“Keep me in your heart,” the man with the battered face said as he hugged me. It was March 6, 2004 and Julie and I were having breakfast in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas, New Mexico while en route to Denver. Johnny Tapia had lost a boxing match the night before and was having breakfast with his entourage, preparing to return to Albuquerque. Nervously, I’d asked if I could take his picture. The courtesy with which he treated me was something I will never forget.
Now he is gone, probably taken down by the drugs that had been his curse for so many years.
Johnny and I met again in March, 2010 when he fought and won “The Battle for Redemption” in Española against Jorge “El Gallito” Reyes. Although he was a five time world champion, he was 43 years old at the time of that fight, needed to lose 34 pounds to make weight, and his heavily tattooed body looked soft and weak. During the two days of sparring that preceded the fight, he had to wear a monitor under the sock covering his right ankle because of a drug arrest. He pummeled El Gallito that night, then sat next to him and hugged him during the post-fight press conference.
I visited with Johnny again in late April at a fight night in Bernallilo. His fighter was a big, clunky looking kid named Hector Muñoz (El Huracán ) who was coming off a string of losses. Johnny coached him to a big win that night and was ecstatic. His gym in Albuquerque was up and running, he was training a number of fighters and it looked like his life was on the upswing. Yes, I know that there’s lots of opposition to boxing but the discipline, respect and conditioning these young men and women were learning from him was unique. Boxing is a big deal here in New Mexico and I believe that the values that Johnny was able to impart to young people changed and saved lives.
Boxing is like politics — a form of warfare. In both cases, you’re stepping out on your own and taking a big risk. The difference is that, in boxing, you’re all by yourself in the ring; there’s no hiding, no saying that you’re going to vote one way and then doing the opposite, no blaming a bad vote on your caucus or your constituents. Johnny’s life was a deeply troubled one but he never hid or backed down.
And when he said something like, “Keep me in your heart,” he meant it.
Morgan Smith is a former state representative, Commissioner of Agriculture and Director of the Colorado International Trade Office, now living in Santa Fe. He can be reached at