Johnny Tapia is Dead

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This morning, I wrote five paragraphs about Johnny Tapia. I started slowly, but soon one idea cascaded into another; connections presented themselves. Clever phrases. You'll have to believe me when I say that those paragraphs were good, and that they felt good to write, because those paragraphs no longer exist. They vanished, along with the entirety of my browser window, a moment after I searched the words “gerry cooney.” Computers are stupid, and I am equally stupid.

I cursed. I threw things some things around my apartment: an empty box, a balled up pair of socks. Finally, I went for a walk to the 7-11. I enjoy walking to the 7-11 because I live on a ridge, beyond which can see the Olympic Mountains. At 7-11, I bought a chocolate, which I ate immediately, and one of those giant .99 cent Arizona Iced Teas, which I will drink later. Looking off at the mountains, and at the dogs and children walking gleefully with their owners in the foreground, I was struck in an almost physical way by my pitiful lack of perspective.Five paragraphs about a dead boxer will not change the world; they will probably not even change my own life. My life is already pretty good. 

Johnny Tapia's life, by most measures, was not so good. Tapia was found dead last night in his Albuquerque home. Circumstances were not suspicious, said the local police. On one hand, it's surprising that Tapia even managed to make it to 45. He was a drug addict who got punched in the head for a living. His early death was, like the early death of any boxer, the opposite of suspicious – it was practically predetermined. On the other hand, I never would have guessed that Johnny Tapia was capable of dying.

For Tapia, boxing was an extension of hardship outside the ring. He was a five-time world champion with almost as many suicide attempts as losses on his record. He won 59 fights with hands that seemed unbound by physics, they were so strong and fast. When he was 8 years old, he watched his mother get chained to the back of a pickup truck and stabbed to death with a screwdriver. When he was in his 40s, he learned that his biological father was alive -- and not, as he had always believed, murdered before he was born. But Tapia lived. His nickname was Mi Vida Loca. He might have lived crazy, but he lived.

When champions like Johnny Tapia die, the first instinct of writers is often to look at what the sport took from them, or put another way, how much of themselves these heroic figures gave to boxing. Arturo Gatti, murdered in a hotel room in Brazil. Joe Frazier, broke, broken down, living above a gym in Philadelphia. How much life did Tapia let seep out of him in the ring, where he was as reckless, as relentless, as anybody? How much of himself did Tapia generously portion off for the fans to whom he connected so vivaciously? (YouTube is loaded with footage of Tapia egging on opponents, hands at his waist, or over his head riling up the crowd.)

I’m pretty sure that this impulse is the wrong one and these questions are misguided. Getting punched in the head, in the ribs, in the gut was not the worst part of Johnny Tapia's life. Nor was it the worst part of Joe Frazier's, who might have died with diabetes and cancer and high blood pressure, but was born the 12th child of a broke sharecropping family in Jim Crow South Carolina. Boxing is hard and vicious, but boxers come from hard and vicious places. Deliverance is not a guarantee. The image of Muhammad Ali, cloistered away, trembling toward death, does not do this fact justice. Ali is a myth, born from the relative middle class into the upper levels of American, and then global popular culture. Even as a champion, Johnny Tapia was born, lived, and died someplace far lower and less glamorous. The more you think about it, the more exploitative, the whole enterprise seems.

In her recent New Yorker story on Claressa Shields and the ascent of women's boxing, Ariel Levy quoted Hal Adonis, the head of USA Boxing. Adonis says greatness in the ring has less to do with gender than with life experience:

“When kids call me up, I say, “Let me ask you an honest question: have your parents ever hit you?' If they say no, I say 'I don't think you belong in boxing.'”

Johnny Tapia was not even raised with the luxury of parents to hit him.

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