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Boxing: Finally Enjoying Life, Johnny Tapia, 38, Wants to Go Out a Champ

By Dan Mayfield
Journal Staff Writer
    It's been said that everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. For boxer Johnny Tapia, the last several years have been a struggle not to die and to earn a bit of time in heaven before it's too late.
    It's a tough goal for a guy who was born in Wells Park on Friday the 13th, who's been clinically dead more times than he can remember and has done enough drugs to make a regular at Studio 54 blush.
    In many ways, he's the Lazarus of Albuquerque boxing.
    Just when you think he's out— whether it's on a drug suspension from the sport, or spending nights hooked to a respirator in a Las Vegas, Nev., hospital, or in one of a dozen rehab clinics— he always comes back.
    But, said his longtime friend, promoter Lenny Fresquez, "You can't never count out Johnny. I've known him since I was 15, and he used to play basketball with us in Wells Park. He was always a gunner, taking the half-court shots, the 3-pointers. He always goes for the long shots, and makes them."
    Tapia is happily philosophical about himself these days: "I'm doing good. I just take it one day at a time. Life is just awesome."
    Well, it's quite a renaissance in the Tapia household with a new Pomeranian, Buster ("He looks like a skunk"), to keep Tapia company in his gym at his new spread in Las Cruces, and two kids— including one newborn.
    Tapia is a little like heavyweight boxer-turned-entrepreneur-turned-gadfly George Foreman with his many sons George. The two are even starting to look alike. The latest Tapia arrival, Johnny Tomas Nikoli Tapia— "Niki"— joined the Tapias' other adopted son, Johnny Lee Lorenzo Tapia, 15 days ago.
    "It's even more special because we chose him," Teresa Tapia said.
    The Tapias, Teresa said, have a long history of adopting, first by taking care of her nephew for the last 11 years, and second with Johnny Lee Lorenzo, 4.
    But Johnny Tapia, the father, is just now learning how to handle the newest member of the family.
    "All you do is hold him and feed him. My hands are strong," he said. "I've got to be really delicate."
    During a recent phone interview with Tapia, kids seemed to have the run of the house. Teresa, Tapia's wife of 13 years, could be heard corralling a handful of kids who came over to play video games.
    "Mama's the strict one," Tapia said. "She does all the dirty work. They're supposed to get me tired, but I'm the hyper one.
    "I'm surrounding myself with kids. There's always kids in the house," he said. They keep him sober, and give him challengers at PlayStation games.
    "The truth is, life is OK. I see smiles on my wife and my kids. This is what it goes like, man. When I do an interview, I tell the truth. My life has been good.
    "I'm doing good today. I'm starting to grow up. The truth is, I'm a father now and trying to be a better father than I am today."
The whys
    So why keep fighting, Johnny? Why, at 38, with two young kids at home, a loving wife, enough money to retire comfortably and a record that makes you a lock for a slot in the Boxing Hall of Fame as the first to win five belts in three weight classes— do you keep doing it?
    Along with the questions and his own wish for Tapia, Fresquez seems to have the answer.
    "The, what is it, the $100 question, or $100,000 question is, does Johnny have it in him? Why is he still doing it? I would like to see him— he wants to— become and retire a world champ and go out on top."
    After five belts, what does he left to prove?
    "The challenge is still there," Tapia said.
    And, more importantly, so is Frankie Archuleta.
    Tapia lost to Archuleta in March 2004 in an ugly 10-round split decision.
    "I wasn't the Johnny I was supposed to be," he said.
    During the fight, there were flashes of the "old Johnny," but he looked slow and blamed the loss on a bout with the flu at the time, but now blames bronchitis for having to stagger for air during the fight.
    On Friday, Tapia— who's ranked 17th in the world by the World Boxing Council— will get his shot in a super bantamweight rematch with Archuleta at Tingley Coliseum. Archuleta is ranked third by the WBC.
    Tapia has fought only once in the last year, a bout many thought he would lose.
    He beat Nicky Bentz (36-4-2, 29 KOs) in January in Hidalgo, Texas— near Bentz's home turf.
    Tapia won by only a split decision, not in the overwhelming way he used to defeat opponents just a few years ago.
    But that victory did a lot for his psyche.
    "I was supposed to get my ass kicked. He got me once hard, boom, right on the chin," Tapia said of the Bentz fight. "The problem with Hidalgo, they tried to surprise me. You know, if (Marco Antonio) Barrera didn't knock me out, or Caesar Soto didn't knock me out, Bentz couldn't.
    "Right now," he said, "I'm thinking only about Frankie now. It's just the revenge."
    And this fight means as much to Tapia as any fight he's ever had.
    He knows he getting older and wants to go out a champion, not a former champion.
    "The truth is, I've got to get the win," he said.
    If he wins, he wants to win the 122-pound world championship belt held by Oscar Larios (55-3-1, 35 KOs) or Israel Vasquez (37-3, 27 KOs). But both fighters are in their late 20s, a fighter's prime, and 10 years younger than Tapia.
    Still, when a Larios or a Vasquez calls to set up a fight, Fresquez said, "Johnny holds all the cards. His name still outweighs anybody."
    Already, they're calling, anticipating a Tapia win.
    First, though, he has to get through Archuleta.
    "I want to see him beat me at my best," Tapia said. "Frankie's a good guy, don't get me wrong, but I owe him."
    Tapia's never lost a fight in his hometown, including 17 as a pro, and doesn't plan on doing so now.
    "I won't lose. There's no ifs, ands or buts. I've never lost a fight in Albuquerque as a professional," he said. "I've prepared to bang, to box, whatever."
    He's been training with Oscar Suarez, a New Jersey-based trainer who's known for turning fighters such as Naseem Hamed and Acelino Freitas into champions.
    "He's a good technical trainer," Tapia said. "He sees the opening, what to catch. I'm still learning."
    "Frank will give me all he wants. ... I'm expecting something," he said.
    Archuleta has been training with Tony Ayala and knows that he will have to beat Tapia in a more convincing manner in Albuquerque than he did in Las Vegas.
Everything but boxing
    Though most people want to know about Tapia's plan in the ring, in the wide-ranging interview, Tapia wanted to talk about everything except the fight.
    He refused to say what would happen if he lost to Archuleta.
    He's not planning on it.
    Instead, he talked about God, and how his faith is keeping him sober, and about his new Harley-Davidson Road King and the drop-top 1964 Impala he's looking at buying.
    He talked about his frequent moves, from Albuquerque to Big Bear, Calif., to Las Vegas, Nev., to Kingman, Ariz., to Ruidoso, to Corpus Christi, Texas, then briefly to San Antonio, Texas.
    He said he liked the idea of moving near the ocean, until he was stung by a jellyfish last year.
    He still has a place in the East Mountains, but it was too cold there recently to train, so he's been staying at the couple's house in Las Cruces where he can run and train outside, or in the gym he built out back.
    "Texas ain't got no mountains or nothing," he said. "It's flat. But there's no place like home."
    And for Tapia, there's nothing quite like raising kids.
    "Johnny's so excited," Teresa said. "He loves the kids."
    "If I had one dream, I'd like to see my kids get whatever they want," Johnny said. "I want love in the house, and respect— yes, sir; no, sir— I don't want them to do drugs or alcohol. I've done enough for all of us."
    "I am all excited," he said. "I just thank the Lord."
    He can hardly believe it, after the hell he said he's put his family through.
    "I've done (Teresa) wrong, but she stands by me. I've been in a lo-o-o-t of trouble," he said. "I never thought I would make it this far. I want to live now. I never wanted to live."
    Maybe, just maybe, after his lifelong tryst with hell, Johnny Tapia— the elder— has found heaven at home in Las Cruces.
    April 15: Johnny Tapia (54-4-2) vs. Frankie Archuleta (24-4-1) in a super bantamweight bout, plus six other bouts, Tingley Coliseum. Doors open at 5 p.m.; first bell 6 p.m. Tickets: $20-$250 at all Ticketmaster locations, ticketmaster.com and Two-Dees Lounge in Las Vegas, N.M. TV: Telefutura (blacked out for 90-mile radius)