Johnny Tapia: Vida Loca
Johnny Tapia is dead.
I wasn’t shocked when I heard the news, just saddened. He was one of the big men of the 1990s, a spectacular feat for a man who fought his best fights weighing 114 pounds. His life story was big. His bravado was big. And he fought big. In his biggest fight, against local Albuquerque rival Danny Romero, Johnny Tapia used his supreme confidence and flashing style to beat a young man who seemed more skilled and more well-groomed for greatness.
Boxers are indeed special men. They take what is unnatural—getting punched in the face—and make it look natural. The strength to go against instinct can be nurtured, but in some fighters this unique strength seems natured. When a man’s past is brutal, the way Johnny Tapia’s past was brutal, a place of violence becomes a kind of comfort zone. Tapia was never so focused, never so disciplined and never so relaxed as when he was fighting. Mayhem controlled Johnny Tapia outside the ring, but in the ring Tapia controlled mayhem.
Johnny Tapia’s career continued to thrive after he beat Danny Romero, but when a fighter dies, we remember his biggest moments, his defining moments. For me, the big Johnny Tapia moment came right after the Romero fight. His hand was raised in victory and he became king of the super-flyweights and king of Albuquerque. For a moment, Johnny Tapia was complete.
I published a short poem about Johnny Tapia years ago, but pulled it up to read when I heard the sad news that the boxer with the ring name “Mi Vida Loca” was dead. There were plenty of other fighters who received more coverage than Johnny Tapia and who earned greater purses and who were better, quicker, stronger. But Johnny Tapia, a whirlwind of a man, was the stuff of poetry. When I try to show my students how to read a poem, I ask them to think about Michelangelo’s “Bound Slaves”—a series of sculptures where strong men are literally coming out of rock. In each sculpture, Michelangelo did not sculpt the whole man—he left a large piece of the rock intact, as if asking us to fill in the blanks, to create the rest of the man.
None of us know Johnny Tapia’s demons. We know the stories, but not what was inside. To that, we can only guess. But instead of hiding everything, instead of staying quiet about his past, instead of feeling shame, Johnny Tapia showed us enough of his rock to allow us to at least imagine the rest, to fill in the shape, to read between the lines. He spoke about the violence in his life. And he fought, relishing the promise of violence before a fight, thriving when the action grew raw. Perhaps there are healthier ways to deal with past horrors, and there are certainly healthier outlets than drugs and alcohol and crime, which were all part of Johnny Tapia’s turbulent life, but there seems no more honest way for a man, beaten down by life, to rise up against life’s beatings than to become a fighter. Johnny Tapia chose to fight in the hardest place to fight—in the ring. He understood violence, he licked his lips when he saw violence, and he excelled in a place of violence. Tragic heroes see the cruelty of the gods or fate or life, they recognize how powerless they truly are, but still they put up their hands, move forward and punch. Johnny Tapia was handed a shit lot in life. But he punched back viciously.
Tapia vs. Romero
Clichéd Romero tells the papers
he works hard, does the right
thing, may the best man win.
Tapia says, What’s he going to do
when he hits me and I laugh at him?
What’s he going to do if he makes
me bleed and I lick it and enjoy it?
They say Danny hits hard. Has he
ever hit a guy who doesn’t care?
His father dead before he was born.
His mother raped and killed.
Jailed for drug and wife abuse.
He lifts his arm, twirls his gloved
fist, gets the crowd loud, Tapia, Tapia
laughs, licks carelessly.
His trunks say Mi Vida Loca.
His crazy life, his crazy face,
he dances to his corner.