UNDER SATURN: Johnny Tapia 1967-2012



“The past is inevitable.” Delmore Schwartz


Look: there he is, a faraway blur, caught for an instant in the slipstream of time. Is it ESPN or USA? Is it 1989 or 1990? There are mullets in the crowd, oversized glasses, some Zubaz, maybe. The picture is scratched and grainy, like a silent film or something viewed in a kinetoscope, but you can still see the tattoo of Christ on his chest. Years later his body will be scarred by a wickerwork pattern of ink, but for now this stark image–set against skin as pale as alabaster–is made all the more startling by its solitude over two decades ago. Fast hands, quick feet, a full head of hair, a nose not yet misshapen by the rigors of his profession. A knotted heart behind the crown of thorns. He is handsome still. Sallow, yes, from hours in the gym and a lifetime under Saturn. They called him “The Baby-Faced Assassin.” Watch as he moves in for the kill. Sin City or Albuquerque? Can you remember? Get closer to the flickering image, washed out now in sepia, pixels leached by passing years. You will never see this man again.


What Johnny Tapia accomplished in the ring is nearly as surprising as the fact that he lived as long as he did. Because the truth is, Tapia was past his physical peak by the time he beat Henry Martinez in 1994 to win his first title. From late 1990 to early 1994, Tapia was on a forced leave of absence from boxing. This was not a Muhammad Ali layoff—college lectures and time spent in mosques; nor was it a Mike Tyson layoff—three squares a day in the Indiana Youth Center. No, after Johnny Tapia had his license revoked in 1991 for failing drug tests, it was years of heroin, coke, methamphetamines, homelessness or holding tanks, smokers in Albuquerque dives, gunshots, gutters, and grief. Little by little Tapia whittled himself away. “I didn’t have a dollar in my pocket and didn’t know where I was,” Tapia told the Santa Fe New Mexican about his season in hell. “I had nowhere to go, nothing to eat.” A decade earlier, another bantamweight—Frankie Duarte—emerged from a skid-row nightmare to thrill delirious crowds at The Forum in Inglewood. They showered the ring with coins when he fought. But Duarte never won a world title. He had seen too many blue hours and way too many yesterdays. Just like Johnny Tapia. But Tapia was made for it, if you can ever figure out what “it” really was.


Johnny Tapia had been killing himself—off and on, now and then, here and there—for years. Addicted to drugs, to prizefighting, to adrenalin rushes, and, finally, addicted to near-death experiences, Tapia was a junkie in a way that most junkies are not. Like a phoenix he rose from the ashes more often than anyone has a right to. Finally, he got it right. Or Death did. Between his battles with a beckoning grave, Tapia lived inside the ring. Call his sordid life a waste if you want; but for some of us, maybe, it was a gift.


Sadism, whether one admits it or not, is an essential part of boxing. So is masochism. Johnny Tapia took more punches than necessary, perhaps to hear the roar of the crowd, perhaps for reasons altogether darker. He used to wipe his face during combat and lick the blood from his gloves.


“Beatings. That’s all there was sometimes. That’s how it went. I got constant beatings. Half the beatings I took were for somebody else. There were lots of beatings on everybody, but especially on me. So many beatings, I got used to them….I drew the beatings like a magnet and they just made me stronger. And sometimes, to be truthful, it was the only way I didn’t feel the pain. The pain of being alone. The pain of being without my mother.”


Tapia is diagnosed as bipolar. He suffers from ADD. He is depressed and suicidal. Dysfunction is his God. His mother is viciously murdered when he is eight years old. He is pitilessly abused as a child. His father, whom Tapia did not meet until 2010, is locked up in prison. Like Jake LaMotta, whose father forced him to fight in smokers as a child, Tapia is pitted by his uncles against other children in his neighborhood for the benefit of adult wagering. Albuquerque is a “Target City” in the 1980s—federal grants pour in to fight a drug epidemic that leaves Duke City morgues overwhelmed with graying dead.


I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
–Sylvia Plath


John Lee Tapia is born on Monday, February 13, 1967. He liked to say that he was born on Friday the 13th, but no one needs poetic license for such a lifetime of tragedy.


October 1991: License revoked after failing his third drug test. April 1992: Charged with threatening a witness in a murder trial. February 1993: Arrested for driving under the influence. Mid-1993: overdoses on the night of his wedding and is declared clinically dead. July 1994: Charged with trying to sell drugs to an off-duty policeman. October 1995: Weapons felony charges. August 1996: Police arrest rioters during his bout against Hugo Soto. March 1997: Charged with weapons possession in California. June 2000: Shot at during a road rage incident. July 2000: Hospitalized for depression. August 2000: Charge with assault. January 2003: Felony drug paraphernalia charges. December 2003: A drug overdose leaves Tapia on life support. March 2007: Overdoses and slips into a coma. February 2009: Arrested on drug charges. April 2009: Begins serving time at the Central New Mexico Corrections Facility. April 2010: Back in jail on drug charges. December 2010: Files for bankruptcy. January 2012: Arrested for DWI after crashing his SUV. May 27, 2012: dead. May 28, 1975: Virginia Tapia dies after four days in a coma.


He was a criminal….But who will close the gates of mercy? Monsignor John L. Bedford


“The night she died I saw her taken away. I was eight years old, pounding on the windowpane, yelling for help, but nobody believed what I saw. There was nothing I could do and so she died. And I’ve been blue ever since. And ever since I haven’t known if I should live or die. That’s the god’s honest truth. That’s the only way I can say it. As long as my mother’s in heaven, there’s a calling for me to go.”


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