Boxing: Champion sheds the underworld title

The wounds have taken time to heal for Johnny Tapia.
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The Independent Online
THE worst scars are too deep to show. And Johnny Tapia, who attempts to become a world champion at a second weight in Atlantic City next weekend, is scarred for life.

Tapia will smile when they announce his name before he fights the World Boxing Association bantamweight champion Nana Konadu from Ghana. He will be proud when they introduce him to the crowd as the former undefeated super- flyweight champion of the world, proud when they read out his record - 46 fights, 44 wins, two draws and no defeats.

Because for most of his 31 years, Tapia was defeated: not by boxing, nor by the men it produces inside and outside the ropes, but by demons none of us should wish to meet.

I once read a biographical note on Tapia that said blandly he was from a broken home and had overcome a drug habit. That's like saying Adolf Hitler was an influential politician hampered by psychological problems.

Tapia's home wasn't broken. It was ripped to shreds, blown apart, shattered beyond repair. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on 13 February 1967 - with his luck it was probably a Friday - e was raised by his mother... until he was eight. Then his mother was raped, and stabbed to death. Stabbed 22 times.

Johnny was taken in by his mother's parents. They alone know what grief was in their hearts, and what wounds were taking time to heal in the boy's mind nobody can guess.

By his teens he lived on his wits, running with gangs, following supposed leaders... and getting high. He grew accustomed to jail cells. But he could also box. He had the kind of talent that looks so effortless it belies the hard learning which helps it come out. In Albuquerque amateur circles, he was a star. A little local celebrity status took him off the streets and away from prison, but solved no problems.

Boxing, he said later, didn't matter to him, even when at 21 he found himself fighting in a place called Irvine, California. But then he was good at putting up an impenetrable, high guard... in and out of the ring. Boxing did matter, because it earned him approval and gave him confidence. And therefore he hated it. Hated boxing, loved cocaine. Because cocaine gave him despair.

A deal was struck for him with the leading promoter Bob Arum and by 1990 he was the United States Boxing Association super-flyweight champion. When he retained his championship for the fourth time, before his home city faithful against a Colombian named Santiago Caballero, a world title seemed inevitable. But two years of keeping everything together was too much. He got high again, failed four tests and the commission took away his licence.

For three years, he was in the netherworld of the everyday user. Three times he overdosed. Jail calls seemed friendly again. Occasionally boxing writers lamented his downfall but nobody tried to find him and help. There was probably nothing most people could do anyway. "I lied to everybody," he says. "I hurt so many people, especially the ones I love the most. I lied to myself."

Once there was a routine story of a Tapia arrest in Las Vegas which suggests that accompanying his street wisdom is a scathing wit. According to the police information, he had sold cocaine to an undercover officer. Unfortunately for the prosecution, when the lab reports came back, the white powder was nothing more sinister than soap.

Arum and his organisation made attempts to get him straight, but in 1992 he was also charged with intimidating a witness in a murder case.

Amazingly, one person did break down his defences, and found not a crazy, half-dead lunatic but a sad, hurting man who, once she had won his trust, showed enough love and commitment for her to marry him. Teresa Tapia is one tough woman, who today manages her husband's boxing career. The marriage has had more than one rocky patch, but remains intact. "My wife is the only person I trust," he said.

At the end of 1993, Tapia was shaken badly when Teresa miscarried while he was lingering in a cell. At last he kicked the habit. By March 1994 he was back in a boxing ring. By October 1994 he was the World Boxing Organisation super- flyweight champion. The people of Albuquerque welcomed him like a prodigal son, as he amassed 13 successful defences, including a brilliant points win over his home-city rival Danny "Kid Dynamite" Romero last year. At super-flyweight Tapia ran out of challengers and so moves up to challenge Konadu. Win or lose, he will fight with a burning desire to prove himself. He will smile.

When you next read about or hear an athlete in any sport whingeing about backroom or background difficulties, in effect making excuses, think of Johnny Tapia.