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.
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