Last Round for Johnny Tapia

May 11, 2008

THE WORST? ForTeresa Tapia it wasn't the night she awoke to find her husband standing overher with a hammer, or the time he shoved her while holding a pistol; it wasn'tany one disappearance or public humiliation or lie during their 15 yearstogether. It wasn't even the morning 14 months ago when Johnny Tapia, afive-time boxing world champ, fell into yet another drug-induced coma and wastaken to an Albuquerque hospital. No, it was the next day: when Robert (Gordy)Gutierrez, the brother closest to Teresa and Johnny's loyal cornerman, diedwhile rushing to the fighter's bedside—killed, along with the Tapias' nephewBen Garcia, in a one-car highway wreck. Finally she snapped. Johnny should bethe one who's dead, Teresa thought. He's to blame.

"I hatedhim," she says. "I wished it was Johnny because my brother wanted tolive and be a father and a part of our lives, where Johnny had always wanted togo, to die. I felt a lot of anger and resentment and guilt—and still do. If Iwould've been a stronger person or colder and didn't care what happened toJohnny, I would've left him years ago. Then my brother would be here."

Welcome to themarriage forged in hell. On Teresa's wedding night one of Johnny's cousinsapproached the bride at her mother's house and said, "Why don't you go backin that room and see what you married?" Teresa came upon Johnny plunging aneedle into his arm. He took the wedding cash, then dumped her in a seedyhotel. The next morning, Teresa says, "they had to jump-start his heart,resuscitate him; he was dead in my car. It was all downhill afterthat."

Everybody inboxing knows Johnny's tortured history: fatherless at birth, nearly killed in abus crash at seven, orphaned at eight after his mother was stabbed 26 timeswith a screwdriver and scissors by her married boyfriend. His near-mythic riseas a champ in three weight classes (super fly, bantam and feather) coupled withhis spectacular falls made him an irresistible draw, the sport's reigningantihero. No one else so routinely courted death and defeat and still came outon top. Teresa became his manager, the stable voice amid chaos, perpetuallyhoping that Johnny had finally, after numerous attempts at rehab, kicked hishabit.

Sometimes shebelieved it too. When sober, Johnny is all apologies, affectionate as a puppy,charming as sin. Gordy had warned her not to marry him, but he couldn't helpbut love Johnny too. For 13 years he was Johnny's alter ego, always ready tolaugh and lift him up after another brilliant brawl, to comfort his sisterwhenever Johnny binged and left her and their three kids alone. In February,before the last round of his most recent fight, Tapia ignored the clamor,looked Gordy in the eye and said, "I love you." Eighteen days laterGutierrez and Garcia were dead.

"It's myfault," Johnny says. "I killed them both."

These days Johnny,41, is as needy as ever, begging for Teresa's hugs and insisting he's cleanwhile training his two oldest sons, 15-year-old Jonathan and seven-year-oldLorenzo. But one day in their Las Cruces, N.Mex., home is enough to feel thecoolness; Teresa has put up a wall Johnny can't punch through. After lastyear's horror she made it clear: One more screwup and we're done. She saysshe'd already be gone were it not for her husband's ultimate snare.

"If she left,I'd end my world," Johnny says. "In a heartbeat."

"I know hewould," Teresa says. She taps Jonathan on the arm. "I see my children,I think I'm being a bad mother by keeping them around this. But I don't havethe strength to leave Johnny and watch him kill himself, either, because thenI'll be blamed: Well, you knew what he would do. Are they going to blame me iftheir dad dies? Are they going to blame me for not walking out? I'm stuck. I'mdoing time."

And the walls areclosing in. A fight had been set for last Friday in El Paso, the first steptoward Johnny's reclaiming his featherweight title, but four days before thebout he felt lost without Gutierrez. "I can't go through it no more,"Johnny said. Two days later, on what would have been Gordy's 41st birthday,grief overwhelmed the Tapias; Jonathan called his father from Las Cruces andlit into him for causing so much pain. Johnny hung up crying.

So what happenedlast Friday came as no shock. Johnny pulled out of the fight, touching off apointless crossfire with his promoter over money, contracts and lawsuits. Fanswent to the El Paso County Coliseum, cursed his name and wondered what happenedto Johnny Tapia's heart. "I'm empty," he said last week."Everything's gone in me."

That's not quitetrue: He's alive, and the match of his life stands at a draw. Johnny and Teresastill have each other.

TALK BACK
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On her wedding night Teresa saw Johnny plunge a needleinto his arm. The next morning, she says, "they had to jump-start hisheart. It was all downhill after that."

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER

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)