Johnny Tapia v. Hugo Soto WBO Jr. Bantamweight Title Albuquerque, New Mexico August 17, 1996, ABC-TV But first, a musical interlude: Hugo's Theme, by Alex Lloyd Wallau (to be sung soto voce) Don't cry for me Ar-gen-tee-na, The Yanks love my per-sis-tence, I left my flurries In Buenos Urries John got his workout But kept his distance The network loves me, I went the dis-tance... c 1996 Gym Rat Music, ASCAP/BMI
You know that you've been in for a long afternoon when broadcasters as experienced and relatively plain-speaking as Alex Wallau and Dan Dierdorf feel compelled to endlessly point out that a thoroughly overmatched opponent is a "tough kid," "didn't give up" and "didn't come to collect a paycheck." In such cases, where one fighter seems to have the upper hand in skill, speed and power, one typically hopes for a quick and painless KO, a bravura exhibition of skill and killer instinct by a marquee star. In the worst of all possible worlds, these fights go the route, each round a little more lopsided than the last, the game opponent absorbing punishment, LaMotta-like, until the final bell. The Tapia-Soto World Boxing Organization 118-lb title fight Sunday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, unfortunately, fell solidly into the latter category.
Soto, an Argentine import who had whipped everyone but Eva Peron in his home country but fell to highly-touted Russian Yuri Arbachakov in his lone road tilt, was more or less an unknown quantity at fight time, but turned out to be more of what the networks love to provide these days, a durable journeyman with "some skills," capable of soaking up enough punishment to fill up a ninety-minute time slot, but with little offensive ingenuity, offering little threat to the headline attraction.
Those viewers who were heretofore unfamiliar with Tapia's personal woes, his cocaine suspension and conviction on charges of brandishing a gun at his wife Teresa, were given ABC's full "up close and personal" treatment. This writer has never been a huge fan of Tapia or his showboating style, but, in all honesty, ABC's penetrating interview with Tapia did an exceptional job of conveying the pathos and turmoil of Johnny's private life and the toll taken on him by his mother's murder. In modern sports broadcasting, athletes must function not merely as athletes, but also as human interest stories, as soap opera players and Greek tragic heroes, and this too often leads to embarrassingly maudlin Tesh-timonials. But Tapia's case, all too symptomatic of the violent, outside-the-lines psychodrama of the modern fight game (cf Ayala, Tyson, Pryor, McCall, Toney, etc.) was one that needed to be explored, and ABC did so honestly and unflinchingly.
After the high drama of Tapia's cocaine addiction, marital squabbles and tenuous personal redemption, the bout itself was bland fare indeed. Tapia, to his credit, looked taut, sharp and in command from the opening bell. After a first-round stalemate, the New Mexican looked to force an early halt to this desert cholo derby when he found a home for a winging counter-right that sent Soto reeling back into the ropes, doubled-over into cover-up posture. A merciless barrage followed and ref Tony Rozales watched for the proper moment of stoppage. Soto admirably weathered the storm, but went back to his corner spiritually beaten, no longer a title contender, but now a title bout survivor.
For the rest of the contest, the pattern was similar, the lean, angular Tapia circling like a hyena lining up a limping wildebeest, unleashing speedy jabs and combinations to the head and body of his opponent. By the middle rounds, Soto, dripping in water, was sapped of strength, only sporadically returning meaningful fire, on one occasion even falling backward against the ropes without the assistance of a single Tapia punch. The Argentine struggled on, occasionally gathering his strength for a bit of good body work, but the gasps of the heavily-partisan crowd only seemed to energize the WBO champion, who mounted vigorous counter-offensives in each instance. Soto, for all his nerve, simply had no answer for the superior footwork and handspeed of Tapia.
While the hometown "advantage" has undone many fighters in recent years (cf Michael Nunn-James Toney), the local boxer striving harder to impress the fans than to follow a fight plan, Tapia seems to feed in a purely positive way off the crowd's energy. On this nearly hundred-degree afternoon, he used the cheers of his fans for synthetic adrenaline and responded to applause with flashy, but controlled punch-bursts that did not exhaust him unduly for the later rounds.
If there was bad news for the Tapia corner (which included Sugar Ray Leonard, added in a managerial role), it was the Baby-Faced Assassin's relative lack of finishing power. On at least three separate occasions, Tapia appeared to have the faltering Soto ready to give up the ghost, but was unable to close the show, at least twice voluntarily backing away from a seemingly-helpless and depleted challenger. And given the fact that the unheralded Soto was allowed to hang out for the duration, were Tapia's hand-behind-the-head showboat tactics entirely earned? The crowd enjoyed them, but in this writer's opinion, it would have been nicer to have seen Johnny's energy applied to finishing the task at hand.
And while good sportsmanship is a refreshing change from the bumrushing tactics of the Riddick Bowe camp or the fouling of an Andrew Golota, do we really need fighters to touch gloves ten times a round?
There is no question that the undefeated Tapia, if he can keep his body free of drugs and his mind free of demons, has many big fights ahead of him. His conditioning, combination punching and ability to bang to the body as well as jab from the outside will make him a formidable challenger for any of the major organizations' champions. But, as is so often the case, his greatest tests will lie outside the ring. Let's hope that Tapia, a man who, unlike most, has his "fun" inside the ring and experiences hell outside of it, will fulfill his fistic promise and not become another one of boxing's seemingly endless string of cautionary tales.
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