Glen Tapia isn’t willing to speculate past Friday night.
Tapia (18-0, 10 knockouts) is scheduled to face fellow unbeaten junior middleweight Abraham Han (19-0, 12 KOs) in the co-feature to this week’s ESPN2 Friday Night Fights. Tapia knows that a victory over Han would validate his status as a must-see prospect in a 154-pound division that is populated by Floyd Mayweather Jr., Canelo Alvarez and Austin Trout.
This is the kind of opportunity he’s been waiting for his whole life, he says. One that would lead him down the path to the fights he has always dreamed of being in.
But Tapia knows better than to take anything for granted; not when many of those whom he grew up with in Passaic, N.J., aren’t around to see him at this juncture in life.
Peer pressure is a major motivating factor for youth, and for many in his neighborhood, it meant making poor life decisions. Tapia’s decision to follow his older brother and friends into the Passaic Police Athletic League boxing gym was one of the increasingly rare instances when following the pack leads to a happy ending. Tapia, then nine years old, seemed to have a little bit of innate ability, but just as he followed his friends in, within six months he had followed them back out into the streets.
“He wanted to hang out with kids and quit due to training hard,” remembers Jorge Martinez, the PAL’s director and a recently retired sergeant. Martinez, who had revived the PAL program in 1997 to give police a healthy outlet to engage the community’s youth, had seen too many like Glen fall victim to the streets, and decided he wasn’t going to allow him to squander his talent.
“He came to my house and talked to my parents,” said Tapia. “He told my parents, ‘This kid is really good. If he stays out here, he’s going to end up just like everybody out here on the block. Everybody is locked up or dead, so might as well keep him in the gym.'”
“I told him he was too talented to waste it on the streets,” said Martinez. “He lived in a rough neighborhood; it was a gang and drug infested area. A lot of good people lived there due to their circumstances but the streets were difficult.”
For Tapia, these words were intoxicating. The idea that he could be destined for more than what his surroundings suggested gave him hope in a way that nothing else in that urban North Jersey town could.
“When you’re a young kid, you look up to different things,” explained Tapia. “If you’re seeing everybody that’s ‘cool’ are selling drugs or gangsters and that’s all you’re seeing, it’s kinda hard to be like, ‘Oh, I want to be a doctor,’ because you don’t see those doctors out there. You just see the gangsters and the hustlers getting money and that’s what you look up to.”
Tapia said he told Martinez he would go back to the gym, but only out of shyness and not wanting to turn him down on the spot. But as Tapia developed into an amateur standout, be began to see its perks. The opportunity to travel the country — and then the world — was an eye-opening experience.
“It was kind of hard to change my mindset unless I had something different — and I did — I had boxing and it changed my life,” said Tapia, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before he was born. “Just thinking about going different places, like Kansas City or St. Louis or Tennessee and Puerto Rico and Mexico and Canada, and just seeing different people and seeing that the world is bigger than just that neighborhood, it’s a blessing and it makes you see things differently. I felt like I had so much more experience than a lot of older people in my neighborhood that never left the neighborhood.”
By Tapia’s account, his amateur record consisted of 130 wins and 13 losses. The highlights include a Junior Olympic Nationals title in 2006, a National Silver Gloves title in 2003 and a Ringside Junior Olympics Tournament win. Tapia had planned to compete in the 2008 Olympic trials, but had to beg off due to a broken nose just prior. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m not going to waste four more years.’ I would’ve just been turning pro now if I waited four more years.”
Tapia signed with manager Pat Lynch, who had guided the career of recent International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) inductee Arturo Gatti, and Sal Alessi, and turned pro in December of 2008, winning five of his first seven by knockout. It was at this point, in mid-2010, that he was called to the Philippines by Manny Pacquiao’s team to be a sparing partner ahead of the Antonio Margarito fight.
“When I have done well, it is me being me, just throwing punches the way I throw punches; hitting him with combinations,” wrote Tapia in his blog about the experience for NorthJersey.com. “With my speed and power and just mixing it up with my foot movement, I put pressure on him and just keep up the intensity the whole time.”
Martinez saw a difference in Tapia after he returned from Baguio City, including what he calls “the Pacman special,” which is “when he lets out a flurry of punches to overwhelm his opponent.”
But the improvements would take time to manifest themselves in his style. When he returned to the States for his fight in Atlantic City the night before Halloween of 2010, he suffered a broken jaw midway through his bout with Quinton Whitaker, which he won by a six-round decision. Tapia had to attend Pacquiao-Margarito in Dallas two weeks later with his jaw wired shut.
Still, Tapia’s performance in Pacquiao’s camp caught the eye of Top Rank, which signed him to a promotional deal.
The gradual maturation of Tapia’s technique has become more evident in recent fights, due in part to switching trainers to Alex Devia, a manufacturer of Junior Olympic champions who has gained momentum for his work with professionals in recent years. Devia, whose son, Julian Rodriguez, is one of the top amateurs in the country, had been traveling with Tapia since his teenage years as part of the New Jersey squad that competed in Nationals.
“Alex has been tuning up my style,” said Tapia. “They say if it’s not broke don’t fix it. I’m successful in how I’m fighting so why change so much? I’m getting so much better to the point that I’m tuning it up. We had to go back to the basics where I keep my hands up and my foot movement.”
Tapia’s bout with Ayi Bruce in January was expected to be a moderate test, as Bruce had extended many contenders and prospects rounds. Tapia was able to knock him out in two rounds on the undercard of Mikey Garcia’s featherweight title conquest of Orlando Salido at Madison Square Garden. His most recent bout — against Joseph de los Santos at Radio City Music Hall — showcased Tapia’s increased patience as he was able to win every round against an opponent who refused to be knocked out.
In Han, 28, of El Paso, Texas, Tapia faces an opponent who has been moved against similar opposition. Han, like Tapia, is signed to Top Rank, and has found a home on local Top Rank cards in Texas where he is a draw. Han, who once competed for the now-defunct kickboxing company World Combat League, has a sister named Jennifer who is also a pro. Neither Tapia nor Han have yet to fight a scheduled ten-rounder.
Martinez isn’t quite sure how to answer where he thinks Tapia would be had boxing not entered his life at that pivotal crossroads. The odds don’t favor one in such an environment that is devoid of positive role models, but he gives Tapia credit for being a strong-spirited person who probably would’ve found his way. Eventually.
“You know, he always says he could’ve ended up dead or in jail, too,” said Martinez. “I think eventually he would’ve succeeded, but he would’ve had lots of difficulty until he himself said, ‘Enough is enough.’
“I’m just happy he’s where he is now.”
For Tapia, who feels Friday’s fight marks “the beginning of my career,” he is right on track to where he wants to go.
“I always felt like I was different, just my mindset. I always saw the better side of things. I always had the drive to become one of the best, one of the greatest. I don’t want to be just an average champion; I want to be one of the greater champions.”
Photos: Chris Farina-Top Rank
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.