Boxing: Tapia gains strength from fight to stay alive

For one veteran boxer, the ring offers relief from a life permanently scarred by a traumatic childhood, drug addiction and a suicide attempt
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The Independent Online

He heard the screams but nobody believed him. He was just eight at the time and when it was over his grandparents would not let him see his mother during the 90 hours she survived in hospital after being hanged, raped and stabbed 22 times. It was not the start of his crazy life.

Johnny Tapia still hears the screams when he is left alone to visit his darkest places. With both parents gone, he was raised by his grandparents. However, his grandfather began taking him to bars where the nine-year-old Tapia fought illegal fights for money. He finally found a life away from a horrible childhood when he joined a boxing club at 11. It led to 123 fights as an amateur, four world titles and 54 fights so far as a professional. On Saturday night, Tapia fights an eight-rounder at York Hall, Bethnal Green.

Tapia's father died, a victim of a gang-related shooting in Albuquerque, when he was still in his mother's womb. When he was seven he survived a car crash that left a woman dead in front of his young eyes and within 12 months his mother was gone.

Tapia somehow kept going and after early success in the ring he was starting to develop into one of the sport's leading up-and-coming fighters. Cocaine ruined it all when he failed a routine post-fight drug test and was banned. He sought salvation in the world of drugs and it led to a three-year break from boxing, but somewhere in the middle of this troubled time Tapia found hope when he met an 18-year-old girl at a barbecue. The former boxer was high, holding court in the kitchen when she appeared, and during the next few years and ever since Teresa, who is now his wife, has held his hand even if on three occasions the embrace has included the search for a pulse.

"I'm clean today, I was clean yesterday, but I don't know about tomorrow," said Tapia at a hotel in London's Docklands. "I don't know about when I stop fighting and I fear for that time and even now I can't be on my own."

Back in the ring in 1994 after finally having rinsed the cocaine from his veins, he continued to impress. He won the first of his World titles, the World Boxing Organisation's super-flyweight version, in October of that year and during the next six he added three other belts and fought 17 championship fights.

"It was never easy," he said. "My life was never easy and even when I was winning in the ring there was the other fight to overcome."

Just last weekend in Las Vegas, where he is now living, Tapia found himself in handcuffs and surrounded by the swirling blue lights of six police cars. According to Teresa he ran three red lights and six stop signs because he was in a hurry to get home and back for his trip to London. "I got a bit rowdy," he admitted. "But I was clean and the cops let me go."

Tapia's arrest sheet back in his native Albuquerque is 125 pages long and included one for spousal abuse, from an incident when he pulled a gun on Teresa. It is not one of the worse memories of the marriage. Not even close.

"In 1993 the phone rang by my bed in the early hours and I knew it was about Johnny. It was always about Johnny at that time of night, and I had to run to the hospital," she said. "When I got there I saw a priest and I knew it was serious. Johnny had overdosed and he was clinically dead for one minute and 23 seconds. Dead in front of my eyes, but they somehow managed to resuscitate him."

"He wanted to go and eventually they let me take him home that time. When we got home he was there about five minutes before he vanished. I was back to waiting by the phone and next year he was back in the ring, thank God."

Last summer Tapia, then aged 34, quit the ring. He was depressed, somebody fired shots at him in his car and it was obvious that the great fighter was losing control. His wife persuaded him to fight again and he agreed.

"It is the easiest way for me to stay alive. It is my crazy life and I'm not over with it just yet," said Tapia who has the words "My Crazy Life" tattooed on his chest in Spanish.

If Tapia beats Argentina's Eduardo Alvarez on Saturday night he could fight for a fifth world title in May. If he loses, he could be fighting for his life by May, and everybody surrounding him knows that.