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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
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

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us