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Johnny Tapia's story a tale of frailty and perseverance

Johnny Tapia, left, defends against Marco Antonio Barrera

Johnny Tapia, left, defends against Marco Antonio Barrera during their featherweight championship fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Nov. 2, 2002 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo Credit: Getty/Jed Jacobsohn

If executive producers Lou DiBella and 50 Cent tried to take the story of Johnny Tapia to Hollywood, it would likely be dismissed as too unbelievable. There is more heartache and tragedy in this story than one person can seemingly endure. But there also are triumphs and comebacks, and that's what makes the documentary "Tapia" so appealing.

It's less a film about boxing and more a story of perseverance. It exposes the frailty of a man who, when he climbed into the ring, fought like Superman. The film premieres on HBO Dec. 16 at 11 p.m.

Every worthwhile motion picture stimulates its audience with great images. But the heart of this film are the words -- those spoken by Tapia and those written by Emmy winner and Long Island native Aaron Cohen.

Cohen -- writing for narrator Liev Schreiber -- sets the tone with an opening essay that includes these passages: "no great fighter ever runs from the darkness that lies in front of him, it's much more natural to embrace it," and "the beginning of his life was defined more by what wasn't there than what was."

The film is narrated by Schreiber but is essentially told through a series of emotional interviews with Tapia. The fighter discusses everything -- the murder of his mother, his addiction to cocaine, his rivalry with Danny Romero and his beloved wife Theresa.

Tapia was the kind of person who was fully invested in what he was doing at the very moment he was doing it. When he was fighting, it was brilliant. When he was partying, it was often tragic. But even in these interviews, he is so emotionally connected to the stories he tells, one cannot help being drawn in.

One of the best interviews occurs when Tapia is watching -- reliving, really -- his 1994 title win against Henry Martinez. And one of the most gut-wrenching comes when he talks about the death of his brother-in-law and nephew in a car accident. They were driving to the hospital to visit Tapia, who was in a coma after using too much cocaine.

When he speaks about his mother, who was raped and murdered when he was 8, Tapia says, "I still wait at the front door for her... I tried to kill myself so many times but I seem to come back. I want my mom, I want my mom, but I can't have her today."

One of the most telling sequences comes from one of the few times the viewer hears from Tapia's wife, Theresa.

"Every time I look at Johnny, every minute we spend together, I constantly catch myself memorizing lines on his face and the way he smiles because I always think that's the last time I am going to see him," she said. "I made it a habit not to think about tomorrow."

When Tapia was on the verge of his first world title fight, he overdosed on cocaine and was brought back to life by paramedics. Literally.

Not long after that, he won his first world title. He would go on to win five world titles, one more than the number of times he was revived after overdosing.

Tapia died of a heart attack at age 45 in 2012, two months after the final interview for this documentary. But he speaks loudly and clearly throughout this film. He's worth listening to.

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