The following article by Paul Zanon is a companion piece to his book, The Ghost of Johnny Tapia.
“The queues on the day were crazy. It was mobbed. There were people showing up trying to buy tickets and there were none available. If you took a look at the crowds outside, you would have thought The Beatles were playing live.” Frank Warren recalled the day Johnny Tapia brought traffic to a standstill outside possibly Britain’s most iconic boxing venue.
Over eighteen years have passed since Johnny Tapia had his first and only professional boxing contest outside of the United States. Warren discussed how he first came into contact with Mi Vida Loca. “I think it happened through a good friend of mine, the late Jay Larkin, who basically ran the boxing on Showtime. He got on with Johnny and recommended for him to get in touch with me and that’s when his wife and manager Teresa called.
“We put a few shows with Johnny in the US which all went out on Showtime. I did one show with him in Albuquerque which, if memory serves me correctly, was the highest-grossing fight at the time they’d ever had in Albuquerque. I remember, with Johnny’s instigation, we did a thing with the police where we did ‘tickets for guns.’ We set aside a certain amount of tickets in exchange for firearms, to get the guns off the street, which Johnny was instrumental in pushing.
“There were a couple of other shows after that, then I brought him to London for the show on January 19, 2002, at York Hall, against Eduardo Enrique Alvarez. We could have put him on a massive show, but we talked about it and decided that this was the best place. Small hall, historic, many great fighters had been there over the years and it was spit and sawdust, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, Johnny was pretty much a spit-and-sawdust person himself. When you talked to him, many parts of his life were harrowing. If you think what he’d been through, his family, the drug problem, his life in general, he was actually a really down to earth lovely fella and such an engaging person. I loved him. It was such a pleasure working with him and his wife Teresa.”
What did Albuquerque’s favorite fighting son think of the mecca of small hall boxing? “He loved York Hall. When he came into the venue, he had tears in his eyes. The love in the room for him was unbelievable. Showtime broadcasted the fight and it felt like it was a tribute to him in the UK and in some ways it was. He loved it and the crowd absolutely adored him.”
The front cover of the boxing program said, ‘The Power of London,’ Featuring Wayne Alexander versus Paolo Pizzamiglio for the vacant super welterweight [EBU] European crown. In the bottom right-hand corner was a small photo which said, ‘Plus Special Attraction, Johnny Tapia.’ Wayne Alexander recalled. “At the weigh-in, everyone was hovering around him. It was like the ‘Johnny Tapia,’ weigh-in. I went over to him and asked if he could sign my program and we exchanged a few words. He was really friendly, smiling, happy and genuinely interested in what you said. You wouldn’t think he’d had this crazy life by speaking to him.”
“As far as fight night goes, that was one of my best nights. Johnny Tapia was on my undercard, officially, but obviously, he was the main event that everyone came to see that night. I was gutted that I couldn’t watch it live, though. The problem was, I was fighting for the European title straight after him, so as he was fighting, Jimmy [Tibbs] was gloving me up. I’d watched Tapia from 1990, before he got his first ban. I was an amateur boxer at the time and watched him right through the 1990s. He was such a great fighter. An all-action entertainer who gave the crowd what they wanted. He was aggressive, he took no prisoners and he knew from the first bell exactly what he was going to do in that fight. Come in like a steam train and throw a lot of hard, aggressive punches. So, when I was told I was fighting on technically his undercard, I couldn’t wait.
“I’ll never forget hearing the crowd roar when he was announced. York Hall erupted and the building literally shook as he was walking to the ring.” Warren added. “The place did shake! If you think of all the famous fighters who started their careers at York Hall and the receptions they received over the years, then compare it to how Johnny Tapia was received that night—that’s probably the most tremendous reception that venue has ever experienced.”
Alexander continued. “He was a character in the ring, but without a doubt a massive character outside of it also. His whole life story, the heartache and tragedy and then his boxing, his whole story, made him very exciting to watch and follow. I’m honored to have fought on the same show with a man I had so much admiration for.”
Esteemed boxing trainer Jimmy Tibbs recalled. “Johnny Tapia was a great fighter that could have been a greater fighter if he’d have lived a bit better. But who am I to tell him that? I say it again, Johnny Tapia was a great fighter. He was a natural combination fighter who could box, had an incredible boxing IQ and could punch. He had everything. At bantamweight, I’d say he’s one of the all-time greats.”
Three months after the Alvarez fight, Tapia took on IBF featherweight world champion, Manuel Medina, gaining a majority points decision over the teak-tough Mexican and, in doing so, becoming a three-weight world champion. Having trained numerous world champions, Tibbs gave his take on how his former charge, WBA featherweight world champion, Barry McGuigan would have fared. “At their peaks, that’s a tough one to call. Barry was a forward fighter, which would have suited Tapia, but Barry always had a way of closing his opponents down and always gave it his all, leaving it all in the ring. Then again, Tapia had that ability to turn things around when you least expected. I’d say it would have been a very entertaining fifty-fifty fight.”
Warren continued: “My memories of the fight itself was the crowd and how he was received, not so much the fight [which lasted one minute and twenty-two seconds]. He was such a good fighter, but for a venue of twelve hundred people, there was no way we could be bringing in a big-name opponent and everyone understood that. It really didn’t matter, though. He could have fought a tea lady and nobody would have cared about that, they just wanted to see Johnny Tapia in action. If I remember rightly, he finished off with his celebratory backflip! Johnny loved it and we were delighted that he was delighted.”
At one point, Tapia was set to lock horns with Prince Naseem Hamed in a mouthwatering clash. Warren explained. “We were trying to get it on and working very hard between us. Jay Larkin, ourselves, and Teresa put a lot of work into making the fight happen, but for various reasons and I can’t remember why, it just didn’t happen, which is a real shame. That would have been a tremendous fight. I think Naz was naturally the bigger guy, but Johnny was very old school, with that never-say-die attitude. You had to nail him to the floor to win. But Naz was also a really game guy. When he was at the top of his game, I don’t think anybody could touch him, but who knows, because the fight never happened. When I look back at fights like that, ‘Who would you have liked to have seen Johnny fight at the time?,’ the answer is, when he was at his prime, versus the other fighters at their prime. Then you would get the best of it and the fans would find out who really was the best.”
“That night in January 2002, we could have sold at least five thousand tickets. Easy. There were a number of other venues in London, or anywhere in the UK, but we chose York Hall for a reason. We talked about it and between me, Jay Larkin, Teresa, and Johnny and that seemed to be the most appropriate. As it turned out, it was. It was quite a homage to him and a night that the whole of the East End of London and far, far beyond will never forget.”
Interview With Paul Zanon and Teresa Tapia