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Boxing: Tapia documentary is a winner

Albuquerque fighter Johnny Tapia rejoices after a boxing match in June 2001 against Cesar Soto at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Nev. Tapia won by third-round TKO. (JOURNAL FILE)
Albuquerque fighter Johnny Tapia rejoices after a boxing match in June 2001 against Cesar Soto at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Nev. Tapia won by third-round TKO. (JOURNAL FILE)
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In June, I was privileged to get an advance look at filmmaker Eddie Alcazar’s documentary, “Tapia.”

I’m writing about it now because, on Oct. 17, Alcazar’s film about Albuquerque boxing legend Johnny Tapia will make its New Mexico debut at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.

The film moved me close to tears at several points – partly because Tapia had died from heart disease 13 months before; partly because I’d known him, followed his life and career, for almost three decades; partly because over the years I’d become really, really fond of him. But had I never met the man, had I not known before viewing the film that he had died in May 2012 at age 45, I know I still would have been deeply affected.

The Tapia whom Alcazar interviewed just months before his death was a man seemingly grown old before his time: too many punches, too many drugs, too much pain, too much sorrow. As noted by Tapia’s wife, Teresa, many of her husband’s responses to Alcazar suggested a foreknowledge that he’d be leaving this world sooner than later.

Yet, the film, while thoroughly exploring the dark and tragic side of Tapia’s life – “into the tortured soul,” as the promo says – was also the story of his triumph over drugs and bipolar disorder: five world titles in the ring, his 19 years of marriage to Teresa, their three kids, the devotion of his fans (and his to them), his prodigious talent.

The only thing I found to be missing from “Tapia,” for the most part, was the humor.

Sometimes on purpose, sometimes accidentally, Johnny Tapia could always make me laugh.

In 1994, in a Phoenix hotel coffee shop the day before a fight, I sat down to interview Tapia for my advance story. Before I could ask a question, he opened with a line that he obviously had rehearsed.

“You know, Rick,” he said, “like Rodney King, I have a dream.”

After I stopped spraying coffee across the table, I gently pointed out that it was Martin Luther King, not Rodney, who’d had the dream.

He merely shrugged and smiled, not embarrassed at all. The point was, his own dream was to become a world champion.

Tapia’s relationship with the late Paul Chavez, his trainer and manager from 1988-95, ended badly. But in happier times, their friendly bickering about ring strategy sometimes turned interviews into comic dialogues.

Chavez always urged Tapia to use his quickness and boxing skills, avoiding punches along the way. Tapia preferred to give the fans a show, even if it meant taking punishment unnecessarily.

“I guess you can tell what I do for a living,” he said after one lopsided victory on the scorecards – smiling through a face swollen to nearly the size of a basketball.

Excerpts from a February 1995 Journal story reflected the trainer’s and the fighter’s points of view.

Chavez: “Why take punches you don’t have to take?”

Tapia: “I’m a lot stronger than I used to be.”

Chavez: “Box and move. Why not make it easy?”

Tapia: “I might have to go the distance that way. That’s tiring.”

Had to be there? Well, OK. Most often, probably, it was not what Tapia said that was funny but how he said it – that crooked grin, that squeaky voice.

I first laid eyes on Johnny Tapia in February 1983, when he won the New Mexico 106-pound, open-division Golden Gloves title at the old Civic Auditorium. He had turned 16, the minimum age for the open division, just four days before the tournament started. I’ve always felt like I practically discovered him.

Yet, Alcazar unearthed a film of Tapia as a 15-year-old, before I made his acquaintance, fighting at 100 pounds in the 1982 Junior Olympics nationals in Colorado Springs. I found it fascinating. He also had some film of Tapia’s early pro fights that I hadn’t seen before.

Later, nostalgia flowed freely as I watched footage of Tapia fights I’d covered from ringside. There were his epic battles with Paulie Ayala in 1999 and 2000, both disputed losses, and his October ’94 victory over Henry Martinez at the Pit that earned him the first of those five world titles.

As for his 1997 showdown with fellow Albuquerquean Danny Romero, I’ve never covered a sporting event – Super Bowls and Olympics included – that ranks higher on my personal hit parade.

“Tapia” was an entry in the documentary feature category of this summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival. It didn’t win a prize.

Like Tapia the boxer, it’s a winner all the same.

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