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Johnny Tapia’s “vida loca” has come to an end.
The five-time world boxing champion died Sunday, a source close to the family said.
Albuquerque police were called to Tapia’s house about 7:45 p.m. by a family member who found a body there, said Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Robert Gibbs. The body is believed to be Tapia’s, but police could not say with certainty that it was.
The death did not appear suspicious, Gibbs said. An official cause of death will be determined by the Office of the Medical Investigator following an autopsy.
“He was such a lovable guy and a terrific fighter,” said Bruce Trampler, Top Rank Inc., vice president. “I’m not shocked by this news, and I guess we all knew it was coming, but he was a wonderful character.”
“He’s a human being,” said Danny Romero, Tapia’s boxing rival. “We all have our problems. Everybody fights them in different ways. … Last time I talked to him was about a month and a half ago. It was just a high-five (type of conversation), just messing around on the phone. He didn’t sound too bad. We all fight our own demons.”
Tapia’s life was marked by troubles with drug and alcohol abuse and included stints in jail.
Still, he managed to touch lives.
“To me, he was the most giving person that I know,” said Hector Muñoz, an Albuquerque professional boxer being trained by Tapia. “I’m just blessed that he did work my corner and that he trained me. He was a great guy, just unbelievable as a trainer, too.”
TV news vans and police vehicles crowded the far northwest Albuquerque street, casting bright lights through the dim neighborhood. Tapia’s house was quiet; Tapia’s wife, some family members and investigators stayed inside.
Outside, neighbors gathered in a nearby driveway as a pair of boys milled around on their bicycles.
“He’s a legend to New Mexico,” said Luis Montaño, 20, who looked distraught and said he’s a professional boxer. He said he’s met Tapia a few times and was using a punching bag when he heard what happened.
He put on a boxing sweater and came to the house as his friends in the neighborhood called him.
“His team looked up to him. He was a good boxer.”
“He had such a huge heart,” Trampler said. “It seemed like no matter who he met or who he saw, whether he knew them or thought he knew them or thought he’d met them, whatever, it was, ‘Give me a call, here’s my number, here’s my card.’ He was a real people person and I can’t tell you how many times he called me just to see how I was doing, just checking up on you, that kind of stuff. I’m not especially flattered because he probably did that with everybody. … He was just such an upbeat person.”
Tapia, 45, was working as a boxing trainer and is the subject of a documentary being made by Albuquerque-born filmmaker Eddie Alcazar.
“I have all kinds of problems; I am a problem,” Tapia once told the Journal. “But I’ve got three beautiful babies. Now they’ve got me changing Pampers and washing ‘em, and that’s a beautiful thing in its own.
“I’ve got unconditional love right now from my kids and also from my wife. I’m a family man. My kids, that’s more work than boxing, man.”
Tapia, whose biography is called “Mi Vida Loca,” was born in Albuquerque on Feb. 13, 1967, the son of Virginia Tapia Gallegos and Jerry Padilla. It was not until 2010 that Tapia discovered that Padilla was his father.
His mother was stabbed and killed when he was 8 years old. In 1999, law-enforcement officials determined that she was killed by her sometime boyfriend Richard Espinosa. Espinosa died in 1983.
Tapia was raised in Albuquerque’s Wells Park neighborhood by his grandparents, Miguel and Esther Tapia, and a houseful of aunts and uncles.
When Tapia was 16, he won the 106-pound national Golden Gloves amateur boxing title, and captured a second Golden Gloves title at 112 pounds two years later.
He turned pro in 1988 and began fighting with the nickname “The Baby-Faced Assassin.”
Between 1990-93, Tapia was in and out of jail, waging a battle with cocaine and alcohol.
But in 1994, he won the first of his five world titles, beating Henry Martinez for the WBO junior bantamweight title.
He defeated Romero in a 1997 bout in Las Vegas, Nev., a fight that enthralled Albuquerque.
“This is just tragic for us,” said Romero. “Maybe with this awareness we can get everything going in a public way. It’s not like I haven’t fought my battles with alcohol. Everybody needs help.”
“In the ring, he would fight anybody” Trampler said. “He feared nobody, but he was also a gracious winner. The obvious example is him and Danny. He was very respectful of Danny not only the night they fought but in the following years.”
Tapia’s last fight was a decision over Mauricio Pastrana in June 2011.
“I have videos of him with my son, Maximus,” Muñoz said. “He’s gonna be 2. He doesn’t even say grandma, but he says Johnny. That’s how much he loves Johnny.
“I don’t know, it’s awful.”
“It’s strange how you can be away from somebody for a couple of years at a time,” Romero said, “and it seems like nobody’s gone nowhere. He was lively, the energy he had, just making you feel good.”
“You wouldn’t have room to write all I’d want to say,” Trampler said. “He was bigger than life. His life was really much, much more than what his ring career was. Like I said he was just such a people person. I wish I could be more shocked and surprised, I’m not. But I’m very sad.
“This is a punch in the stomach.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal