Bunce on Boxing: Johnny Tapia, a great fighter who dodged bullets but not needles

Tapia was crazy, but he could still fight when he made his York Hall debut

A few hours after Carl Froch won the IBF super-middleweight title in front of 9,000 frenzied fans on Saturday night, I was putting together a list of emotional and spectacular nights at British venues.

I had John H Stracey in there from the Seventies singing 'Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner' in the Wembley ring after his only world title defence. Ricky Hatton's late-night stoppage of Kostya Tszyu in his beloved Manchester and, a year later in 2006, Joe Calzaghe's masterclass against Jeff Lacy at the same venue. I also had an odd but unforgettable night from 2002 when American Johnny Tapia, a world champion with a wild life, fought and won at dear old, dirty York Hall, Bethnal Green. Less than 24 hours after making the list I found out that Tapia was dead.

On that night at York Hall the casual, the fanatical and the curious had come out and bought every available ticket, and a few that were not available, to create a frenzied atmosphere inside the ancient venue.

At that point in Tapia's life I think that he had only been declared dead on two occasions because of his fatal love affair with drugs. He had also won and lost a couple of world titles and would, in his very next fight, swap the glamour of Bethnal Green for the glitz of Madison Square Garden and win his third world title. Tapia was crazy, but he could still fight when he made his York Hall debut.

"Johnny was a really nice guy and he was staying in the room next to me at the Britannia Hotel," remembered Alex Arthur, who was just 23 and on the undercard. "I decided to knock on his door and get his autograph and I ended up staying for over an hour. He never knew his dad and his mum was killed when he was young. Anyway, we started speaking and I told him about my dad. I told him that he had been in prison, that somebody tried to stab him and that he had stabbed somebody; Johnny just couldn't believe it. 'I thought that you guys just drank tea!' He was not joking, he meant it," added Arthur.

A few years later Arthur received a signed copy of Tapia's breathtaking book, Mi Vida Loca, through the post.

There is a suggestion that more people were at York Hall that night than on any other night and I would support that theory as a 30-year veteran of the place. There was a world title fight and six or so young fighters on the bill, but the crowd was there for the great American, a veteran of just about every skirmish a living man can survive from bullets to needles.

He entered the ring and bowed to all four corners but the noise was relentless. His opponent was even clapping with his gloves on! Tapia seemed a bit overwhelmed and teary-eyed. It was a homecoming for a man who had never before been to the place, an ovation from boxing fans in celebration of a man they all adored. He was and remained until his death on Sunday the measuring stick for a boxer's hard life. In York Hall that cold January night Tapia found about 2,000 people who were not there to judge him; they had paid just to say 'I was there for Tapia'. I've had a dozen calls from people saying the exact same thing.

The fight lasted 82 seconds. It took him a long time to leave the ring under the cheers. The venue seemed to empty quickly, the bars filling up. Ten minutes later we went back to the changing room to talk to Johnny and he had gone, vanished into the east London night. It was the perfect exit.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
books
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Sport
sport
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine