You'll have to forgive me for writing this, it's been an odd few days and sometimes the act of simply writing about things provides the necessary catharsis.
When I first read that Johnny Tapia had passed away, it was a heavy moment for me as a boxing fan. During my younger days, as I made the transition from a kid who heard about boxing from family and watched Mike Tyson (and, of course, played Punchout!) to someone who actually followed the sport, there was something about Tapia that was deeply attractive to me. On the surface level, Johnny fought in a way that was easy to understand, he had the necessary skill, but he still fought like absolute hell when he stepped between the ropes.
I mean, come on:
As I learned about the individual boxers I'd see on ESPN, USA, HBO, Showtime..etc. I'd see Tapia fight and hear the stories behind his "Mi Vida Loca" tattoo and, even at a younger age, it blew my mind that someone could overcome the worst things in life to become a world champion. For those that don't know, Tapia's father was murdered while his mother was still pregnant with Johnny and then at the age of eight...I'll let HBOWorldBoxing.com tell the horrible story:
...his mother Virginia was kidnapped, raped, hung, stabbed 22 times with scissors and a screwdriver, and left for dead by her assailant. Johnny recalls being awakened in the middle of the night by a noise that he was certain was his mother's screams. He looked out the window and saw her chained in the back of a pick-up truck. He woke up his grandparents to tell them what he had seen, but they thought it was just the overactive imagination of a little boy and sent him back to bed. He is still haunted by these memories to this day.
After crawling 100 yards through a gravel pit to a road following her brutal encounter, Johnny's mother was found by the police and taken to the hospital. Because she was found with no identification, she remained in a hospital bed as a "Jane Doe" for two days. Finally, after a story and photo ran in the paper, Virginia's sister ran to the hospital and sadly confirmed her identity. Johnny's aunts and uncles went to visit his mother over the next few days to make their peace, but would not allow Virginia's 8-year-old son to visit. Though Johnny desperately pleaded with his family for the opportunity to say good-bye to his mother, he was denied. She died four days after the attack without regaining consciousness. No one was charged with the murder.
Tapia would struggle with drugs during his career and to his dying day (his brother-in-law and nephew died driving to see Johnny in the hospital after he overdosed on cocaine), but it remains amazing to me that boxing saved Johnny and allowed him to not have his life defined by the unfathomable tragedy of his youth. Instead, Johnny was a great. Retiring with a record of 58-5-2, having a four year run as WBO super flyweight champion, a run during that time with the IBF super flyweight title, a WBA bantamweight championship run, a WBO bantamweight championship stint and an IBF featherweight title run.
I was given a TV and a VCR in my room at a fairly young age, and one of my favorite things to do was to tape pretty much every fight on TV and I can say with absolute honesty that Tapia's 1999 fight with Paulie Ayala (which I put at the bottom of this article) was one of my favorites in my collection and is as responsible as any one fight for cementing me as a boxing fan. That fight, along with Tyson vs. Douglas, Foreman vs. Moorer, and all kinds of Pernell Whitaker and Roy Jones Jr. fights that I'd watch over and over cemented my love of boxing.
That Tapia died at 45 may seem tragic, but, despite his struggles, Johnny dies as a man who survived the worst and still reached the top. His crazy life is still something to have been proud of.
While Tapia's death may have carried with it a sad sense of inevitability, no one saw the Paul Williams tragedy coming.
I was a fan of Paul Williams until a string of odd or bad fights soured me a bit, perhaps unfairly. For some reason, the fan in me held Kermit Cintron's bizarre "fall" from the ring against Williams as well, that was followed up by Paul being brutally knocked out by Sergio Martinez in their rematch and then Willaims receiving a completely undeserved win over Erislandy Lara. I'd gone from a Williams fan to thinking that he was "done."
His fight this February against Nobuhiro Ishida had me thinking he was "back" a bit more, however and he signed a huge fight last week, agreeing to fight Saul "Canelo" Alvarez in Canelo's first PPV headlining bout. My initial cold reaction to the bout had boxing minds I respect (Scott Christ of BadLeftHook and Steve Kim of MaxBoxing) pushing me to realize what a tough fight it was for Canelo. This led to me rewatching some of Williams' pre-Martinez rematch bouts and falling in love with his style again.
A 6'2" guy who fought mostly between 147 and 154 pounds, Williams had natural born physical gifts that we are always all too quick to treat as simple tools that will make for a great fighter. But, unlike so many fighters with the gift of reach, Williams actually knew how to use it and could also generate significant power.
The simple fact that Williams was in the ring a second time with Martinez speaks to the heart he had as a fighter. The two men went all-out in their first meeting and Paul and his camp could have avoided Sergio the rest of his career with some shrewd maneuvering. Instead, he took the rematch and paid the price.
As the boxing world seemed ready to once again embrace Williams after signing the Canelo fight, tragedy struck. Williams was driving his motorcycle while in town to go to his brothers' wedding and attempted to avoid two different accidents, leading to losing control of his bike, going down a steep embankment before flying off his bike and landing on his back, severing his spinal cord.
Williams will likely spend the rest of his life paralyzed from the waist down.
This has affected me in ways I couldn't have anticipated. Something about the fact that he is right around my age and was just getting his career back on track, heading into a huge fight and now...this. I've never really heard many bad things about Paul. Known as being smart, funny and generally a "good guy," it just doesn't seem real that he may never walk again. And, as childish as it may sound, it's just not fair.
Fighters are a tough lot though, and Williams isn't quite ready to give up just yet. Paul Williams' manager via ESPN:
"He's telling jokes and saying if he doesn't box again, he'll do stand-up comedy. He's in good spirits but he is also in denial," Peterson said. "But he's coherent. I had an excellent conversation with him. When I walked in the door (on Sunday) about 5:30 in the afternoon, he said he'd be ready to go back to camp on Monday. I guess I'm in denial, too, because I have seen him overcome so much adversity before and come back. We'll pray about the situation."
It has been a hard few days to be a fan of not boxing, but of boxers and my thoughts are with the Paul and his family, as well as the family of Johnny Tapia. As different as can be, but both champions who should be remembered as such and not for their lowest moments.
Paul Williams' Greatest Hits
Tapia vs. Ayala