Saturday night, Las Cruces, New Mexico’s Austin Trout makes his debut on the big stage as part of a Showtime televised quadrupleheader taking place in Carson, Calif. where he defends his 154-pound alphabet strap against tough and determined Delvin Rodriguez.
What was already a difficult assignment got a bit more taxing when news broke late Sunday night that New Mexico boxing icon Johnny Tapia (right) had passed away at 45 after a long and tumultuous life.
“At first I didn’t believe it,” Trout (right center) told TQBR Monday. “You know Johnny, he’s got like 20 lives. He has unfortunately OD’d numerous times. There have always been rumors of him dying. I didn’t really believe it. ‘Johnny didn’t die, he’s still alive,’ is what I said. When I heard that they confirmed it I just felt, ‘God, that is crazy.’ There were stages of denial and sadness, now I am just praying for his family.”
Tapia put New Mexico on the map in the 1990s and early 2000s with both his crowd-pleasing style and fan inviting persona. His 1997 bout with crosstown rival was so big and dangerous for New Mexico that they had to move it to the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, and it still drew roughly 11,000 at the gate.
Trout recalls the Tapia-Romero clash vividly, despite it coming well before he began to box.
“It was before I started boxing but I remember I was going for Tapia, he was more of a down to earth, people person,” Trout said. “Romero wasn’t like that — he had the bodyguards separating him from the people. As a young boy I asked why can’t people go talk to him and my mom said he didn’t want to be bothered. Tapia was in the middle of the crowd and I felt he wanted to be bothered, was asking for the attention, and I liked that.”
Tapia, who earned titles at 115, 118, and 126 pounds, was well into the twilight of his career when Trout turned pro in late 2005.
“I went to a few of his fights in Albuquerque, even in the latter part of his career. I was supposed to be on the undercard of one of his fights but it got scrapped,” Trout said. “Over the last six or seven years I got to know him personally. He had a house in Las Cruces and lived here for awhile.
“I remember one time him telling me that I was the future of New Mexico boxing, and it made me believe in myself that much more, that I could do it,” trout said.
Tapia proved something to Trout — that a good fighter could carry New Mexico on his back on the way to the top.
“My mom was from the East Coast and she is the one who got me into boxing and for some reason I got it in my head that to be a fighter I’d have to go to Philadelphia,” explained Trout. “Johnny, being from New Mexico, proved to me that I didn’t have to go nowhere. He kind of helped me know I could stay in New Mexico and still become a great champion.”
Though Tapia had his assortment of demons which plagued him throughout his life, Trout saw something in him that he aspires to be.
“He was the epitome of a people’s champion,” Trout recalled fondly. “He took pictures with everyone in the whole arena; he never shied away from cameras and fans. I definitely want to be just like that if I reach that level. Even on the street, it didn’t have to be at a function, you could go up to him and he just was so happy to talk to anyone.”
Considering there hasn’t been a world level fighter from New Mexico since Tapia last fought at that level, it would be fair to assume Trout is feeling some additional pressure heading into Saturday.
“This is just more motivation and he would want me to succeed. I want to be a good champion and I know his blessing will be with me,” Trout said.
Though Tapia is no longer with us in this realm, he surely will have the best seat in the house Saturday as Trout hopes to carry the torch for boxing in New Mexico. Following up Johnny Tapia is no easy task, but Trout seems up for the challenge.
Mark Ortega can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com and followed via Twitter at www.twitter.com/MarkEOrtega. Mark also contributes to renowned boxing publications RING Magazine and Boxing Monthly, and is a member of the Boxing Writer’s Association of America and RING Ratings Advisory Panel. Check the June issue of Boxing Monthly for his piece on Timothy Bradley in anticipation of his clash with Manny Pacquiao.