ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Johnny Tapia’s a legend in the boxing world and his name still carries a lot of weight. But as KRQE Investigates learned, the champion’s widow is now accusing another promoter of taking advantage of the Tapia name and stiffing boxers who just took part in a fight night here in New Mexico.

It was a Tapia Fight Night where local boxers put it all on the line at the Rio Rancho Events Center in February. It’s how most of the local fighters make their living.

“It is. And not only that, think about it – you work hard, you put wear and tear on your body,” Teresa Tapia explained. “You can take one shot and it can be over. And I know, I was on that side. I don’t want to see that happen.”

Teresa Tapia is the owner of Team Tapia Boxing Academy and the widow of the late prizefighter, Johnny Tapia. “If he was here, he’d be like, ‘So get over it. Get back in there,'” Tapia told KRQE News 13.

“You’re going to take a lot of hits literally, you know, figuratively. You’re going to take them in every single way,” Tapia said she could hear the words her late husband would say to her. “And I’m living proof of that, and I’ve went through all that, but I didn’t see this one coming.”

What Tapia didn’t see coming, she says, happened after the fights. Tapia claims the promoter she’d partnered with to put on the show and pay fighters didn’t want to hold up his end of the deal.

Local fighters stiffed their winnings

Eventually, she said he handed fighters thousands of dollars in bad checks. Two of those fighters were Albuquerque brothers Jason Sanchez and Jose Luis Sanchez. Their wins alone were worth more than $14,000. But it was money they couldn’t access.

“It was a harsh lesson,” Tapia told KRQE News 13. “But I’ve never co-promoted like that. I’ve always done it on my own.”

In the months leading up to the fights, Tapia said a promoter from Kansas named Joe Kelly connected with her. She showed KRQE text messages and emails from Kelly, who Tapia said convinced her they’d be partners, and shared ambitions of using her husband’s famous nickname ‘Mi Vida Loca,’ to create a new league of fighters.

“He sounded like this humble man who really cared about fighters,” said Tapia. The night of the fights, Tapia said she got into a shouting match with Kelly when he refused to pay the fighters’ purses – something she claims they’d agreed on.

A shouting match outside the ring

Jayla Ortiz, a coach with Tapia, said she witnessed the shouting match. “I went up to Teresa and I said, ‘Hey, is everything all right?’ and he {Kelly} told me, ‘Get out of this. None of my business,'” Ortiz recalled.

Tapia claims she was threatened. Police were called and took separate statements from Tapia and Kelly, who both filed police reports against each other.

Through public records, KRQE News 13 obtained a copy of a police report Kelly filed against Tapia that night, claiming he was being extorted and threatened, and admitting he froze the account for the checks he wrote.

“There’s no contract, there’s no nothing,” Kelly told police that night. Lapel video from Rio Rancho Police officers shows Kelly telling an officer there was no written agreement for him to pay the fighters.

Kelly told police he did agree to split the costs of the Fight Night 50-50 before some of his boxers backed out. He claims he tried unsuccessfully to get Tapia to cancel the February fights. “Then upon arriving at the show, I was told that I was going to have to cover all the fight purses,” Kelly told officers.

When he refused to pay, Kelly said Tapia threatened him. “I wouldn’t be able to leave the venue,” said Kelly. “I wasn’t leaving New Mexico without paying, you know, and the situation would be ugly,” he added.

Fighters’ checks tied to frozen account

Kelly said he issued fighters checks that night out of fear, then admitted to freezing his account. He also asked for police presence at his hotel before leaving town that night.

“I just put a total freeze on my account,” Kelly told police. “So the checks are, they’re canceled and the account is frozen.”

Tapia said she learned the account was frozen when fighters approached her about their attempts to cash the checks. “The account was frozen, and then he {Kelly} started telling everyone who was calling him because his number is on the check, ‘Oh no, I was threatened,'” Tapia told News 13.

KRQE News 13 reached out to Joe Kelly, called and emailed him, but didn’t hear back. In total, Kelly handed out more than $43,000 in worthless checks – money he claims was extorted, and money Tapia claims he owed.

“There was a lot of stuff in writing. Now, the actual contract, there was not one,” Tapia explained. “The reason we didn’t sign the partnership agreement for the February fight, he told me he was in a lawsuit against a really evil partner and that if his name was on anything, the partner would go after him even harder and that he would stand to lose his house and family and all kinds of stuff,” Tapia recalled.

Tapia claims Kelly took advantage of her in this situation and played to her heartstrings leading up to the fights. “Shame on him for doing what he’s done to these fighters, for what he’s done to me as a widow,” she said.

Knowing it’s the fighters who are taking a hit in this dispute, Tapia said she’s been making ‘good faith payments’ to them. “I had to pay the majority of them,” said Tapia. “But I don’t want to be in business to screw a fighter over. I mean, that’s not what I’m about.”

Tapia said she’s learned tough lessons from a fight that didn’t take place inside the ring. KRQE News 13 reached out to fighters who tried to cash the bad checks, but phone calls requesting interviews were not returned.