Fighting Back As he prepares to battle Marco Barrera this week, the troubled Johnny Tapia is cornering his demons

November 04, 2002

He doesn't know if it was the headlights or the sound of her
screaming that woke him, but what Johnny Tapia does know is what
he saw from his room--his mother, bound by chains, in the back of
a pickup truck driving past the house. The eight-year-old boy,
who never knew his father, was about to lose his mother.

Police in Albuquerque say that Virginia Tapia died on May 28,
1975, five days after leaving a bar with a man--never
apprehended--who would stab her 26 times with scissors and a
screwdriver, nearly sever one of her breasts and dump her body
in a gravel pit. What Johnny Tapia is sure he saw that night is
not written in the police reports but recorded in his mind.
"What I can never get over is the way he killed her," says the
35-year-old Tapia, a five-time world champion in three weight
classes who this Saturday will fight Marco Antonio Barrera in a
featherweight bout in Las Vegas. "That just kills me. I wish I
would have gotten him. I would have been a prisoner for life,
but who cares?"

The answer is simple: Teresa, Tapia's wife and manager. She's the
one who has thrice heard doctors pronounce her husband clinically
dead because of drug overdoses (the first time was on their
wedding night nine years ago), twice watched as he was admitted
to a mental institution after fits of bipolar depression, and
once locked him in her Albuquerque apartment for six weeks to
keep him from cocaine (her mother slipped him food through the
iron security bars on the windows). Some say that boxing saved
his life, but it wasn't so much the belts around his waist as it
was the ring around his finger. "Without her there wouldn't be a
Johnny Tapia," Freddie Roach, Tapia's trainer, says of Teresa.
"She got him clean."

Now Roach must get him ready for Barrera, the world's top-ranked
featherweight, who is younger (28) and more powerful than Tapia.
The only advantages Tapia has are faster feet and better
instincts in the ring. "Johnny sees things well," says Roach, who
was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in October.
"Sometimes by the book it would be wrong to do the things Johnny
does, but he's such a natural fighter he gets away with it."

After his mother's murder Tapia lived with his grandfather
Miguel and eight other family members in a three-bedroom house
in Albuquerque. Johnny didn't have his own bed until he was 17,
but he did have Miguel's attention. Every morning before school
he and Miguel ran three miles, and Miguel, an amateur boxing
champion in northern New Mexico in the 1930s, taught him how to
handle himself in the ring. Tapia made his way through the
amateur ranks before turning pro in '88. Despite being banned
from the ring for 3 1/2 years in the early '90s, after testing
positive for cocaine three times, Tapia won his first
championship belt in '94.

Tapia, who has stayed clean the last couple years, remained
undefeated until meeting Paulie Ayala on June 26, 1999.
Two-and-a-half weeks before that fight the phone rang in the gym
where Tapia trained. He picked it up, and a police officer was on
the line. The officer's words made Tapia freeze. After 24 years
the police had finally identified his mother's killer. "He was in
such an emotional state," Teresa says of her husband, who lost
his focus and then the Ayala bout as well. "It's like boxing
didn't matter. It was his first loss, and he didn't even care."

Richard Espinosa, who police say killed Virginia, died in 1983
after stumbling drunk into the middle of a busy street in
Albuquerque, where he was hit by three cars and dragged to his
death. The Tapia case, which had fallen through the cracks, had
been reopened in '98 at the behest of Teresa, who never told her
husband that she had done so. Though news of the murder's being
solved stirred painful memories for Johnny, it also brought him
some relief. "It's a blessing," he says of learning that
Espinosa had been killed. "I know my mother can rest in peace."

COLOR PHOTO: WILL HART IN HIS CORNER Teresa saved Johnny, a five-time champ, from drugs and depression. COLOR PHOTO: REED SAXON/AP (INSET) [See caption above]

Tale of the Tape
Here's how Barrera and Tapia, who fight Saturday night in Las
Vegas, match up.

Barrera Tapia
Record 55-3, 39 KOs 52-2-2, 29 KOs
Height 5'7" 5'6 1/2"
Weight 126 126
Reach 70" 66 1/2"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)