Teresa Tapia stands in the middle of the “Trophy Room.” This is the room inside her spacious house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, that serves as a mini-museum in honor of her late husband, International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) fighter Johnny Tapia. The space contains not only the accouterments of Johnny’s storied boxing career—gloves, trunks, robes, and, most notably, his six championship belts—but, presently, it is redolent with the accumulated emotional remembrances of Teresa Tapia. “Sometimes I come in this room and spray his cologne in the air,” she says. “His presence is strong. I know he’s here with me.”

Since her husband’s premature death, 10 years ago, Teresa has not been idle. She has continued a journey in the male-dominated profession of boxing that she began while working as Johnny’s manager, overseeing a career that made the quixotic boxer one of the highest-paid acts in the sport. For more than 25 years, she has engaged in negotiations with many of the most powerful entities in boxing—HBO Sports, Showtime, Top Rank Entertainment—and, as a manager and promoter, she has stewarded dozens of fighters through a perilous profession with a high casualty rate. Few women have ever held such an exalted position in such a macho profession. No Latina in the history of the sport in the United States has ever managed boxing careers and promoted professional bouts at the level Teresa has—she is a unicorn. In 2003, she was presented with a special award for distinguished service from the World Boxing Hall of Fame. As CEO of her own company, Tapia Promotions, she is La Jefa.

Teresa picks up one of Johnny’s belts and hands it to me. “Feel how heavy it is,” she says. I take the belt in my hands. Indeed, it is heavy, in more ways than one. It’s the first time I have ever held a championship belt. It’s hard to imagine the dedication and fortitude it takes to win one, much less the six that are spread out in front of me in Johnny Tapia’s trophy room. Tapia won titles in three different weight classes, including the unified International Boxing Federation (IBF) and World Boxing Organization (WBO) flyweight titles, the unified WBO and World Boxing Association (WBA) bantamweight titles, and, in 2002, the IBF featherweight title. He won 47 straight fights, including a magnificent 1997 showdown with Danny Romero, a fellow Burqueño (Albuquerque native), who was his primary rival. In 1999, Tapia lost his first fight, a controversial decision to Paulie Ayala. He finished his career with a record of 59-5-2; along with the IBHOF induction, Tapia is a member of the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame.

Teresa is aware of the power this room holds for a fan of the sport, especially someone with knowledge of her late husband’s notoriously troubled life and career. “Mi Vida Loca,” my crazy life, was Johnny’s moniker in the ring. He earned it. But through thick and thin, Teresa was at his side. Of all her accomplishments, it’s the one of which she is most proud. “My whole goal,” she says, “as long as I’m on this earth, is to keep Johnny’s memory alive.”

It was on the afternoon of May 27, 2012, that Teresa, then 39 years old, cradled Johnny in her arms in their Albuquerque home as he expired from sudden, catastrophic heart failure. Johnny was 44 at the time, and had only recently retired from the ring. His heart, which had served him so well as a source of herculean strength as a fighter, had failed after years of abuse. Tapia had been a user of cocaine, alcohol, heroin, and methamphetamine. He’d been banned from boxing for three years for having failed a drug test, and he seemed hellbent on a life of incarceration—which eventually did occur, in 2009, when he served 10 months of an 18-month sentence at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, in Los Lunas, for violation of parole related to cocaine use.

Robes and belts: symbols of the achievements of a lifetime and beyond.

In the 1990s and early aughts, Johnny Tapia’s crazy life was one of the biggest stories in boxing. Aficionados refer to the sport as “the Sweet Science” (the title of a seminal 1956 book by A.J. Liebling), but the business side of the fight game has often been driven by scandal and sleaze. Teresa never tried to hide the tawdrier aspects of her husband’s media profile. “How could you avoid it?” she asks. “So much of it was out in the open. Johnny’s drug arrests and his doing time in prison were big headlines on ESPN and other sports outlets.”

“My entire strategy in this business is based on people thinking they know me based on me being a woman. I’m still finding ways to work around all these men and do what I have to do to make things happen and get the end results I want.”

At the time, and even more so since Johnny’s death, Teresa has sought to accentuate the positive. She believes deeply in Johnny’s better angels—his steadfastness as a husband and father, his rags-to-riches success, his drive and perseverance despite an upbringing filled with tragedy. Given the tumultuous nature of Johnny’s life and career, her role as keeper of the flame has not been easy.

In recent years, Johnny’s legacy has come under assault from someone close to the family, a man who, while Johnny was alive, had endeared himself to the boxer and worked his way into the family. After Johnny was gone, this man, according to Teresa, “turned on me,” and claimed that he was the rightful heir to the Tapia legacy. A battle ensued that involved threats and transgressions, including the firebombing of Teresa’s car and the vandalizing of Johnny Tapia’s grave. Eventually, the feud wound up in court, with a judge ruling in Teresa’s favor. But the battle is far from over. It represents one of the biggest challenges she’s faced so far in her role as the guardian of her husband’s legacy.

Says Teresa, “When me and Johnny were together, every day was a challenge. It was crazy. But everything I learned in my time with Johnny prepared me for what I’m dealing with now.”

I first met Teresa Tapia in November 2021, at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino, in Ruidoso, New Mexico, a village set in the Sierra Blanca mountain range. Tapia Promotions, under Teresa’s stewardship, was producing a major boxing card, to be held in a ballroom inside the resort.

The Inn of the Mountain Gods is located on an Apache Indian Reservation, in a part of the state known for leisure activities. Situated aside a manmade lake in Mescalero—a village next door to Ruidoso—the resort is 181 miles southeast of Albuquerque. The three-hour drive takes in some of the most pristine desert scenery in the state, before climbing into the mountain range. Ruidoso is a classic New Mexican outpost, with a central shopping area that sells Mexican and Native American tchotchkes and brightly colored Mexican cantinas on every other block.

I arrived early on the day of the fights, so I could meet and interview Teresa. As Johnny Tapia’s widow and the primary organizer of the event, she stood out at the press conference in the massive lobby area of the inn. There was a time, decades ago, when Teresa and her husband were celebrity royalty in the boxing world, known to some as the king and queen of Albuquerque. The fact that a street ruffian like Johnny had such a formidable woman in his corner enhanced the boxer’s stature, and he knew it. With her stoic demeanor and street-wise Chicana feminidad, the former Teresa Garcia was a rare fish in a sea filled with sharks. And it took some people a while to figure out that she was more than just arm candy.

“Still,” she says, “the men will try to placate me—‘Don’t you worry your pretty little head, sweetheart.’ They underestimate me. But you know what? I love it. My entire strategy in this business is based on people thinking they know me based on me being a woman. I’m still finding ways to work around all these men and do what I have to do to make things happen and get the end results I want.” These days, Teresa’s inner circle of advisers and partners is made up mostly (though not exclusively) of women, including her sisters, Angela and Eva (one of the few female matchmakers in boxing); Michelle Garcia, a longtime friend and adviser; and Ayla Jarvis, director of operations at Tapia Promotions.

Teresa and I are seated on a sofa in the lobby of the inn, which has an expansive ceiling, Native American–style carpets and décor, and a huge crackling fireplace. The atmosphere is cozy, and Teresa seems to appreciate having a breather after the busy dynamics of the press conference, where more than a dozen boxers were introduced, along with their trainers and managers.

As Teresa notes, this is the first event of this magnitude that she has staged in some time. Initially, after Johnny’s death, she stayed away from the sport. “It was too painful,” she says. “Johnny was gone, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t really know what my role was supposed to be.” It was when her two sons, Johnny Jr. and Nicco, decided as teenagers that they wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps that she realized she needed to get back to work.

In the early 2000s, Teresa and Johnny lived for a time in Ruidoso. The idea was to escape the hectic temptations of Albuquerque, a hard-scrabble, sometimes misunderstood desert metropolis of gang bangers, hot air balloons, sopapilla, and Breaking Bad. Predictably, Johnny got bored in Ruidoso. “He was a city boy,” says Teresa. “So we went back home. And he got back into trouble right away.”

Trouble for Johnny Tapia could mean many things, but it almost always started with drugs. “Cocaine is my mistress,” he often said in interviews, and he wasn’t kidding. After many stints in rehab clinics, overdoses, psychotherapy sessions, and Teresa locking him in the house and forcing him to go cold turkey, he never did kick the habit.

“Why don’t we have Teresa serve as Johnny’s manager?” Bob Case wasn’t joking. Case with Teresa and Johnny at a boxing event in 1995.

“He had his demons,” recalls Teresa. “We talked about it all the time. He was haunted by his childhood.”

Primary among Johnny’s demons was the fact that both his parents had been murdered. According to family legend, his father was shot to death at the time his mother, Virginia, was pregnant with Johnny. Born without a father, Johnny was a mama’s boy, so devoted to his mom that his uncles made fun of him. Virginia was a single mother in her thirties who liked to dress up and go out to bars. One night she went out and never came back. Her body was found in a ditch; she’d been raped and brutally stabbed to death.

In Mi Vida Loca, The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia, a memoir published in 2006 under Johnny’s name, he says: “Something died in me with my mother that day. Something in my heart was never the same.” As he struggled to deal with the hole in his heart, the fighter spoke plainly and with great poignance in a television interview about the role played by Teresa: “If there’s anybody who deserves credit [for keeping me alive], it’s my wife. She loves me. Unconditionally. If she left me, I’m a lost case.”

It was Bob Case, a veteran sports agent and close friend of the Tapias, who first suggested that Teresa take over as Johnny’s manager. He came up with the idea at the fighter’s training camp, in Big Bear, California. In 1995, Johnny had been banished to California as part of a plea deal with the state of New Mexico. He had been arrested with drug paraphernalia in his car; it was his third offense. In exchange for not being incarcerated, he was banned from the state for two years. Fellow boxer Oscar De La Hoya, at the time a major star of the sport, offered Johnny the opportunity to train and live at his state-of-the-art camp in Big Bear (after hearing Johnny’s many crazy life stories, it was De La Hoya who suggested Tapia change his nickname from “Baby-Faced Assassin” to “Mi Vida Loca”).

“I never brought Johnny into the negotiations. He was a hothead. Somebody might have said something disrespectful to me, and he would be on them like a lion.”

When the Tapias relocated to California, Johnny’s manager and trainer, Paul Chavez, who was under contract, balked at moving from New Mexico. He sued Tapia for breach of contract. But a more immediate problem was that Johnny had an upcoming bout in Las Vegas. The promoter, Bob Arum, CEO of boxing promotion company Top Rank, required that all fighters have a manager of record. Johnny, Teresa, and a small group of advisers huddled together at the Big Bear camp to figure out what to do. That’s when Case said to the group, “Why don’t we have Teresa serve as Johnny’s manager?”

Everybody laughed, including Johnny and Teresa, but Case wasn’t joking.

Case remembers it this way: “I told Johnny, go ahead, laugh all the way to the bank. Nobody is as devoted to you as Teresa. She’s the one who protects your interests, the one who locks you in a room when you need to get off drugs. She’s the one who fights for you every day. Plus, she’s one of the smartest people I know, smarter than any man. Why not Teresa?”

Teresa wasn’t sure she could do it. She was nervous, but with the support of Johnny and Bob, she decided it was worth a try. In her initial negotiation with Arum, in 1995 in his Las Vegas office, Teresa was intimidated. Along with Don King, Arum and Top Rank were the biggest players in the game. A Yale-educated lawyer and former prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, Arum was a dictatorial negotiator. According to Teresa, as a precondition, she and Johnny were asking for a higher percentage of the gate than Johnny had ever received before. Arum ignored that demand and offered a contract under the same terms as Johnny’s previous fights,  telling Teresa, “Here’s the contract. It’s the best deal you’re going to get. Take it or leave it.”

After the meeting, as Teresa recalls, she met with Johnny. “Did you get what we wanted?” he asked. Hesitantly, she answered, “Not exactly.” Johnny looked at Teresa, stunned. “Then you don’t believe in me?” Teresa didn’t know what to say. Down deep, she knew Johnny was right. The next day, she went back to Arum and dropped the contract on his desk. “We can’t sign that,” she said. “Some of our demands are not in that contract.”

Arum was polite but insistent. “You’ll never get a major fight without me,” he said. The next day, the Tapias drove back to their camp at Big Bear. Johnny was now worried; he wanted to return to Vegas and accept Arum’s offer. Teresa was terrified that by walking out on Arum, she had possibly blown her husband’s career, but she kept those fears to herself. “This is the right way to play it,” she told Johnny.

Johnny Tapia makes a fist, Jay Leno leads with his chin. Johnny’s life left indelible marks.

Two days later, Bob Arum showed up at the camp in Big Bear. Everyone was startled, including Teresa, who knew that Arum rarely traveled to make deals face-to-face with anyone, except maybe De La Hoya. Arum acquiesced to the Tapias’ demands.

A couple of years later, in 1997, Teresa was in a meeting with Don King, Arum’s primary competitor. The Tapias had decided to switch horses, to see if they could get a better deal. Teresa liked Don King. “I’d seen the HBO documentary Only in America. Don was portrayed as a hustler and a thug, but I admired how he raised himself up from the streets.” She met King in his hotel suite. Present in the room were Oscar Goodman, the matchmaker, and King’s lawyer, Carl Lomax. Teresa had left Johnny in the hallway. “I never brought Johnny into the negotiations. He was a hothead. Somebody might have said something disrespectful to me, and he would be on them like a lion.”

As King outlined the parameters of his prospective deal with the Tapias, Teresa remembers that she smiled and said, “Well, Don, the way I look at it, all promoters are crooks. If you’re gonna get screwed you might as well get screwed by somebody you like.” King had an unlit cigar in his mouth. He took it out and looked at Teresa. The others held their collective breath. After a moment, King laughed and said, “I like you, little girl.”

During the years that Teresa managed Johnny’s career (the only husband and wife boxer-management duo in the history of the sport), his fortunes soared. Teresa negotiated deals that had Johnny Tapia headlining televised fight cards, unprecedented for a fighter in the bantamweight class (until then, heavyweights had dominated the sport and made the big money). She was one of the initial managers in the sport to bypass promoters altogether. Negotiating directly with Jay Larkin, the legendary entertainment executive at Showtime, she eliminated the Bob Arums and Don Kings of the world. Tapia Promotions would do their own promoting and make their own deals. Eventually, other name fighters followed this course, ushering in a new era of lucrative deals for prominent fighters who could guarantee big crowds and big ratings on cable television.

In a sense, Teresa was following in the footsteps of Jackie Kallen, boxing’s lone female publicist and manager during the 1980s and ’90s. Kallen was a bleached blonde from Detroit, a former entertainment journalist who would eventually be portrayed by Meg Ryan in the 2004 movie Against the Ropes. Teresa never met Kallen, but holds her in high esteem as a female pioneer in the business.

In 2010, a couple of years before Johnny died, Teresa was approached by a man named Jerry Padilla Sr. At the time, Johnny was in prison serving time on his parole violation, but he was being considered for an early release.

Padilla was part of a group that was helping to organize a charity boxing event, which would be part of Johnny’s securing his early release. One day, Padilla, who was in his early sixties, pulled Teresa aside. “What he told me was mind-blowing. He told me that 40 years earlier, while a young man, he’d had a brief relationship with a woman named Virginia. They had sex, but the relationship wasn’t serious, and he moved on. He never knew that she had a child.” Later, as Johnny Tapia emerged as a celebrity in Albuquerque and Padilla learned more about the boxer’s personal biography, he became convinced that Johnny was likely his son.

“He wanted me to tell Johnny that he was very possibly his father. Could he talk to him about it? Well, I told him, ’Listen, that’s a very sore subject for Johnny. There’s a lot of trauma around his mother and her murder.’”

When Teresa told Johnny about Jerry Padilla, he was shocked. “You mean the Jerry Padilla?” Johnny asked.

Teresa had no idea that Padilla, on the streets of Albuquerque, was something of a living legend. He was the patriarch of Los Padillas, a family in the city’s South Valley that, law enforcement believed, was a criminal gang known as Los Padillas DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization). According to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Los Padillas controlled much of Albuquerque’s cocaine and methamphetamine trade. Jerry Padilla had done three separate stints in prison on narcotics convictions. His son Jeffrey Padilla was currently in prison, on a 2003 conviction for second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and drug trafficking. Another son, Johnny Lee, was wanted by the law on narcotics charges and believed to have fled across the border into Mexico, where he was serving as a liaison with the Juárez Cartel. (In November 2019, the body of Johnny Lee Padilla turned up unexpectedly at Gabaldon Mortuary, in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Paperwork at the South Valley mortuary indicated Padilla’s death was the result of a heart attack and diabetes. But when the body was examined by DEA medical investigators, there was a bullet hole in the back of the head, stab wounds, and scratches on the back that were consistent with “signs of torture and execution.”)

“I know most people loved him. So it’s very disheartening that people would go and decide to trash his grave.”

Johnny Tapia was reluctant to accept the idea of Jerry Padilla as his father. But he agreed to meet the man. Padilla explained the nature of his long-ago relationship with Virginia, and how they’d once discussed if she were to have a baby and it was a boy, that they would name the child Johnny Lee—which was Tapia’s name. Padilla and Johnny agreed that he would take a paternity test. Using a questionable home DNA test purchased at Walmart, it was determined with a 99.997% probability that Padilla was Johnny Tapia’s biological father.

The boxer was overjoyed. Teresa had her doubts, but she deferred to Johnny’s unbridled belief that, at the age of 42, he finally had a father in his life. Padilla assumed the role with a sense of mission. He became a regular presence in the fighter’s life, during training, at ringside, and at family events. In May 2012, after Johnny’s sudden death, Padilla held a position of honor at Johnny’s public memorial, which took place at “the Pit,” the same arena in Albuquerque where the boxer had celebrated many victories. It was, according to local media, the largest such memorial ever held for a Burqueño in the history of the city.

Family history: Teresa with the belt awarded posthumously to Johnny, when he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017; with Johnny Jr.

After Johnny’s burial, Teresa went into a depression. She had been with Johnny since she was 19 years old. According to Teresa, she attempted suicide and withdrew from family and friends. In 2014, she made a mistake she would regret for years to come. She married Jeffrey Padilla, Jerry’s son, who had recently been released from prison after serving 11 years of a 20-year sentence.

Today, Teresa is reluctant to say much about her misbegotten marriage, which brought her into the Padilla family. “I’ve signed a legal agreement with those people,” she says. “I’m not allowed to make public statements of any kind.”

The marriage lasted a mere two weeks, and in April 2014, ended in divorce. In January 2015, Jeffrey Padilla violated the terms of his parole and five months later was sentenced to an additional four and a half years in prison. Later, it was publicly alleged that he had been physically abusive to Teresa while they were together.

For a woman who is commonly referred to by friends and associates as exceptionally smart, marriage to an ex-con and gangster she hardly knew at the time is hard to reconcile. In interviews, whenever I broached this topic with Teresa, it was clear that she was nonplussed and still, years later, attempting to make sense of it all. She did say that she was told by Jeffrey and everyone in the Padilla family that Jeffrey didn’t do the murders for which he was convicted; he had only taken the fall to protect fellow gang members.

According to a source close to the Tapia family, who agreed to talk only if not identified by name, Teresa’s involvement with Jeffrey Padilla—and with the Padilla family in general—was the product of a carefully orchestrated manipulation. “When she was at her lowest point,” says the source, “feeling alone and vulnerable without Johnny, the Padillas convinced her that in order to preserve Johnny’s legacy, she needed to keep things in the family.”

Teresa does admit that the marriage was likely a capitulation on her part to a deep sense of mourning and loss. “I wasn’t thinking clearly,” she says. After the divorce was finalized, Teresa had reason to hope that she was finished with Los Padillas. But in 2015, three years after Johnny Tapia’s death and only months after Jeffrey Padilla was sent back to prison, she learned that Jerry Padilla was selling Johnny Tapia–related memorabilia online and using the Tapia name without authorization. Padilla was hoping to get into boxing promotion, and he was profiteering off Johnny’s name. As executor of Johnny’s estate, Teresa informed the elder Padilla that he had no right to use Johnny’s name and needed to cease and desist. Not only did Jerry Padilla push back, he told Teresa that he was the rightful representative of the Tapia name since he was Johnny’s father, and that Teresa had been doing a poor job of maintaining Johnny’s legacy.

“He was being really weird,” says Teresa. “I told him, come on, you only knew Johnny for a year and a half. I was with him for 20 years.” Teresa threatened to sue Padilla if he didn’t stop using Johnny’s name for promotional and financial purposes. Padilla ignored her demands, and so, in the District Court of Bernalillo County, Teresa Tapia and Johnny Tapia Presents filed a lawsuit against Jerry Padilla Sr. for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, fraud, and violation of the Unfair Trade Practices Act.

Some of Teresa’s closest allies told her she was crazy. Taking on Jerry Padilla was no joke. Not only was he a bona fide OG with a criminal record and fearsome street reputation, he had become, in recent years, a player in New Mexico state politics. (Padilla was a visible supporter of the state’s governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.) But Teresa had come to see the issue as a struggle for control of her husband’s legacy, a calling she might have tarnished by marrying into the Padilla family but one she was determined to rectify by fighting for the memory of a man to whom she had devoted her entire adult life.

It didn’t take long for Teresa to realize things were going to get ugly. A lawyer hired by Teresa discovered that Los Padillas were on the offensive. Investigators determined that someone representing the Padillas had leaked to the press that Teresa had been married again before she married Jeffrey Padilla. In late 2012, Teresa had wed Darius McCrary, an actor and close friend of Johnny Tapia’s. According to Teresa, she and McCrary were both in deep mourning over the loss of Johnny, so they married thinking it might help lessen the pain. They quickly realized it had been a “dumb but innocent mistake.” They divorced, and Teresa had the marriage annulled.

Early in the proceedings, a bolt of lightning lit up the horizon and thunder rumbled through the area like a rude series of jabs and uppercuts. “That’s Johnny,” Teresa said to me that night. “His spirit is here with us.”

Revelations about that relationship, though intended to embarrass Teresa, were minor compared to Los Padillas’ next line of attack. An anonymous source contacted the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) and claimed that Teresa Tapia should be investigated on charges of abuse and/or neglect in connection with her children, Nicco and Johnny Jr., who were now teenagers. The CYFD initiated an investigation and determined that the charges were unsubstantiated. Investigators for Teresa, using phone records, discovered that the “anonymous complaint” had come from a number associated with Los Padillas.

To Teresa, the false allegations of parental neglect were a low blow, and they pushed her to the edge. In May 2015, she held a press conference at which she declared, “I fear for my life.” Uncharacteristically, she broke down in tears while on camera. She attributed the smear campaign against her mostly to Jeffrey Padilla, acting on his own or perhaps on behalf of his father. She had gone to the press out of desperation. She was at war with the city’s premier gangster clan. Without Johnny, she felt vulnerable in her own hometown, something she had never felt before.

In April 2016, Teresa’s white SUV was firebombed late at night by an assailant with a Molotov cocktail. She was indoors and nowhere near the car at the time of the attack. That same week, her other car was broken into and burglarized. The harassment seemed as though it might never end. Then Teresa achieved her stunning victory in court.

It had not been Teresa’s intention to challenge whether Jerry Padilla was truly Johnny’s father, but in the course of the lawsuit against Padilla, the defendant was ordered to submit to a new DNA test. The results of this test, overseen and administered by a District Court judge, excluded Padilla as Johnny Tapia’s biological father. Furthermore, Judge Clay Campbell ruled that the previous test had not only been inaccurate but was most likely a “fraud” orchestrated by the defendant. The judge ordered Padilla to pay fines totaling $120,000 and to stop using Johnny Tapia’s name or likeness in public for promotional or financial gain.

Despite the ruling, Padilla told an interviewer for a local television news program, “To my knowledge, I am Johnny’s father, and my whole family knows it.”

Even Johnny’s grave has been a source of controversy. Johnny Jr. with Mickey Rourke, a friend and supporter of Johnny Sr. back in the day.

For a while, it seemed as though Teresa had won the war. Padilla appeared to be stunned by the ruling. For months, there were no more incidents or attacks. Padilla filed an appeal, which was overruled in the same forceful terms as the original verdict. After all legal avenues had been exhausted, the unthinkable occurred. The gravesite of Johnny Tapia was vandalized.  At San Jose De Armijo Cemetery, someone broke picture frames and glass candleholders that had been placed at the grave, and even stole a framed photo of Tapia’s late mother, Virginia. Teresa was shocked. “Johnny loved New Mexico,” she told a local news reporter, “and I know most people loved him. So it’s very disheartening that people would go and decide to trash his grave.”

More saddened than angry, Teresa had had enough. She instructed her lawyers to reach out to legal representatives for the Padilla family, to negotiate a deal. In some ways, Teresa was doing with Jerry Padilla what she had done with Bob Arum, Don King, and all the other swaggering male counterparts in the boxing business who believed they could bulldoze the pretty Chicana who stood between them and the full exploitation of “Mi Vida Loca.” A legal arrangement was worked out between Teresa and Los Padillas. She explains that the details of the agreement prohibit her from talking about it with the media, but she refers to the settlement as “amicable”—a legal term most often used to put lipstick on the pig of an especially ugly business separation or a bitter divorce.

At the fights in Ruidoso last November, Jerry Padilla was in attendance. He was among the entourage who walked into the ring with Nicco Tapia for his first amateur bout. And for most of the fight card that night, Padilla sat near or next to Teresa. They were civil with one another, though there was no visible camaraderie or rapport. Sources with knowledge of the negotiation between Teresa and Los Padillas suggest that Jerry Padilla’s access is part of their agreement: If the OG halts the exploitation and trashing of Johnny’s legacy, Teresa will allow Padilla to remain part of the Tapia family entourage at local boxing matches.

When asked if it was hard for her to be seen in public with the man who had made her life a living hell for the past six years, Teresa sighs and says, “I did what I had to do to preserve Johnny’s legacy.” (Jerry Padilla was offered an opportunity to comment for this article; he declined.)

Last June, in honor of the 10-year anniversary of Johnny’s death, Tapia Promotions staged a night of boxing in Albuquerque. The event took place outdoors at The Office, a massive bar/restaurant on the grounds of a golf course in the city’s picturesque North Valley. It was an unusual venue: The boxing ring was under a large tent, surrounded by the fairways and putting greens of the golf course. Beyond that were fields of sage and cactus, and on the horizon, the jagged hills of the Petroglyphs, prehistoric volcanic rock formations that once dominated the entire area.

The city of Albuquerque hadn’t seen rain in more than two months, but that night the skies opened up and it poured. Some spectators left, but most huddled together under the tent in neighborly fashion. It was a classic Burqueño crowd, overwhelmingly Chicano: Johnny Tapia’s people. Early in the proceedings, a bolt of lightning lit up the horizon and thunder rumbled through the area like a rude series of jabs and uppercuts. “That’s Johnny,” Teresa said to me that night. “His spirit is here with us.”

Teresa’s devotion to the memory of her husband was a major aspect of the event, with nearly every local fighter—in post-fight interviews over the PA system—paying homage to “the greatest fighter the city of Albuquerque has ever produced.” Between the lightning and thunder and exuberant fisticuffs in the ring, there was love in the air. The audience thinned out, but the true fans remained, hunkered down together for one of the oldest forms of entertainment known to the human species.

Teresa, with her entourage of sisters and female cohorts, held court ringside. There was no amount of rain that could dampen the flame. It reminded me of a comment Teresa made when I interviewed her months earlier, at her home. We had just come from the Trophy Room, with its overflowing memories of a singular boxing career that serves as inspiration for an extraordinarily determined woman. I asked a final question of the champion’s widow: “In all your years with Johnny, given your loyalty and support and expert advocacy as his manager, it’s clear what Johnny got out of the relationship. But what was it that Johnny gave to you?”

She answered without hesitation: “Unconditional love.”  ❖

T.J. English is the author of nine nonfiction books, including Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld. He lives in Manhattan and Albuquerque.



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