands, his weapons, have never been injured. He can’t tell you what miracle has allowed him to abuse his body so brutally and yet come back again and again to world class condition. “It’s just a blessing,” he says.
In the ring he wears black with silver trim and tuxedo dignity. He is a gracious sportsman. No trash talk from Johnny Tapia. He respects his opponents, and by the end of the fight he loves them. He touches gloves in salute before the round; apologizes instantly for any inadvertent foul. He hugs his opponent at the final bell, chats away with him before the decision is announced or consoles him if he’s been stopped early. Unless he thinks you fouled him on purpose. Then he retaliates with vicious skill.
He’s a showman, of course. His friend, sports agent Bob Case says, “When Johnny enters a room, the lights blink.” But his show is a complicated blend of honesty, energy and humility. He’ll tell the worst to anyone who asks—what he was jailed for, why he was hallucinating, neither bragging nor apologizing, just stating facts. His wife has given up urging him to be discreet. He says,”There’s no use trying to hide what’s in the papers anyway. If they don’t like the way I really am, they don’t like me.” But he clearly wants to be liked. Tapia never stints on autographs, makes every hail or handshake a personal experience. He’s as interested in you as you are in him. In the ring, between rounds he’ll spot the red eye of the TV camera zooming in and send a sweaty message to his hometown. “Albuquerque, I love you!“ The town’s area code, 505 is embroidered on the waistband of his trunks.
Cynics swap bets on the when and how of Tapias’ next dance with the reaper. His fans say “He’s a great fighter. He should retire. But when he does he’ll die. Boxing is all that’s keeping him alive. “
Tapia disagrees. Obviously he exults in boxing. But Johnny Tapia will tell you flatly that it’s his wife, Teresa, who keeps him alive.
“If my wife ever left me, I’d be dead in a month. Maybe six weeks if I was lucky.”
His eyes slide sideways, checking her reaction. She doesn’t smile.
The Partners—Team Tapia
They go everywhere together. After 11 hurricane years of marriage, they hold hands, whisper, and gossip. She goes to training camp when he prepares for fights. When he diets, she diets. She doesn’t like to go shopping without him. He has to know where she is, dashing into their home office to check on her two or three times an hour. “Tree,” he calls her, and the house rings with “Tree! I’ve gotta tell you something!”, or “Tree, come and see this!” She is his wife and nurse, his business and boxing manager. She is also his chief bodyguard. When he slips away from her, it is for bingeing catastrophes.
According to Tapia, his friends, and reporters who have covered him for more than a decade, Johnny doesn’t mess around on his wife. Dennis Latta of the Albuquerque Journal says Tapia “is an addictive personality. Whatever he does, he does a hundred percent, and Teresa is his drug of choice.” Tapia’s long-time friend, sports agent Bob Case, says he’s been with Johnny in many circumstances without Teresa and that the fighter just doesn’t do that. “I’ve seen women mob him, want him to autograph their breasts….he does not.” Case has worked with athletes in many fields. “The hardest part about being in baseball,” he says,” is trying to explain to your wife why she had to get a penicillin shot for your arthritis. I’ve been around athletes and Johnny Tapia is the only public figure I’ve seen that doesn’t screw around on his wife.
They are fire and water opposites. Johnny is jolting energy, raw emotion and fun. Teresa is quiet, stoic, focused on work and responsibility. He thrives in the limelight. She likes to engineer events behind the scenes and watch them unfold. He’s a physical dynamo with the reflexes of a mongoose. She lives in mental hyper-drive. “Johnny brings all the fun into my life,” she says. “I’d just be a workaholic without him. He’ll do something silly to make me laugh and then say, “now was that so hard?” “She reads all the time,” he says, pointing at the wall of books in the office. He’s a TV news freak, eager to talk about the latest kinks in Korean relations or the NBA draft. They both grew up in Spanish speaking households. “I can get by in Spanglish,” says Tapia, “Teresa understands it better, but I speak it more easily.” She graduated from high school honors classes. He graduated in what one reporter calls “special ed.” She says in many ways he’s the smartest man she’s ever met. He’s known for how rapidly he learns new boxing moves in the gym. He’s a people reader, taking in enormously varied information at a tremendous rate. “He can walk into a crowded restaurant,” says Teresa,” and in one minute tell you who everybody is. People he never met, he can tell you who they are—an undercover cop, a pimp, a drug dealer. A good guy or a jerk. He takes it all in while I’m oblivious. He remembers everybody’s name. He remembers dates. He doesn’t like it when I don’t remember our anniversaries.”
She wanted to be a Russian language interpreter so she could see the inside workings of world affairs. “I never dreamed I’d be in the boxing business,” she says.
He never dreamed of anything else.
MI VIDA LOCA
HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant says Tapia was “a 5 to1 underdog to survive his own childhood.” He never knew his father who he believes was murdered before Johnny was born in 1967 in Albuquerque. He was diagnosed early as hyperactive with attention deficit, but he was tough. At the age of seven he survived when the excursion bus he was riding in roared off a hundred-foot cliff. He was thrown free, suffering only minor injuries, while the pregnant woman sitting next to him was killed.
When Johnny was 8 years old, his mother , Virginia, was brutally beaten and stabbed 26 times with a screwdriver. She managed to crawl out of the quarry where she’d been abandoned before collapsing near a street light, where she was discovered. Johnny believes that he woke that night and saw her being hauled away, chained in the back of a truck, but when he ran to tell his grandparents, they thought he was dreaming and told him to go back to bed. What is documented in the records is that she spent four days in a coma in the hospital before she died. Her family found her on the second day when an article describing her as a Jane Doe appeared in the local paper. Johnny was not allowed to visit her in the hospital, which grieves him even now. ”I never got to say goodbye. I never got to say I love you.” The murderer was never caught and the specter of his mother still haunts Tapia’s black depressions nearly thirty years later.
Idolizing his mother, Tapia doesn’t like profanity in front of women, and his friend Bob Case believes it shapes Tapia’s general attitude toward women.
”Johnny fired a world class trainer because the trainer was talking about banging some broad and that he had a golden shower on the woman. Johnny fired him. Johnny doesn’t want to hear degrading talk about women because of what happened to his mother, his background.”
Virginia’s parents adopted Johnny. His grandfather was a former amateur boxer and a city employee. There were fourteen children in the original family, and the grandparents also raised ten of their grandchildren. “In a three bedroom house,” he points out. “He deserves respect for providing for us all.”
Young Johnny’s world was an intense environment with powerful themes—family loyalty, fighting, and drugs. Tapia refers to all of his grandparents’ children and grandchildren as his brothers and sisters. Some are aunts and uncles, some cousins. One of Tapia’s brothers is currently in prison for stabbing another brother to death. Back in 1992, Johnny was tried and acquitted on charges of intimidating a witness in the murder case for which Raymond “Bones” Whiting was convicted. Counting off the names on his fingers, Tapia confirms that they have all spent or are spending time in prison. “Every one. It’s all drugs,” he says.
His uncles found it entertaining to make the small boy sniff paint till he was dizzy and sick. He was sent out to steal syringes and he watched people tie off and fire up.
Overdoses were so common there was a standard routine for tossing the unconscious into the shower and turning on cold water to revive them (Latta). Though his grandparents were aware of the drugs surrounding them, Johnny says it was never done in their face, “out of respect for them.”
When Johnny was 9 his uncles would set him out in the playground to take on all comers—age 8 to 15. “If he won” Teresa says,” He’d get the pride of winning, them being proud of him, and a dollar.” If he lost “I’d get my butt whipped,” says Johnny. “It was just one of the challenges I had to overcome to be allowed to hang with the big boys. I had to learn to fight for the family.” Bob Case calls it the equivalent of cockfighting and believes the uncles were betting on him.
The Tapia uncles and cousins boxed as amateurs, just as the grandfather had in his youth. When Johnny’s grandfather noticed his street fighting skills he had the boy join the boxing program at Wells Park Community Center.
The first time he sparred was with a more experienced kid who hit him and hurt him. “I kicked him where it counts and the coach threw me out of the gym and said come back when you really want to learn how to fight. I came back and went on boxing and went undefeated for five or six years.”
A strict coach and the attention of his grandfather kept him interested. He went to the boxing gym to train, then home for more training with his grandfather. He studied video-tapes of fighters he admires: Sugar Ray Leonard, Julio Cesar Chavez, Roberto Duran, Salvador Sanchez, and others. “I’d watch some move and then go try it out on the water bag, thinking how do you do this?..I was training, training all the time. Following in my Grampa’s footsteps. He’d been a coal miner and he had black lung, but he’d get me up early in the morning and go running with me.” Now Tapia thinks he stunted his growth by all the dieting to make weight as a kid.
Over the next 9 years he racked up an amateur record of 150 wins and 12 losses. Fighting in the 112 pound Junior Fly division, he won the National Golden Gloves, PAL and Jr. Olympic championships. He met future heavyweight champ Mike Tyson at a national tournament and the two became friends. Tyson told HBO Real Sports, “I have so much love and respect for this guy. I think he’s one of the greatest fighters that ever lived.”
Albuquerque has no major league sports, and the success of the local boy made Tapia a celebrity. The influential Maloof family of New Mexico, owners of Coors Beer among other enterprises, sponsored him. When his amateur career ended in 1986, he went to work as a distributor for Coors beer in Albuquerque.
None of the Tapia s had ever boxed professionally. Johnny wanted to take boxing “to another level.” In 1988, Joe Maloof referred him to manager and trainer Paul Chavez and Tapia turned pro at the age of 21. Fighting 7 or 8 times a year as a flyweight, Tapia stormed the division, winning the USBA Flyweight title. He had a promotional contract with boxing power house Top Rank. He was being offered soft drink commercials and other endorsements.
Tapia says he never did drugs while he was an amateur, “Because I wanted to be champion of the world and I wanted my Grampa to be proud of me.” But from ’88 on “it was an on and off thing.” In 1990 Tapia was undefeated in 22 pro bouts when the drugs caught up with him. He tested positive for cocaine three times and was banned from the sport until he could clean himself up. “I was out for three years and seven months. That was the worst time of my life. Then I came back and won the championship of the world five times.”
HOW HE CAME BACK
Teresa Chavez was born to a close-knit, hard working Albuquerque family in 1971. She spent a strictly supervised adolescence in California and returned to Albuquerque after high school. She had a good job doing clerical work for the state when, in 1992, she first ran into Tapia at a party. He approached her and she brushed him off. “I had no idea who Johnny Tapia was,” she says. The snub only challenged him. He kept cropping up. He went out of his way to meet and befriend one of her brothers. He started hanging out with her cousins. “My grandmother had known him for years,” says Teresa, “because one of his favorite things was going to the Senior Center to dance with the old ladies. They were friends.”
Stubborn, with her own rebellious streak, Teresa was uninterested until Tapia arranged for her and a group of friends to get into a local bar though they were all still under the drinking age. That night, her older brother Robert told her to stay away from Tapia, that he was a junkie and nothing but trouble. “I looked at Johnny with new respect, after that,” admits Teresa.
He had no job. He was homeless and living on the street. Teresa says one way he made money was fighting in the back rooms and beer coolers of bars. “The only rule was that no guns were allowed. He’d sit me in a booth and tell me to wait. He’d come back after a while looking roughed up with a case of beer under one arm and some money.”
Her mother adored him. Her grandmother let him live in her house. He begged Teresa to marry him until the older women got sick of hearing it and told her to say yes just to shut him up. The day of their 1993 wedding Teresa opened a bathroom door and caught Johnny with a needle in his arm. “It was a slap in the face. Reality.” She says. Her bridal night was spent alone in a sleazy motel. He said he had to make a phone call, took her car and didn’t come back.
The next morning her mother found her and rushed her to the hospital where Johnny was lying in a coma from a drug over-dose. He woke up, ripped the tubes out of his arms and ran out of the hospital with the gown flapping over his bare butt. He thought the cops were coming for him. Teresa drove around the hospital until he came out of hiding, then took him home to nurse him back to health.
There was a pattern. He’d disappear on a drug binge, come back days or weeks later, sick and malnourished, to be nursed back to health. Then he’d do it again. She tried moving him out of Albuquerque to a small town nearby. She went to Mexico with him where his grandparents paid to have a witch pray over him. In their first year together she had two miscarriages and decided not to try for children again. Her mother and grandmother urged her to stay with Johnny, insisting that he was fundamentally good.
Furious, Teresa got her own apartment and worked two jobs, focused on saving money, getting a divorce and starting over. Johnny was in jail and phoning constantly but she refused to take his calls. His manager, Paul Chavez begged her to take Johnny back when he got out. Tapia could fight again if he could get clean, but he had easy access to drugs in jail. Teresa told Chavez to take Johnny into his own house to clean him up. “He said what if he robs me? Or kills me? It was obviously OK if Johnny robbed or killed me.”
She finally agreed to do it on her own terms. Her small apartment had iron bars on all the windows and the door. Johnny had to agree to be locked in for two months. She’d saved enough money to quit her jobs and lock herself in with him. Her mother brought food daily and shoved it through the bars of the window. The first weeks were horrific with Tapia raging, or weeping, begging pathetically for at least a beer. “We hated each other,” says Teresa. At one point he smashed a big mirror, swinging it at her, and she stabbed him in the leg with one of the shards. After a quick trip to an emergency room for stitches, they locked themselves in again.
The fourth week, she says, “We actually started talking. Finding out a lot about each other and feelings that he had of inadequacy as an adult that stems back to childhood problems.” He began to get in physical shape, running in place and doing jumping jacks and sit-ups and pushups in the apartment. “He started to transform into this awesome human being. That’s when I fell in love with him. Because I knew there was a good person under there, and he didn’t mind it anymore that we were locked in. He actually liked the idea.” After eight weeks he started training for a fight. She would let him out for an hour in the morning to go running with Chavez, then again for two hours in the afternoon to go to the gym with Chavez.”
In March of 1994, Tapia and his trainer flew to Oklahoma for his first legal fight in years. Teresa drove with relatives to see her husband fight for the first time. Though she had watched big boxing events on television with her father, Teresa had never seen a live match. She was terrified. On the phone before the fight she cried and begged him not to go through with it. “I told him,What if your body can’t take it? I’ll support us. You don’t have to do this. I got him emotional and he said no, no, you can’t do this to me. I need a clear mind. I can do it. Don’t worry. Then I realized I probably was doing something to him mentally so I said OK, I’m sorry. I know you’ll do good.”
Johnny knocked out Jaime Olvera in the fourth round. Teresa was crying in the audience. He fought nearly once a month after that. In July he won the North American Boxing Federation championship, stopping his opponent in the third round.
“He got paid ten thousand for that fight...one of his biggest paydays at that time,” Says Teresa. “After the managers’ cut, we had seven thousand left. We were going to pay bills.” The couple stopped for lunch and Johnny began to pick at Teresa, deliberately trying to set off an argument. He’d been clean for seven months and she says she had forgotten the signs that he wanted to use again. Back on the road he pulled over, pushed her out, and drove off. Then he made a U-turn and came back. She expected him to invite her back into the car. Instead, he grabbed her purse, took out all the money, threw the purse down and drove off again. She made her way home by bus. The next morning she turned on the television news and learned that he and a pal had been arrested for offering to sell cocaine to an off-duty police officer. The product turned out to be laundry detergent rather than cocaine. Teresa bailed him out and cleaned him up again.
The pattern was set. “Every three or four months,” says Teresa, “He’d slip up. He’d take off. I wouldn’t see him or hear from him. Didn’t know where he was. But in the ring there was nobody who could touch him. “
. In October of ‘’94 he won his first world title, the World Boxing Organization championship, in his home town. Johnny cried for joy in the ring when he won.
In 1995 he was training for a tough defense of his world title against Olympian Arthur Johnson. One of Teresa’s brothers was in the hospital recovering from an overdose of drugs and she had been spending days and nights in the hospital. She came home to find Johnny gone. According to the police reports, he showed up raving at 5 a.m.,and threatened Teresa with a gun, accusing her of having an affair with his longtime cross-town boxing rival, Danny Romero. He shoved her around and, when she went to call the police, he left the gun behind and ran away. She filed charges against him. The police couldn’t find him and he came back later that day, claiming not to remember what he’d done.
Their lawyer made a deal that Johnny wouldn’t have to appear in court until after the big fight. He squeaked by with a majority win over Johnson. Then, with the check for his sixty thousand dollar share of the 100,000 purse, Tapia disappeared again. He had to be in court the following week. He surfaced again in a hospital. Someone had driven up to the emergency room door and thrown him out onto the pavement. Overdosed again. As soon as he woke and was released, he disappeared again.
He’d had several stints of county jail in the past, but Tapia was now facing the possibility of serious prison time. Desperate, Teresa went to Judge Frank Allen, who would hear the case. The judge laid out the requirements-- get Tapia out of the state and put him into rehab and probation programs. He didn’t want to see or hear about him any more. Top Rank, Johnny’s promoter, put Teresa in touch with Oscar De La Hoya, who had a mountain training camp in Big Bear, California. “De La Hoya said bring Johnny to Big Bear. My trainer will train Johnny for you. He can train at my gym. We’ll help you make arrangements. You can get a temporary house. Oscar was great.” She lined up the necessary treatment programs in the vicinity. It was all done without Johnny’s knowledge.
Fearing that Tapia would miss a court appearance during his latest binge, she tracked him down and tricked him into returning home with her. When they arrived, her family and Johnny’s doctor were waiting in the living room. They physically held him down while the doctor administered a tranquilizer that put Tapia to sleep. With the doctor monitoring his condition, they kept Tapia tranquilized for days, allowing him to emerge foggily for the court appearance and then putting him back to sleep again. They packed without his noticing. Teresa, her mother and her brother put him in a car and took off for California with Tapia drugged. When he woke enough to eat, they drugged his food. He was still asleep when they arrived at the house in Big Bear and carried him up to the second floor bedroom. His house in Albuquerque was all on one floor. Teresa stopped medicating him and he woke up in the middle of the night and fell down the stairs. “He was screaming and yelling, Teresa, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m hallucinating so bad I see places I’ve never seen before.”
For a solid month Tapia was angry at what she had done and hated the exile from Albuquerque. Then he decided to be a good sport about it. “Oscar was a very good influence on Johnny,” says Teresa. “He would tell him you have a lot of talent, you have to do the right things, especially being Hispanic we’ve got to get ahead in life here. We have more to prove because we are Hispanic.”
Tapia had been using the ring name, “The Baby Faced Assassin”, but the years and the scars were draining the juice from that moniker. It was De La Hoya and his trainer Roberto Alcazar who gave Tapia his new name. “Whenever I walked into the gym,” Johnny says, “ they’d say ah, mi vida loca! Because I was so crazy all the time.”
The eighteen months of court supervised exile from New Mexico kept Tapia clean, fighting regularly, and taking frequent drug screens. When there was a bout in New Mexico he had to ask permission from the court and file a detailed in and out flight plan.
By the time the restrictions ended, Tapia had his own gym and house in Big Bear and stayed on. But the binges began again. Teresa tells of a period when Tapia was taking methamphetamine instead of his usual cocaine. A winter blizzard had shut down the roads and snowed them in. Johnny was strange and he wouldn’t sleep. “ I tried to stay awake to watch him. I was afraid. What if he wandered out into the snow and froze?” She finally dozed off and woke to find him leaning over her bed with an unblinking stare and a hammer in his hand. “I was afraid to make a sudden move. Johnny’s never hit me,” Teresa says. “He’s maybe shoved me or pulled my arm when he was high. But this was different.” She slid out the other side of the bed, grabbed her Bible in case he was possessed by demons, and threw a pillow at him. “He kind of came out of it,” she says. “ He looked at the hammer as though he didn’t know what it was, and dropped it.” With him hunched on the floor, staring at nothing, she took the hammer, gathered all the knives in the kitchen, wrapped everything in a sheet and hid it under the snow behind the house. When he came out of it he didn’t remember a thing.
The Tapias bought their townhouse in Las Vegas several years ago, returning to Big Bear to train for fights.
The 1995 spiriting of Johnny to Big Bear ended his relationship with his long time manager and trainer. Paul Chavez was of the old No Women In Boxing school, which riled Teresa from the start. Then Chavez refused to handle Tapia from long distance, or come to Big Bear when Tapia was preparing for bouts. “He was jealous of my wife, “ says Johnny. “She was learning more and more about the business and he didn’t like it. But he died a couple of years ago. Cancer. May he rest in peace.”.
Chavez insisted on enforcing his long term contract and went on taking the thirty percent manager’s cut and the ten percent trainers fee from all Tapia purses until a few years ago. Teresa says Chavez collected more than $400,000 from Tapia after they stopped working together.
Teresa became Johnny’s manager. She negotiates contracts with promoters and television networks, accepts or rejects bouts and opponents, and handles all business affairs. The quiet housewife goes head to head with powerful businessmen, alone. “Johnny always waits outside or in another room,” she explains.” Fighters never sit in when contracts are being negotiated because it would hurt them. They are talked about like meat.”
The first time she asked a promoter for higher pay, she meekly backed down and took Johnny the original contract. “He said don’t you believe in me? Don’t you believe I’m worth more? I said, of course I do. That’s when I realized I had to fight for him.” In the years since, Teresa has worked with a half dozen promoters, including Bob Arum and Don King, and earned a reputation as a tough, smart deal-maker. Johnny won four of his five world titles under her management.
She watches tapes of prospective opponents. “I might not be a good judge for any other fighter, but I know Johnny’s strengths and I know what to look for,” she says.
Teresa struggles to maintain her calm during bouts. “ He is always looking at me during fights. If I show him a worried expression he gets worried…..When it’s fight time he is not my husband, he is my fighter. I have learned that is the only way to protect us. It’s the wife’s instinct. You want to cuddle them and baby them. You can’t baby a fighter because he is out there putting his life on the line, and he needs every ounce of ferociousness to do what he has to do. I have learned not to hinder that. You have to be strong. You can’t show your fear because he reflects your emotion and absorbs it.”
She seeks information from many sources and experts, but there’s no question who holds the reins of Team Tapia. “I’m very controlling,” she acknowledges. As she prepared to move the family back to Albuquerque, Teresa was making arrangements for Johnny’s training and his scheduled come-back fight. She was also negotiating with producer Jerry Brookheimer and Disney Studios over the rights for a movie of Johnny’s life. There was a book deal in the offing. Meanwhile she was buying and renovating a building in Albuquerque as a boxing gym where Johnny can prepare for fights, and maybe train other fighters in the future. There’s a restaurant and bar business that might be a good investment. She’s considering Tapia cigars, Tapia tequila, a clothing line, and more.
Asked if she can be sure Johnny won’t end up dead broke in a gutter, her eyes flicker darkly. “He might still end up dead in a gutter. But he won’t be broke.”
TAPIA Day Camp
Johnny Tapia doesn’t look doomed on an August afternoon in the blue pool out back of his house in Las Vegas. “It’s the Tapia Men’s Session” he hollers. He and his two adopted sons have already been in the water for hours, easy as otters. Eleven-year old, Salo demonstrates his submarine skills and confides, “My dad’s been teaching me since I was two.” The toddler, Lorenzo charges off the diving board as merrily as his dad and big brother. The session ends in shreiking giggles when Tapia hoists the toddler out and runs in through the patio doors to kneel on the carpet, industriously changing a diaper.
“You know, back in the day,” says Johnny, “I didn’t think I’d ever be a father. Didn’t think I could be a father. I’ve made mistakes…but I’m trying. I like to see them happy. It gets a little rowdy, but what kid doesn’t?”
Would he like his sons to box?
“No.” he says. “I couldn’t stand to see my kids get hit.”
By late afternoon what Teresa calls Tapia Day Camp fills the back yard. A half dozen neighbor kids are splashing in the fenced pool. Johnny and five towering teenagers play blistering basketball. When the teens melt down and head for the pool, Johnny joins the smaller kids on the trampoline, demonstrating moves and then coaching from the side. The children clamor for his attention and he is tireless, or maybe driven. His athlete’s body in constant restless movement that seems to provide protection as much as pleasure. If he were forced to sit still the storm in his head might take over.
The big house is always bustling with live-in relatives, visiting friends and business associates. “I have to have a lot of people around all the time,” says Teresa, “because I never know what Johnny will do.”
A guest suite is fitted with special locks and security because in the past, when Johnny was on a binge, Teresa would barricade herself in there with the children. “I’d take lots of videos and toys and books and food, and the cell phones, and tell them we were camping out. I didn’t want them to know what was going on.”
An alcove in the couple’s bedroom is fitted as an altar, with candles and religious figurines that resemble Tapia’s tattoos. The prayer stool is worn thin from use. “This is Johnny’s,” says Teresa. “He’s a very spiritual person….His happiest time is when he falls into bed at night and knows he’s managed to get through another day. His hardest time is waking up, when he knows he has another day to face.”
Trying to Do Good
Teresa Tapia has fears about moving back to Albuquerque, where Johnny’s history is rooted. But she says life with Johnny has convinced her that if an addict wants drugs he could find them on the moon. Tapia is in daily contact by phone with his sobriety sponsor, Tom Crego a businessman in Albuquerque. Crego, says “Sometimes you have to confront your demons to defeat them.”
Tapia’s long time friend Bob Case says, “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Any man with a heart and a mind isn’t well.” Johnny Tapia has a heart and a mind and he may never be well. But he has helped a lot of people. When I first met him, you would walk into his house and he would want you to take the television set home. He would want to give you things. It had to do with low self-esteem. He thought he had to do that so you’d like him.”
There are stories. There is the tale of the diner waitress who served meals to the Tapias for months and then broke down crying one day because her husband had been laid off from work reducing the family, with two kids, to living in their car. Within 24 hours Johnny Tapia bought them a decent house. There was the exhausted single mother walking in the heat carrying groceries with her small children. Driving past with Teresa, Johnny stopped to give them a ride and then bought them a good used car. There are the funerals he’s paid for, the many gifts and loans never meant to be repaid. For two of his big fights in New Mexico he arranged with the police to give away free tickets in return for guns, and took hundreds of weapons off the streets. His purse for the comeback fight in September went to buy wheelchairs and computers for the disabled. As his ring career winds down, Tapia is intrigued by the idea of working with charities and community organizations.
In the past Tapia has resisted invitations to speak to service groups, and young people. “He didn’t want to be a hypocrite,” says Teresa,”Giving advice when he knew he was using himself.” But in recent months, his sobriety sponsor, Tom Crego has arranged speaking appearances for Tapia at rehab centers. He told the kids he was just like them, that all any of them wanted was love. “He’s so magnetic and honest that the kids are really touched by him,” says Crego. Tapia says he’s learning a lot from Crego. “He says we earn sobriety. You’ve got to give it away, to teach other people.” But, he says, “I don’t want anybody looking up to me. I’ve still got my own problems.”
The Hero’s Burden
Teresa’s brother Robert is so gentle with children that it’s hard to see him as a body guard. But he is Tapia’s shadow and close friend. He jokes about the role. “I’ve got Johnny’s back. And if he hits somebody, I step up and say I did it.”
Bob Case worries about Tapias’ inclination for impromptu bare-knuckle dust-ups even when he’s cold sober. “If you’re a fighter and you hit somebody, give them the keys to your house and your car, because they own it.” Still, Case insists, Johnny’s usually in the right when it happens. Case and others tell admiring tales of big rude characters threatening Tapia friends in various parking lots or casinos only to encounter the Tapia buzz saw. Johnny whips his shirt off for a street fight, because it keeps the other guy from holding or blinding or strangling him with it.
Teresa’s eyes gleam with pride as she tells about an incident on the crowded boardwalk in Atlantic City. Johnny had ducked into a shop to get a Dr. Pepper. Outside, Teresa saw several young drunks knock down an old homeless man and begin to kick him. She intervened and was being threatened when Johnny came busting through with flying fists to save the day.
Johnny Tapia works hard to make sure life with him is never dull. The endless dramas and excitements are part of the attraction, Teresa agrees. “We joke about it. Johnny says, what if I turn out to be a complete nerd? If I don’t give you any problems, how are you going to handle it? I say, Johnny, I don’t think that will ever happen. But I think I could do with 20 years of peace and quiet.”