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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Pain far worse than punches
Former champion Johnny Tapia is boxing's most tortured soul, but after attempting suicide in August he is planning a comeback. BBC Sport Online's Chris Summers investigates.

If someone had pitched Johnny Tapia's life story to a Hollywood studio, it would have been snapped up and turned into a hit movie.

As a child he survived a horrendous bus crash.

Then he witnessed his mother being abducted in the middle of the night.

He tried to wake his grandparents but was told to go back to bed. His mother was raped and died four days later in hospital.

  World title fights
Oct 1994: wins WBO junior bantamweight title against Henry Martinez
Jul 1997: wins IBF junior bantam title from Danny Romero
May 1998: wins WBA bantam crown from Nana Konadu
Jun 1999: loses WBA title to Paulie Ayala
Jan 2000: wins WBO bantam title from Jorge Eliecer Julio

His shorts still bear the legend "Mama 1942-1975" and he remains haunted by memories of that night.

He turned to boxing to work out his frustration and anger.

"I knew that I could hit someone and not go to jail," he told BBC Sport Online.

He won two National Golden Gloves titles as an amateur and won his first 21 fights as a professional.

But despite early success, or perhaps because of it, he developed a terrible cocaine addiction and overdosed three times.

"I was clinically dead three times for more than a minute each," he said.

Eventually his drug habit led to a three-year ban from the ring.

Tapia v Soto
Tapia beat Cesar Soto in June and then quit the ring
After meeting Teresa Chavez, the love of his life and now his wife, he gave up drugs and became a world champion - and one of America's most exciting boxers.

"She's given me a reason to live," he said.

Teresa forced him to go into rehab and after two months he was finally clean.

When his boxing suspension was lifted in 1994 he went back to work and reeled off five straight wins.

On 12 October 1994 he won his first world bantamweight title in front of a partisan crowd in his hometown, Albuquerque.

He was unbeaten until June 1999, when he lost on points to Paulie Ayala. He lost by another controversial decision in a rematch in July last year.

Attempted suicide

Tapia says: "I definitely should have won, but you live and learn and move on."

Tapia has suffered bouts of severe depression for years.

Having lost his undefeated record and learned of the death - by drug overdose - of a close friend, he attempted suicide on 30 August this year.

He survived but is still fighting his internal demons, with the final outcome still unknown.

Teresa Tapia
Teresa Tapia... the love of his life
A devout Roman Catholic, who has a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his chest, Tapia says: "I put everything in the hands of God."

Several film-makers have toyed with the idea of making a Tapia film but none has so far come to fruition.

Perhaps Hollywood is waiting to see how the real story turns out.

Asked who he would want to play him in a film, Tapia said: "Someone rugged looking. They would have to wear their heart on their sleeve."

'Severe depression'

John Beyrooty, a spokesman for boxing promoters Showtime, said: "Johnny Tapia's story is not just the greatest story in boxing, but the greatest story in sports. This is a guy who shouldn't be alive."

Tapia was diagnosed as suffering from bi-polar affective disorder in 1999.

His latest bout of severe depression was brought on by the death of a boyhood friend, Charles Anaya, who suffered a drugs overdose.

His wife and manager, Teresa, admitted her husband had been taken to hospital after trying to commit suicide on 30 August.

Teresa said Johnny had a number of personal issues but was "depressed about everything".

Tapia
Tapia's shorts are emblazoned "Mama 1942-1975"

Tapia is not the first boxer to have emotional or drug problems. Oliver McCall famously broke down in tears during a world title fight with Lennox Lewis.

But Tapia's life story is so harrowing it makes other fighters' ghetto backgrounds pale into insignificance.

His website is emblazoned with the motto Mi Vida Loca, Spanish for My Crazy Life.

When Tapia was born on 13 February 1967 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his father - whose identity is unclear - had apparently already been murdered.

He was brought up by his mother, Virginia.

At the age of seven a bus he was travelling in careered off a 100-foot cliff, killing the pregnant woman who was sitting next to him.

Tapia in Rocky pose
Tapia's story is more gripping than any Rocky film
The young Johnny was thrown through a window but escaped with only minor injuries.

In 1975 his mother was kidnapped, brutally attacked and left for dead.

Virginia Tapia was found and taken to hospital, where she died four days later of her injuries.

No one was charged with the murder but the killer's identity was made public by police in 1999.

But the murderer, Richard Espinosa, had been killed in a car crash in 1983.

Asked how it felt that Espinosa had cheated justice, Tapia said: "It hurts very bad, but maybe it's for the best or else I would end up in prison for murder."

Back in training

Teresa says she hoped her husband would pull through and be boxing again before long.

In the weeks before his suicide attempt Tapia was quoted as saying he had retired from the ring.

But now he says he is back: "I'm training right now and yes, I will fight again."

As for opponents he said he was willing to take on Naseem Hamed or "anyone else".

See also:

09 Jun 01 |  Boxing
Tapia tipped for Hamed bout
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