This morning I awoke to the news that former five times world champion Johnny Tapia had been found dead at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tapia was no stranger to tragedy - his father was killed whilst Tapia’s mother was pregnant with him, and at aged eight Tapia’s mother was brutally murdered. In 1999 Tapia attempted suicide, needing hospitalisation. In 2007, Tapia was found unconscious and not breathing in a hotel room in Albuquerque. He was placed in a medically induced coma - his brother-in-law and nephew were tragically killed in a road accident whilst en route to visit him in hospital.
One of the most popular fighters of the last twenty years, Johnny Tapia’s history, both in and out of the ring, enthralled boxing fans and journalists alike. In 1990 I was eleven years old and my dad had just subscribed to The Ring boxing magazine. I pored over each issue after my dad had finished reading it, and within a couple of months I was spending my pocket money on publications like KO, Boxing News and Boxing Monthly. When my grandparents got BSB in 1990, luckily for me they would show ESPN’s boxing coverage - and it was through this I first became aware of Johnny Tapia, when he faced Mexican Junior Bantamweight Jose Montiel in the second defence of the USBA title he won against Tex Mex fighter Roland Gomez. As 1990 progressed Tapia seemed destined for bigger things, but behind the success he was hiding a big secret – by the end of 1990 he’d received a ban from boxing for cocaine addiction.
Tapia was beginning to feel the effects of a tough career and wild chaotic lifestyle
In his March 1994 comeback from the ban, Tapia had the first of seven fights that year, against Jaime Olivera whom he knocked out inside of two rounds. Four more fights and four more wins earned him a shot at the vacant WBO Junior Bantamweight title against Henry Martinez in Albuquerque. Tapia dominated the fight and stopped Martinez in round eleven to win his first world title. He made ten defences of his title before signing to face fellow Albuquerque resident Danny Romero in a unification grudge match, which Tapia won by unanimous decision. Tapia moved up to Bantamweight the following year and defeated Ghanaian WBA title holder Nana Yaw Konadu, but lost his title and his unbeaten record in his first defence against tough Texan Paulie Ayala. Soon after this Tapia attempted suicide, but he was quickly back in the ring to face tough Colombian WBO champion Jorge Eliecer Julio; soundly out-boxing him to earn a wide unanimous points decision. Tapia made one successful defence of his WBO title before he once again faced Ayala in a rematch, which he lost on a split points decision. By now Tapia was beginning to feel the effects of a tough career and wild chaotic lifestyle; however, in April 2002 he challenged the veteran Mexican IBF Featherweight Champion Manuel Medina and won a controversial majority decision to become a three weight champion. He quickly vacated the title so he could face Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera in November 2002, but was outpointed comfortably.
This was the last big fight in the career of a fighter who may never have his name inscribed in the International Boxing Hall of Fame - but he was a fighter who thrilled boxing fans for the best part of twenty years, and despite his demons he managed to become a five time world champion at three different weights.
Johnny Tapia 1967-2012
Five of the Best
V Fred Hernandez 23/03/89:
A defining fight in the short career of the unbeaten Tapia, who had won eight of his first nine fights. Hernandez was a slick boxer, and in the early part of the bout he danced around and outboxed Tapia easily. Tapia, who would show guts throughout his career, battled his way back into the bout and by the final round he was breaking Hernandez down. With three seconds to go, he floored Hernandez and even though he was out cold the final bell saved him. Tapia’s late effort was enough to earn him a narrow victory.
V Henry Martinez 12/10/1994:
An exciting slugfest, as Tapia and Martinez battled it out for the vacant WBO Junior Bantamweight title in front of a partisan crowd in Tapia’s hometown of Albuquerque. Tapia slowly dismantled the gutsy but overmatched Martinez. A barrage of punches staggered Martinez early in round eleven and Tapia sensed the fight was nearing its end. He stalked Martinez and a left hook to the body set up a left hook that floored Martinez. Despite just about beating the count, referee Denny Nelson took mercy on the bruised and battered Martinez and called a halt to the bout.
He stalked Martinez and a left hook to the body set up a left hook that floored Martinez
V Danny Romero 18/07/1997:
A real grudge match as Tapia faced fellow Albuquerque resident Danny Romero in a Junior Bantamweight unification bout. Tapia had been trained by Danny Romero Sr in his amateur days but their split had been acrimonious. Animosity was increased by rumours of rival gang allegiances between the fighters. Due to the nature of the rivalry, the bout was held in Las Vegas. The first three rounds belonged to Tapia as he used his speed to move in and out, counter when needed and to not get drawn into a war of attrition with his heavy hitting opponent, Romero began to exert his influence in rounds four to six, and at the midway point the fight was even. Early in round seven a right hand from Romero caught Tapia flush on the jaw and this prompted a spot of clowning from Tapia, who feigned being hurt. From this point on the fight was all Tapia’s and he boxed his way through the final rounds with ease to gain a unanimous points decision. To many this fight was the defining moment of his career and a real highlight, as he took Romero’s IBF belt to add to his own WBO, and more importantly he took the local bragging rights.
V Paulie Ayala 26/06/1999:
Ring magazine fight of the year for 1999, as Tapia and Ayala traded blows non-stop for twelve rounds at The Mandalay Bay arena in Las Vegas. The fight gave us excitement even before the first bell, as Tapia shoved Ayala during the ring announcements and the two were quickly separated by security. Referee Joe Cortez warned both of the risk of disqualification during his instructions. The fight itself was close, with many rounds which could have gone either way - but in the end the judges were impressed with the infighting from Ayala and gave the Fort Worth resident a close but unanimous decision.
V Marco Antonio Barrera 02/11/2002:
In his previous fight, Tapia had a won a hotly disputed decision over Mexican fighter Manuel Medina to claim the IBF featherweight title and become a three weight champion. Tapia vacated that title to face future hall of famer Barrera. In this fight it wasn’ t the Johnny Tapia we had grown accustomed to seeing - he was in over his head against the Baby Faced Assassin. Barrera carried Tapia throughout the twelve rounds to win a unanimous points decision, and this would be Tapia’s last title fight. Although he continued to fight until as recently as 2011, this in my eyes was the end of Johnny Tapia as a fighter.
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