The Ghost of Johnny Tapia makes fear and loathing in Las Vegas read like a bedtime story. An odyssey of trauma, drugs, love, passion, murder, violence, mental illness, heartbreak and possibly last on that list, boxing.
‘Mi Vida Loca’, ‘My Crazy life’, was Johnny’s in-ring moniker and a dare anyone to find a more accurate nickname in the history of the game. Tapia’s life is so complex and storied it is as much a gift to the writer as it is a curse. They are stories anyone would wish to tell, but the pressure of telling them well is immense.
The measure of a good biography is its encapsulation of the individual it wishes to represent. Paul Zanon has written this book with the intensity that is essential to any work talking about Johnny Tapia. From the first sentence the writing is as frenetic and fast paced as Johnny was, immediately dragging you into his crazy world.
Punching its way through each anecdote with more fury than the last; fights, police chases, binges and detoxes are written with such accelerated prose you can’t help but feel you are being dragged along for the ride. Whether you like it or not.
Very rarely in a narrative arc does the protagonist witness enough horror to last a lifetime in the first chapter, but Johnny’s life wasn’t a story, it was horrendous reality. Obviously this posed a challenge to the author, how to deal with so much abuse, destruction and death through the eyes of a child.
Zannon however, strikes a delicate balance, describing the events in enough vivid detail so as to convey the catastrophic effects it had on a young Johnny, all while maintaining the sensitivity these tragedies deserve. The reader is given intimate access into the events that warped a life, an insight into why Johnny was the man he was.
Johnny is not the only main character in this book, his wife, Theresa Tapia, who helped to co-author, is as much a part of this story as Johnny. With the man himself unable to tell his story the reader accesses Johnny’s world through Theresa’s eyes.
More than just his wife Theresa was also Johnny’s manager and this had an intimate knowledge of all of Johnny’s escapades in, and out of the ring. Zanon takes her viewpoint and immerses the reader in it. The emotional turmoil, the heartache and ultimately her devotion to Johnny tumble from every page.
Their strained relationship is at the core of this work, the axis from which everything else hangs. The highs Johnny gave to Theresa and the depths she routinely had to pull him out from. The affection she holds for him becomes the affection the reader holds for him, despite his troubles.
Albuquerque is the final actor in this story, the ‘505’ Johnny called out in his iconic post fight speeches. Zannon sets the events against a vivid backdrop of the city that was so integral to who Tapia was as a person. The story doesn’t simply take place in the ‘505’ but is also a product of it.
As I alluded to in my opening boxing was only a small part of this book, but an integral one. The author uses a clear understanding of the sweet science to underpin the story outside the ring, the trials and tribulations that ultimately defined Tapia as a fighter.
My only criticism of this book is its brevity. Zanon and Hamilcar publications have opted to keep this run of their ‘True Crime’ series short and sweet, although this is effective I couldn’t help but wonder which anecdotes didn’t make the cut. Johnny lived an extraordinary life. I can’t help but think there’s some whirlwind stories left on the cutting room floor.
Overall I found this book thoroughly engaging. It’s racing tempo and captivating protagonist make it a must read for all boxing fans. It’s a fitting tribute to one of boxing’s great characters, reflecting his humanity without shying away from his many flaws.
The book recounts an exchange where Johnny says to Theresa, “I don’t wanna go out like that, I wanna be remembered as a champion”. The highest praise I can give to Johnny and to Paul Zanon is that anyone who reads this book will remember him as exactly that.
Ewan Breeze of SimBoxx
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