Keith Tapia’s life growing up in New York was one of daily survival each time he walked out his front door.
“Being raised in the South Bronx was really rough. Violence always happened on our block. Literally every day there was fighting, shootouts and people selling drugs,” the 25-year-old Tapia says. “The cops maybe came an hour after situations, never right after. But with me coming from there, I learned how to deal with what I had to deal with.”
Tapia’s environment generated energy, tension and frustration within him that was often released in ways that got him into trouble.
“I was a hyperactive kid getting into fights in the streets and into trouble in school,” he says. “[School officials] were calling my mom almost every day, telling her, ‘Your son is doing this; your son is doing that.’”
After one particular brawl at age 13, Tapia emerged with blood pouring from his nose and a buddy tapping him on his shoulder. Aware of Tapia’s penchant for pugnacity, Devon Joseph urged his friend to follow him to the Fort Apache Boxing Club, which has since been condemned.
“I saw the gym, the boxing ring and liked it right away,” Tapia says. “My mentality was ‘Learn how to beat people up and knock them out.’ That’s the reason why I boxed. But my decision turned a negative into a positive.”
Indeed, it did.
Today, Keith Tapia is five years into a professional boxing career that has seen him go 16-0 with 11 KOs. He’ll carry that record—along with a four-fight knockout streak—into the ring December 8 at Sun National Bank Center in Trenton, New Jersey, where he’ll battle Philadelphia’s Garrett Wilson (16-9-1, 9 KOs) in a 200-pound clash scheduled for 10 rounds (Fox Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
In his corner once again will be John Stanton, Tapia’s longtime trainer who works out of the Westbury Boxing Gym in Westbury, New York.
Stanton came into Tapia’s life at a time when the young fighter was learning how to take charge in the ring but struggling to do the same when he left the gym and returned to the cold, harsh realities of street life.
“We came to the Bronx and talked to Keith, watched his workouts and his determination, and liked what we saw,” says Stanton, a former promoter, matchmaker, gym owner and trainer who, along with his son, Jack, was introduced to Tapia by his original trainer at the Fort Apache gym.
“We were honest about what was expected of him. He listened and was no longer running around at night. He started to grow up.”
“ When I was on the U.S. [amateur] team, some guys supported me. But there were also some haters from around the block. It was becoming a life-and-death situation. ” ” Keith Tapia
Things were going so good for him under the Stantons’ guidance that Tapia made the U.S. amateur team at age 14. But just as Tapia’s abilities improved and his popularity grew, so did the attention and zeal of acquaintances involved in violence and drugs.
Eventually, these acquaintances sought and recruited Tapia to work for them, and soon the young boxer had problems that neither his fists nor any amount of discussion could solve.
“When I was on the U.S. team, some guys supported me,” he says. “But there were also some haters from around the block. It was becoming a life-and-death situation.”
After drive-by shootings resulted in the deaths of friends, a 16-year-old Tapia was encouraged by his mother, Maria Cruz, to relocate to Santurce, Puerto Rico, to be with his father, Edwin Tapia.
Supported by the Stantons, Tapia traveled with the Puerto Rican national team to tournaments in America, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Columbia, compiling an amateur record of 58-4.
“I had to wake up,” Tapia says. “I came back [to the United States] in 2012 to live in Cleveland, because, right now, New York is not a good place for me.”
With each passing victory in the ring, Tapia’s future becomes all the brighter while his difficult youth fades to black. At the same time, there are constant reminders of what life could’ve—and probably would’ve—been like for him had he not found boxing.
“Most of my friends are locked up in jail or dead,” he says. “I recently had two friends who passed away, and their birthdays just passed. A good friend of mine is coming out of jail on December 8.
“I have a younger brother who was caught up in the game this year—he was shot and messed up his leg while he was running and trying to get away. He had lived [in the Bronx] all of his life, but, fortunately, a couple of months back, he left the game behind and just moved into another state.”
Even as he says this, though, Tapia remains mindful of just how much his past—troubled as it was—helped mold him.
“I’ll never complain about the life I’ve lived,” he says. “It’s made me who I am today.”
For complete coverage of Tapia vs Wilson, check out our fight page.