THE WORST? For
Teresa Tapia it wasn't the night she awoke to find her husband standing over
her with a hammer, or the time he shoved her while holding a pistol; it wasn't
any one disappearance or public humiliation or lie during their 15 years
together. It wasn't even the morning 14 months ago when Johnny Tapia, a
five-time boxing world champ, fell into yet another drug-induced coma and was
taken to an Albuquerque hospital. No, it was the next day: when Robert (Gordy)
Gutierrez, the brother closest to Teresa and Johnny's loyal cornerman, died
while rushing to the fighter's bedside—killed, along with the Tapias' nephew
Ben Garcia, in a one-car highway wreck. Finally she snapped. Johnny should be
the one who's dead, Teresa thought. He's to blame.
him," she says. "I wished it was Johnny because my brother wanted to
live and be a father and a part of our lives, where Johnny had always wanted to
go, to die. I felt a lot of anger and resentment and guilt—and still do. If I
would've been a stronger person or colder and didn't care what happened to
Johnny, I would've left him years ago. Then my brother would be here."
Welcome to the
marriage forged in hell. On Teresa's wedding night one of Johnny's cousins
approached the bride at her mother's house and said, "Why don't you go back
in that room and see what you married?" Teresa came upon Johnny plunging a
needle into his arm. He took the wedding cash, then dumped her in a seedy
hotel. The next morning, Teresa says, "they had to jump-start his heart,
resuscitate him; he was dead in my car. It was all downhill after
boxing knows Johnny's tortured history: fatherless at birth, nearly killed in a
bus crash at seven, orphaned at eight after his mother was stabbed 26 times
with a screwdriver and scissors by her married boyfriend. His near-mythic rise
as a champ in three weight classes (super fly, bantam and feather) coupled with
his spectacular falls made him an irresistible draw, the sport's reigning
antihero. No one else so routinely courted death and defeat and still came out
on top. Teresa became his manager, the stable voice amid chaos, perpetually
hoping that Johnny had finally, after numerous attempts at rehab, kicked his
believed it too. When sober, Johnny is all apologies, affectionate as a puppy,
charming as sin. Gordy had warned her not to marry him, but he couldn't help
but love Johnny too. For 13 years he was Johnny's alter ego, always ready to
laugh and lift him up after another brilliant brawl, to comfort his sister
whenever Johnny binged and left her and their three kids alone. In February,
before the last round of his most recent fight, Tapia ignored the clamor,
looked Gordy in the eye and said, "I love you." Eighteen days later
Gutierrez and Garcia were dead.
fault," Johnny says. "I killed them both."
These days Johnny,
41, is as needy as ever, begging for Teresa's hugs and insisting he's clean
while training his two oldest sons, 15-year-old Jonathan and seven-year-old
Lorenzo. But one day in their Las Cruces, N.Mex., home is enough to feel the
coolness; Teresa has put up a wall Johnny can't punch through. After last
year's horror she made it clear: One more screwup and we're done. She says
she'd already be gone were it not for her husband's ultimate snare.
"If she left,
I'd end my world," Johnny says. "In a heartbeat."
"I know he
would," Teresa says. She taps Jonathan on the arm. "I see my children,
I think I'm being a bad mother by keeping them around this. But I don't have
the strength to leave Johnny and watch him kill himself, either, because then
I'll be blamed: Well, you knew what he would do. Are they going to blame me if
their dad dies? Are they going to blame me for not walking out? I'm stuck. I'm
And the walls are
closing in. A fight had been set for last Friday in El Paso, the first step
toward Johnny's reclaiming his featherweight title, but four days before the
bout he felt lost without Gutierrez. "I can't go through it no more,"
Johnny said. Two days later, on what would have been Gordy's 41st birthday,
grief overwhelmed the Tapias; Jonathan called his father from Las Cruces and
lit into him for causing so much pain. Johnny hung up crying.