Sunday, February 15, 2015

Book Review: Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review by Peter Silkov

“Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia”
By Johnny Tapia & Bettina Gilois

The autobiographies and biographies of boxers tend to be generally a little more dramatic than the lives of other sportsmen. For whatever reason, boxers live a bit more on the edge of life to most people. Perhaps this is one of the ingredients that go into making a boxer. Over the years, there have been many boxing biographies about fighters who have been born on the wrong side of the tracks and made good through their involvement with the fight game. However, the path to success is seldom a smooth one and success in itself is often just a prelude to an impending fall. 

Even by the usual standards of the clich├ęd cycle of success and failure, which seems to haunt so many boxers, Johnny Tapia’s story is one of extremes, extreme highs and extreme lows. A life lived upon the constant precipice of impending disaster. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a life that swung more violently from the sweetness of victory inside the ring, to the bitterness of addictions and tragedy outside of it, than Tapia. To say his life was lived on a razor’s edge is an understatement. Johnny’s life was lived on a burning razor, and perhaps the biggest triumph of this physically small man’s life is that he managed to achieve so much and touch so many before he was finally done.

The title of Johnny’s biography says it all, “Mi Vida Loca”, which translated from Spanish means,  ‘My Crazy Life.’ This title is not just the title of a book, it was a title of his life, so much so that Johnny even had these words tattooed on his chest.

Throughout “Mi Vida Loca”, the narrative is first person; it is a basic, unpretentious technique, which fits Tapia’s persona perfectly. Anyone who has seen footage of Tapia talking will know that he was as quick and inexhaustible with words, as he was with throwing punches.  If anyone was made for a first person narrative, it was Johnny.
“Mi Vida Loca” reads as if you and Johnny have sat down together for a few hours and Johnny is running through the X-rated movie that is his life. He was a five-time world champion who was also declared dead five times from overdoses.

Born on Friday the 13th, Tapia asks in the introduction to this book…
‘My name is Johnny Lee Tapia.  I was born on Friday the 13th, a Friday in February of 1967. To this day I don’t know if that makes me lucky or unlucky.’ 

Johnny grew up believing that his father had been murdered before he was born.  Ironically, a little before his own death Johnny would find out that this was untrue and that his father was actually alive, but this event actually occurred after the publication of this book.

Tapia’s mother was murdered when he was just eight years old, after he had helplessly witnessed her abduction. She was stabbed over 20 times, and raped, and died days later in hospital. Johnny didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to his mother while she was dying in hospital, or later, at her funeral. He was forbidden to go to either by his Grandparents.

It was to be a loss from which Johnny would never fully recover for the rest of his life.     He was left in the care of his Grandparents, numerous cousins, and aunts and uncles, (some of them not much older than Johnny himself) that constantly crowded their house. 

The story of Johnny’s childhood is not for the faint-hearted. Life was far from easy when his mother was around to protect him, but after her violent death, he was dragged headfirst down into the grip of his horrifically dysfunctional Grandparent’s household. 
Tapia grew up surrounded by drugs and violence and the bed for him was a little corner of the floor. In his Grandparents household, beatings were commonplace, and surrounded by his older relatives, as many as 15, of varying ages, the tiny Johnny was always a ready target.  Yet, Johnny was a ‘natural’ fighter. He had to be, just to survive. Soon Johnny’s uncles started taking him to bars and carparks to fight all- comers for a few dollars. Defeat in any of these ‘fights’ means a bigger beating for Tapia afterwards at the hands of his uncles. 

It made no difference that Johnny was barely nine years old.

“I was raised as a pitbull, raised to fight to the death.”

Aside from his Mother’s murder, Johnny recollects various other harrowing events that he survived or witnessed as a child, such as a bus crash in which he sees a pregnant woman die in front of him.

That Friday the 13th statement reoccurs throughout the book.

Despite the often-dark imagery of Tapia’s experiences, there are also moments of humour in “Mi Vida Loca,” albeit usually wrapped in black. Sometimes Johnny’s escapades, even at some of his lowest moments, are like something out of an old-fashioned slapstick comedy film.    

In time, boxing would prove to be Tapia’s salvation. From a precocious amateur career, followed by a championship laden professional career, Johnny found the inside of the boxing ring a far safer place than the world beyond the ropes. It is perhaps the only place where Johnny truly found the peace of mind that he searched for throughout his life.

If the reader is about to think that stardom and triumph in the boxing ring would sooth all Johnny’s demons, they will realize they are sadly mistaken. If anything, the success he gained in boxing often left Johnny with a bittersweet taste. It’s almost as if part of himself resents his own success, and soon, he is seemingly doing his best to ruin the very thing that offers him salvation.

After resisting drugs all of his life, Johnny falls into their grip at just the point where it seems that he is about to rise above and truly escape from his troubled past.

Never one to do anything by halves, Johnny is soon throwing himself into drugs with the same energy and dedication that he once had for boxing.

The details of Johnny’s descent into drug addiction at the very point where his professional boxing career is hitting the heights is one of the more moving and frustrating aspects of this book. You find yourself both feeling sorry for Tapia, yet, wanting to shake him by the collar as well. At one point, due to his drug addiction, Johnny is banned from boxing indefinitely, and reduced to sleeping in parks and under bridges.

There is a saying that ‘behind every great man is a great woman,’ and that seems to ring true in Johnny’s case. Meeting his future wife, Teresa, proves to be a turning point in his life. She would prove to be the extra ingredient that gives at least a semblance of balance to Johnny’s life. However, balance for Johnny would be getting clean of drugs in the run-up to his fights, only to disappear for weeks after the match, as he is sucked once more into a drugged out haze. Johnny’s relationship with his wife is similar to his relationship with boxing. There is no doubt about his love for her, but he constantly stretches her patience and trust in ways that would certainly have made many other women run away in the opposite direction.  Again, as with boxing, and now in his relationship with his wife, Johnny‘s self-sabotage continues, trying to deny himself the stability and happiness which part of him feels he does not deserve.

Despite all of the manifestations of Johnny’s ‘dark side, Teresa sticks around, and there is little doubt that she saves both his life and his boxing career.

With the chaos of his private life, it is incredible that Tapia would win five world titles, losing just 5 times in his career. Three of those defeats came in the twilight of his career, when his out-of-the-ring lifestyle was finally catching up with his fighting skills. 

For all the misery and turmoil that Johnny recounts in this autobiography, there is no self-pity; he usually points the finger at himself no matter what the circumstances.  Even the murder of his mother is a source of great guilt for Johnny. This is a man searching for an understanding of his life, rather than looking for sympathy.

Johnny Tapia died on May 27, 2012, at just 45-years-old. After all of the overdoses and suicide attempts, he died of natural causes, when that big heart inside of him finally gave out. His death came just as he had completed filming a documentary on his life. Good as that documentary is, it doesn’t come close to the insight, and at times, overwhelming detail that can be found in “Mi Vida Loca.“ Written in 2006, when Johnny was still boxing, it is the closest you can get to the heart of Johnny Tapia.  It is a humorous, disturbing, and insightful look at one man’s struggle to survive in a world full of terrors and demons, of loss and tragedy, and how despite all of this, he still managed to achieve a greatness in the ring that can never be taken away from him. 

Amidst all the pain there was triumph, and in that triumph there is hope for many people. 

Johnny Tapia didn’t want pity. He wanted to inspire people to better themselves, to overcome life’s hardships just as he had, yet, not fall into the same traps that he did.  If he could overcome such a brutally dark background then others surely could as well.

‘I m still here because God wants to show people that there is something out there for them, that if you have courage and you want to do something with your life, if you want to resurrect yourself, then you can go for it.’ 

Johnny Tapia was immensely popular during his lifetime, even amongst people who had never met him. Those who did meet him describe a man who was hungry for love and attention, eager to please and help anyone, and a soft touch in many ways. Johnny Tapia may have  passed on, but for those who never got the chance to meet him, this harrowing and passionate book is the next best thing.

My only reservation with this book is the lack of any photos at all. It would have been nice to see photos of Johnny’s mother, family members, and of Johnny himself through the various stages of his life, both in and out of the ring. The absence of Johnny’s boxing record is also a regrettable oversight.  Despite these weaknesses, Johnny’s narrative is so vivid, that the absence of photos goes almost unnoticed by the reader. 
“Mi Vida Loca” leaves the reader feeling he has just shared a beer and a handshake with the man himself. 

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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