Tapia: Mi Vida Loca

By Joe Masterleo on December 19, 2014
Tapia: Mi Vida Loca
You can’t soothe a boy’s unrequited feminine love itch with a rough, masculine scratch.

A man faces no deadlier opponent than himself, a formidable challenger one can duck only for so long before it staggers and drops him…

Director Eddie Alcazar’s recent HBO documentary (Tapia) on the life and times of five-time world champion Johnny Tapia is really two stories in one, seen from different angles. Both stories, those of boxer and man-child, are intertwined in a way that makes for a captivating and passionate film, seen and told through the eyes of Tapia himself. For discussion, let’s try and separate the two narratives.

The first story, that of boxer, is a familiar one. Though unique unto itself, at face value Tapia’s story is but another rendition of an ‘overcoming-all-odds-via-a-tragic-past’ boxing success story, one involving a skilled, determined and passionate fighter who made it to the top. And that, despite multiple self-defeating bouts with drugs, the law and an assortment of troubling emotional scars and character flaws. Because the theme is old wine in new bottles, what’s new about this story is not good, and what’s good about it is not new. It left this viewer realizing that he’d seen/heard this narrative before, at least as to the predictable patterns marking the tumultuously early lives of boxers. Substitute, say, Mike Tyson’s name and face along with a host of other intense, talented and successfully fistic dudes, and you’ve pretty much seen this drama flick before. Only the name and face has changed in this film — same fight, different fighter. Boxing’s Who’s Who of Mental Disorders is brimming with nameless Johnny Tapias. And you can look them up. That said, such is not to ignore or trivialize Tapia’s impressive amateur and pro record, likeable character, admirable place in boxing lore, or his fatefully brief time on earth.

The second story, that of the man-child, is more subtly and poignantly embedded, and therefore a bit more cryptic. It’s a narrative along different lines, altogether simply human, one requiring careful attention and sensitive understanding. Because at the end of the day “sensitive” is what one wants to be with Johnny Tapia and those of his kind, a wounded soul whose life story is all too common for many inhabitants of boxing’s ragged fiefdom. Therein may lie the significance of Tapia’s life, especially to future young boxing hopefuls of the same ilk. 

This second story is revealed primarily by Tapia’s many tattoos and telling self-observations. As for the tattoos: the central one over his mid-section is altogether diagnostic — “Mi Vida Loca” (My Crazy Life). This one needs little explanation, visibly acted-out in a number of ways both inside and outside the ring. Inside the ring it was normalized, his emotional intensities serially displaced onto his many vanquished opponents. It’s what boxers are supposed to do, and how they’re supposed to be and act while plying their trade — relentless and punishing, and in a whirlwind sort of way. Outside the ring Tapia’s brand of ‘crazy’ was inveterately self-sabotaging, with none other than himself as the unbeatable foe. 

Significantly, the other tattoos, especially those on his back, all carry feminine imagery — those of his murdered mother, his wife Teresa and Mary, mother of Jesus. Hungering lifelong to escape the agonizing dungeons and menacing dragons of a nagging maternal love ache, Tapia flies headlong into an ADD, testosterone-charged male endeavor (boxing) to compensate for same — a substance abuse addiction sprinkled in for good measure. A lethal behavioral cocktail, to say the least. Nice try, but as maladaptive emotional solutions go, no cigar.  Rehab and recovery-wise, the culinary arts would have been more fitting and far less dangerous. 

As two wrongs don’t make a right, likewise, two yangs never make a yin. Translated, you can’t soothe a boy’s unrequited feminine love itch with a rough masculine scratch. OD-ing on the yang side, many have tried and ended up like Tapia .  .  . and Tyson — a mutated out-of-control yang that escaped from the laboratory, wreaking havoc on himself and terrorizing the townsfolk. Nor more twisted a male caricature can be found in all of sport. 

Nonetheless, hyper-machismo is a common shield/refuge against such debilitating inner wounds, fears and insecurities, particularly among disadvantaged minority males. The allure of boxing only lends itself to same. The best defense against fear and insecurity, after all, is an overpowering offense — in the ring, on the streets and as a personal coping mechanism, however ineffective the latter. At the same time, though guarded, nothing can leave a man lonelier, more mentally grotesque or self-estranged than the woman in him denied and ignored. Said Thoreau; “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Cradle to grave, Johnny Tapia’s closest companion was quiet desperation, cutting the ring off on him at each turn and every corner, tormenting him without surcease. 

Tapia’s documentary-ending claim that “boxing has really saved my life” is self-deceiving. Again, that’s because success in an outward endeavor usually correlates negatively as a means of resolving inner wounds and/or attaining inner peace, leaving a man more estranged from himself than ever. With this kind of history, a man faces no deadlier opponent than himself, a formidable challenger one can duck only for so long before it staggers and drops him. Relatively few men become champions of themselves, and Tapia is no exception. 

Despite his outward success in the ring, Johnny Tapia never championed himself where it counted, within his tormented soul. If boxing was the antidote to dissolving his stalking demons, said demons would have been KO’d ten times over during his illustrious career. Tragically, those demons not only multiplied during his ring tenure, but overtook him before he bested them. Ring opponents were a piece of cake by comparison. 

The only settling attachment Tapia had that came nearest to calming him was his anchoring wife, who also doubled as his manager. Truth be told, boxing never saved Tapia’s life, or what remained of it. Rather, his wife Teresa did. Lovingly loyal to a fault, she was everything that he was not, the embodiment of the emotional deficits so painfully lacking within. I suspect those who knew them best would earnestly attest to same.

Like most tragic figures in sport and life Johnny Tapia was a living paradox of fire and ice, darkness and light. His ‘Crazy Life’ is our crazy life, his darkness ours, if only in a smaller way. Few boxers successfully resolve their nagging inner polarities and contradictions, with most projecting their demons onto imaginary opponents, like the proverbially demented Quixote jousting windmills. Fortunately, Tapia’s immense darkness did not totally eclipse the winsome rays of light that managed to amply ooze from his puffy countenance and tattooed pores. 

That this troubled but talented man of indomitable courage and brave heart died of heart failure only adds to the irony. 

May he discover and embrace in eternity the peace that so eluded him on earth.

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  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:28pm, 12/20/2014

    Ayala still hasn’t beaten Johnny…..more than that…..Bones Adams beat that ass in their first fight which set up the “get well” fight where Paulie finally won one.

  2. Pete The Sneak 09:15am, 12/20/2014

    “Truth be told, boxing never saved Tapia’s life, or what remained of it. Rather, his wife Teresa did. Lovingly loyal to a fault, she was everything that he was not, the embodiment of the emotional deficits so painfully lacking within.”...That pretty much says it all Joe…Nice write up. I did see the Documentary last night and thoroughly enjoyed it, however…Mostly enjoyed all the archival footage of a young Tapia and his early fights. He was truly something to watch…Peace.

  3. peter 09:06am, 12/20/2014

    Nice article—well done.

  4. Eric 08:34am, 12/20/2014

    Anytime someone feels they’ve been dealt a bad hand, just check out Tapia’s life. Of course as hard as it is to believe, some poor souls have or had it rougher than even Johnny. RIP, warrior.

  5. Magoon 06:56pm, 12/19/2014

    Psychobabble at its worst.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:38pm, 12/19/2014

    Simply great commentary….In the end if you live long enough and are together long enough she will become your mother…..in Johnny’s case I think she was his Mom right from the git-go.

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