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Living La Vida Loca - The life of Johnny Tapia

August 26, 2012 8:04pm
As America doesn't produce many boxers in the flyweight divisions, it took a special fighter to generate interest that wasn't previously there. For many boxing fans, that fighter was Johnny Tapia.

Tapia, who passed away May 27 at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the age of 45, unified two world titles at 115 pounds before stepping up to win belts at bantamweight and featherweight.

Rumors immediately swirled that Tapia, who had struggled mightily with cocaine and had lapsed into several comas following overdoses, had died as a result of his vices. A Reuters report earlier this week released the results of Tapia's autopsy, which fingered heart disease exacerbated by prescription drugs as the cause of death. To his admirers though, no cause of death could hardly detract from his impact on the sport.

Just as Muhammad Ali brought interest back to the heavyweight division following the retirement of Rocky Marciano with his flashy skills and colorful boastfulness, so too did Tapia for the sport's lightest divisions.

Tapia, whose final record was 59-5-2 (30 knockouts), transcended the often-ignored divisions he competed in with his endearing confidence and the captivating emotion that he exhibited in the ring. It was as if Tapia felt more at comfortable in the ring than at home, used it to to generate the approval he lacked following the violent deaths of his parents as a child.

Tapia would drop his hands and avoid his opponent's blows, only to answer back with eye-catching flurries; between rounds he would greet friends and family members as the cameras peered in; but most importantly, he would give everything he had in victory and defeat.

In victory, Tapia unified the WBO and IBF super flyweight belts in a heated battle with crosstown rival and fellow titleholder Danny Romero in 1997. The fight was televised by American premium network HBO in an era when networks weren't given to televising bouts south of lightweight. Without having lost his belts in the ring, Tapia stepped up and defeated Ghanaian Nana Yaw Konadu for the WBA bantamweight title. He would later win a title at 126 pounds in a close fight with Manuel Medina.

In defeat, Tapia's 48-fight unbeaten streak was snapped in a decision loss to Paulie Ayala in what was named Ring Magazine's Fight of the Year for 1999. Tapia would lose a rematch the following year before losing more definitively to Marco Antonio Barrera in 2002. Yet each time, whether Tapia was winning titles or past his prime and losing to fighters who couldn't have been his sparring partners in his prime, there was something that wouldn't let you turn away.

Tapia gained a modicum of fame in the Philippines during the late '90s when his name was mentioned as a possible opponent for Gerry Penalosa, the now-retired Filipino boxing legend who reigned simultaneously as the WBC super flyweight champion. At the time, Penalosa was based in America yet regrets not having had the opportunity to showcase himself in the States against the best.

To him, Tapia defined "the best".

"I think he was the best at my division at that time," said Penalosa of Tapia. "He was very confident; he thinks that he's the best and no one can beat him. Plus, he had a granite chin. He threw lots of combinations. His punches were not that strong but he has a volume of punches that can give you problems."

Next time a boxing fan gets the chance to see a major fight in the flyweight divisions on American network television, perhaps it'd be appropriate to look up and thank "Mi Vida Loca." - AMD, GMA News


Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and Ring Magazine. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel and can be reached at ryan@ryansongalia.com. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter

You can vote for Songalia in the Outstanding Filipino Americans of NY Awards media/publishing category via Facebook
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