New Mexico Boxing

Requiem for a hometown champion
Johnny Tapia captured titles . . . and the heart of a city

Story and photos by Chris Cozzone

“Albuquerque, I’m still your hometown champion . . . .”

Those were the words Johnny Tapia never failed to yell into the camera, in between the rounds of his countless TV fights.

That and “I love you, Grandma, Grampa.”

Those two sentences said more about the man than his 162 amateur bouts (150-12), two National Golden Gloves titles, 66 pro fights (59-5-2, 30 KOs), 473 rounds, innumerable minor belts and no less than five bonafide world championships during a career dating back to 1981.

Tapia was “The Baby Face Assassin” early on, and “Mi Vida Loca” for the second half of a career that saw him battle champions, personal demons, the Grim Reaper and the monkey on his back. Now, finally at peace, Tapia will also bear the moniker “Albuquerque’s champion” as long as his fight town cares to remember him.

Something tells me, that’s going to be a long time.

You don’t easily forget someone like John Lee Tapia.

There were – are, I suppose – those who did not care for the man. Some sneer, and call him a drug addict and a criminal.

They are right, of course. And Tapia would be the first to admit as much.

“I’m no better than no one,” he told me more than once in the dozen years I’ve been lucky to know him personally. “I just live my life one day at a time.”

The critics out there have more than enough ammunition to build a case that Tapia’s life was less than perfect. There were countless overdoses, arrests, license suspensions and endless drama that trailed, draped and shadowed the tormented fighter.

But my guess, however, is that the haters all have one thing in common: they did not know Johnny.

Few – if any – who knew the champ, disliked him.

A man (let alone a world class boxer) who remembers everyone’s name and never holds back on an infectious laugh, a hug, an autograph or a photo, is a hard man to dislike.

And that, more than any other reason, is why Johnny Tapia is leaving his sport and hometown a legacy that goes far beyond his accomplishments as a fighter. Superhuman success in the ring made him known all over the world, but his all-too-human feats and flaws in the real world have branded Tapia every bit as New Mexico as green chile enchiladas or a sky full of hot air balloons.

New Mexico? Yeah, that’s where Conrad Hilton, Georgia O’Keeffe and Smokey the Bear came from. And that boxer with all the tattoos . . . whatshisname, Johnny Tapia . . . .

Whether you remember the ink, the laughter, the fights or the drugs, Johnny showed the oh-so-many homeboys in the ‘hoods that, while there was a price to pay for living la vida loca, you didn’t have to fall prey to it. You could rise above it, spread the love, raise children and accomplish the impossible.

Only, for Johnny, that wasn’t forever.

Life – or death – catches up with you, sooner or later. For Johnny, it was in his 45th year, though that was far later than most expected.

But just when most of us were starting to get comfortable that Tapia had appeared to settle into a post-fight career as a mentor, promoter and trainer, Death made its move – it’s always the punch you don’t see coming that does the most damage.

It came as a shock, though it surprised no one.

Because it was what drove him, Johnny leaves behind a ring legacy that is paralleled by few modern fighters. In New Mexico, few others in a century-and-a-half come close.  

Tapia began boxing in 1981 under Henry’s Boxing Club. Two years later, at 106 pounds, he became a National Golden Gloves champion. In 1985, Tapia did it again, this time at 112.

After turning pro in 1988 and fighting under the Top Rank banner, Tapia rose to No. 1 contention at 112 lbs. On the verge of a title shot, Tapia lost the personal battle to drugs and, for the next three-and-a-half years, disappeared from the ring. After another Albuquerque fighter blazed his way toward a championship – Danny Romero, of course – Tapia reappeared in 1994, picking up where he left off.

After five fights in a handful of months, Tapia, once again, became a top contender, earning a shot at the WBO junior bantamweight title. On Oct. 12, 1994, Tapia TKO’d Henry Martinez at The Pit to become the first born-and-raised New Mexican to become a world champion. (In 1968, Bob Foster, born in Borger, Tex., but raised in Albuquerque, had become the first New Mexican to win a world title. Several others in previous eras had come close.)

Tapia defended his title 13 times between 1994 and 1998, adding the IBF version of the title after a lengthy build-up and highly-publicized unification fight with cross-town rival Romero (who became the third New Mexican world champ, shortly after Johnny.) In what just might be the single most important fight in New Mexico history, Tapia defeated Romero by decision.

In 1998, Tapia moved up to bantamweight, capturing the WBA title with a decision over Nana Konadu. The following year, Tapia lost the title, and first pro fight, by split decision to Paulie Ayala. Despite the loss, Tapia bounced back in early 2000 to defeat Jorge Eliecer Julio at The Pit in Albuquerque for his fourth title, the WBO’s belt at 118.

Though most saw him winning the fight, Tapia lost again to Ayala in the rematch, late 2000. Seen now as past his prime, Tapia started to slow – but there was more than enough speed and zip left to score a fifth world title in April 2002 when he defeated Manuel Medina in New York. The newly-acquired championship was relinquished in order to get a shot at Marco Antonio Barrera, who came out ahead, later in the year.

Destined for the Boxing Hall of Fame, Tapia has fought 12 world champions during his career, losing only to Barrera and Ayala. Though Foster was the only undisputed world champ to come out of New Mexico, and the only lineal champ (i.e. “the man who beat the man who beat the man . . . .”), Tapia’s titles were in four weight divisions, from 112 to 126, while Foster reigned only at light-heavy.

As far as popularity goes, Johnny Tapia reigns supreme in New Mexico history. Every era had their heroes, but Tapia is untouchable.

Tapia also has the distinction of having the longest win streak of any New Mexican, champ or no champ, that being 46 bouts. He also has the longest professional career, having fought from 1988 to 2011 – 23 years in the pros and another seven in the amateurs.

When Tapia retired, after a decision over Mauricio Pastrana on June 4, 2011, the boxing world breathed a sigh of relief, not wanting to see an ugly ending in the ring. But most of us braced for what seemed to be an inevitable ending outside the sport.

Nearly 12 months into his retirement, however, we’d started to relax. A dozen Dr. Peppers a day his only known vice, Tapia remained his energetic self, opening up a gym, promoting fights, training local fighters and helping to keep a struggling scene alive – while the sport, the fighters, his kids and ever-patient wife, Teresa, kept him alive.

Maybe this won’t end in tragedy, became the hope. But nearly 12 months to the day of his retirement, one day before the anniversary of his mother’s tragic death, Tapia’s clock ran out.

The death of Johnny Tapia abruptly ends a long-running volume in the history of New Mexico boxing. Whether the sport will survive, will be up to the fans and fighters who are going to have to find a way to do it without our fallen champ’s pep and love.

Johnny, you’re still our hometown champ.

. . . .

Chris Cozzone is a longtime writer, photographer and historian, and has covered boxing full time since 2000. A book co-authored with the late journalist Jim Boggio, “The History of New Mexico Boxing: 1868-1940” is scheduled for November release by McFarland Publishing. A second volume of the book will, of course, prominently feature Johnny Tapia.