A biography chronicles the struggles and triumphs of a renegade boxer.
In this second installment of the Hamilcar Noir series, Zanon (Sinner and Saint, 2018, etc.) tells Johnny Tapia’s story, recounting the action in and out of the boxing arena where the fighter made his name. The author follows Tapia from his birth in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1967 and the savage murder of his mother when he was only 8 years old to his first boxing bout at 9. He had his first professional match in 1988 and won the United States Boxing Association Super Flyweight title in 1990. But, as the author puts it, “unfortunately, his passion and desire in the ring played second fiddle to a destructive lifestyle” when the gloves were off, a destructive routine featuring a steady consumption of drugs and alcohol. Zanon describes a life of nearly constant brutality in which the boxer was actually declared DOA multiple times, either from violence or drug overdoses. This leads the author to contend that “Johnny stared death in the face more times than would seem physically possible.” The narrative describes the arc of Tapia’s professional life in economical but effective detail. This is by no means a classic of boxing nonfiction, but Zanon knows the sport well enough to keep these bouts intriguing. One of the story’s most moving nonboxing moments comes when Tapia learned that his mother’s murder had been solved but that he had no chance for personal vengeance. The killer was fatally struck by a car 10 years after the crime. Still, the bulk of Zanon’s book—written with the pugilist’s wife, debut author Teresa Tapia—involves the boxer’s increasingly serious swings between hard-fought professional matches and a long series of drug deals, arrests, and broken second chances. He became a world champion, but the strain of his various activities eventually affected his heart; he died in 2012. The work recounts all this with a good deal of momentum and little sentimentality. The resulting portrait is that of a deeply weak and flawed man who could nevertheless exhibit a real zest for living.
A gritty, engrossing, and concise account of a boxer’s meteoric career and tortured personal life.