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Some 6,800 mourners/celebrants, asked to imagine that Johnny Tapia was fighting for their entertainment one more time, turned their eyes toward the southeast corner of the Pit.
Asked to picture Tapia in his trademark hooded robe at the base of the ramp, they began to shout.
Sunday, at a memorial service, Albuquerque bade farewell to a favorite son. Tapia, a mercurial five-time world boxing champion, died at his West Side home on May 27.
The occasion was more festive than solemn. Tapia’s well-publicized drug and legal problems took a back seat to the immensely popular fighter’s charisma and his concern for others.
Tony Holden promoted Tapia’s comeback fight in Tulsa, Okla., in 1994. Tapia had been out of the ring for 3½ years, his license suspended because of drug use.
The two had never met previously, but Holden said Tapia, at the weigh-in, somehow realized that the promoter was preoccupied.
“He came up to me and says, ‘Mr. Holden, what’s wrong with you?’ ” he recalled. Tapia persisted, Holden said, until the promoter finally told him that his best friend had been paralyzed, his wife and child killed, in an auto accident.
After the weigh-in, as Holden prepared to go visit his friend, Tapia insisted on going with him. He would not take no for an answer.
Tapia won the fight, defeating Jaime Olvera by fourth-round knockout. The next day, Holden said, he went back to the hospital to visit his friend.
He found that Tapia had preceded him, giving Holden’s friend his boxing gloves — and all the money he’d made from the fight.
“He never cared about himself,” Holden said. “He just had a heart of gold.”
Hours before the Pit doors opened at 6:30 p.m., Tapia friends and fans lined up outside in 95-degree heat.
John Moreno, a former amateur boxer, trained in the same gym as Tapia.
“We go back, probably, 25 years,” Moreno said. “I remember Johnny showing up (at the gym) in an old, beat-up Toyota with four different sizes of tires on it and a broken windshield. That’s how he got to training. He’d do whatever it took to get the job done.
“He was a good man. We’ve all made mistakes, and New Mexico loves him.”
Derek Wheeler never met Tapia — he’s just a fan who’d attended several of his fights. But he liked the way Tapia treated people.
“He was really good to all the people around him,” Wheeler said. “ Whenever you saw him, he’d always shake your hand and talk to you.
“He was just a very good person, so I just came out to give him respect and support.”
Inside, Tapia’s casket was placed in the center of a boxing ring set in the middle of the Pit floor. The ring was surrounded by photos and flower arrangements. A silver, life-size sculpture of the champion doing his trademark victory back flip was also on display.
Before the service began, fans, well-wishers and friends were allowed to file past the memorial on the floor. Highlights from Tapia’s fights were played on the Pit’s video screens.
At about 7:55, Teresa Tapia, Johnny’s wife, and other family members entered the arena. Ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr., who worked many of Tapia’s fights, began the proceedings with the traditional 10-count that honors the sport’s deceased.
Boxers Mike Tyson and Oscar De La Hoya, promoter Don King and trainer Freddie Roach delivered video tributes. Paulie Ayala, who twice defeated Tapia in memorable, action-packed bouts, paid tribute in person.
It was Bruce Trampler, chief matchmaker for the promotional firm Top Rank, Inc., who urged the crowd to picture Tapia once more coming down the Pit ramp.
Trampler also talked of a special debt he owes the fighter and his wife.
When he was experiencing marital problems, he said, Johnny and Teresa offered help and support.
“I owe my marriage to Johnny Tapia,” he said. “I owe my marriage to Teresa Tapia.”
Holden, who promoted that comeback in Tulsa, noted it’s customary to say on such occasions, “May he rest in peace.”
For the always energetic Tapia, he said, such advice would be futile.
“I believe he’s at peace,” Holden said. “But I don’t think he’s resting.”
Tributes to the Albuquerque boxing legend over the weekend were not limited to his hometown.
Saturday night at a nationally televised boxing card in Carson, Calif., Tapia was remembered by commentators at Showtime.
Tapia has worked for the premium cable network during the past year, conducting pre-fight interviews.
During Tapia’s career, boxing analyst Al Bernstein noted, he fought on Showtime nine times.
“He’s a fighter, who despite the fact that he never quite beat all his personal demons, was beloved by just about everybody that was around him.”
Bert Sugar, the late boxing historian, once said only half-jokingly that boxing fans weren’t interested in fighters “who weighed less than their wives.”
Bernstein said Tapia, helped change that perception with his aggressive style and colorful personality.
“If there’s a legacy for him,” Bernstein said, “it’s that he made the world, certainly the United States, pay attention to fighters in the lower weight classes.”
Tapia’s five world titles were won at weights of 115, 118 and 126 pounds.
In the ring Saturday, announcer Lennon said Tapia “captured the hearts of all he met with his warm and generous spirit and his endearing personality.”
Lennon then gave way to the ringing of the 10-count.
Later, Lennon tweeted the following: “That was the hardest 10-count I have ever had to do. RIP, Johnny Tapia, you are loved greatly.”
On Sunday, former Albuquerque boxer Tommy Cordova called the Journal to talk about his longtime friend. Tapia and Cordova were amateur contemporaries and New Mexico teammates in the 1983 Golden Gloves nationals.
“He’s one of my good friends, one of the best,” said Cordova, who works at a ranch near Gallup.
In 1984, as a professional, Cordova defeated Roach — who later would become Tapia’s trainer — in Las Vegas, Nev., for the now-obsolete ESPN super featherweight title.
“When I won the ESPN title,” Cordova said, “(Tapia) said he was going to win a title, too. And he did, a five-time (world) champion.”