The Nature of Machismo

Styles make fights, boxing analysts say. So it’s not surprising that more than three decades later, Roberto Durán’s first two fights against Sugar Ray Leonard, in 1980, still make for such compelling viewing. These fighters were opposites in so many ways. Durán was known for a style that stressed skilled infighting and hard, relentless punching. He scored 69 victories, 55 by knockout, in his first 70 fights. He was famous as the fearsome man with las manos de piedra—“hands of stone.”

Leonard, by contrast, was regarded less as a puncher than a boxer, an agile athlete who, after winning a gold medal for the United States in the 1976 Olympics, notched 27 straight victories as a professional on his way to the WBC Welterweight crown. With his friendly manner and boyish good looks, Leonard also cut a much more likable figure than Durán, who—in public at least—appeared to relish his role as a heartless brawler. In fact, Sugar Ray seemed almost too good to be true, particularly for boxing promoters and marketing executives. They quickly realized that his star power was just as rare as his talent in the ring. Leonard was one of the best fighters of his generation. He was also box office gold.

Yet Jonathan Jakubowicz’s new feature film is about Durán. Hands of Stone is a slick and formulaic attempt to trace the singular career of a fighter risen from the slums of El Chorrillo, Panama, to become a national hero—and then, overnight, one of the most scorned figures in the history of sports. Even now sportswriters and boxing historians mull the mystery of why Durán, who would “fight a cage full of lions,” as his trainer Ray Arcel once put it, simply quit in the middle of his second fight with Leonard, waving a glove in meek surrender and allegedly uttering the now notorious words: “No más.”

That fight has already been ably chronicled by director Eric Drath in 2013’s No Más, part of ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30. As Drath’s film shows, the first Leonard versus Durán fight was billed as “the Fight of the Century.” At 24, Leonard was five years younger, and considered the favorite. His take of the gate, moreover, was much greater than Durán’s, which displeased the Panamanian, to put it mildly. Before the bout Durán repeatedly mocked Leonard, calling him un payaso, a clown. He questioned Leonard’s manhood and frightened his wife, publicly promising that “I will kill your husband.”  Such antics only cemented Durán’s reputation as “the meanest man in boxing,” the vulgar villain who vowed to destroy the sport’s golden boy.

Durán won, mainly because Leonard, his blood boiling, decided to slug it out with boxing’s fiercest slugger, abandoning the dance-and-jab style for which he was known. But five months later, in the rematch, Leonard turned the tables, flummoxing Durán with his superb boxing skills and taunting him mercilessly from the opening bell. Although this fight was closer than people now tend to remember, Durán was flustered and out of gas when he suddenly quit in the eighth round, later claiming stomach cramps brought on by a pre-fight meal. Afterward he returned to Panama to face angry mobs. Once adored, honored with gifts and parades, Durán was now booed and jeered and pelted with rubber chickens. He was shunned by the same public officials who had only recently showered him with lavish praise. Durán’s “hands of stone,” complained one commentator, had become “hands of mush.”

Of course, as No Más also shows, Durán, after licking his wounds, went back to work. Although he broke with Ray Arcel, who couldn’t tolerate a fighter quitting in the ring, he continued to box regularly until 2001. And he boxed well, staging the sort of comeback that few athletes have ever matched. Durán fought all comers, including two other greats, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns. Over the course of his unusually long career, he fought in six different weight classes and won five world titles. He won his last championship, as a Super Middleweight, at the age of 47.

In many ways, it’s a story that recalls the boxing movies of the 1950s or early 1960s, when the sport was still hugely popular and served as grist for such classics as Champion, The Harder They Fall, and Requiem for a Heavyweight. These films not only caught the high drama of a brutally competitive sport, but also managed to say something about character and corruption, which is to say about the complexities and contradictions of human nature. Raging Bull (1980), shot in black and white and based broadly on the boxer Jake LaMotta’s 1970 autobiography, was Martin Scorsese’s attempt to recreate both the atmosphere and the ambition of the better boxing films of the postwar era. Its star, Robert De Niro, won an academy award for his performance as LaMotta, a durable middleweight who, like Durán, was willing to take great punishment in the ring for the sheer pleasure of also dishing it out.

Hands of Stone also looked promising. Edgar Ramirez stars as Durán, but publicity for the film has stressed De Niro’s prominent role as Arcel, a man the great boxing writer A.J. Liebling described as “severe and decisive, like a teacher in a Hebrew School.” Over many years, Arcel had worked with a remarkably long list of top contenders and champions, including Benny Leonard, Tony Zale, and Ezzard Charles. He was over 70 when he came out of retirement to train Durán, who between fights had developed bad habits like blowing his money and eating like a horse. Boxing “is brain over brawn,” Arcel liked to say, and he played a key role in coaxing and coaching Durán into a smarter, more focused fighter. To this day Durán says Arcel was “like a father to me.”

De Niro is quite good as the gentlemanly Arcel, and so is Reuben Blades in a smaller role as Carlos Eleta, the Panamanian businessman who discovered Durán and managed much of his career. But these performances are not enough to save a movie that is far more interested in its sets than its characters or its script, which is a mess to start with, and gets steadily worse as it meanders along. One senses that Jakubowicz, who also wrote and produced Hands of Stone, didn’t want to put too much boxing in a movie about a boxer lest it bore the film’s target audience, which appears to consist of the same people who watch the melodramas on the Lifetime channel or the soap operatic telenovelas on Telemundo.

In Hands of Stone the slums are prettily painted, and the prizefighters strike beefcake poses. In love scenes the candles flicker, the raindrops fall, and the violins softly play. Certainly Ramirez is miscast as Durán, whose air of menace, partly concocted, was an inextricable part of his pugilistic success. In one scene Arcel tells reporters that he agreed to handle Durán because the young Panamanian was full of the same “rage” he found years before in gifted young fighters determined to punch their way out of the ghettoes of New York. But the handsome Ramirez conveys neither menace nor rage. He was much better conveying neurosis as the eccentric lounge singer in 2015’s Joy.

As Ray Leonard, the singer Usher Raymond IV is similarly miscast, and completely forgettable. More memorable, in a comical way, is Reg E. Cathey, who appears in several scenes as the dodgy promoter Don King. Fitted with a towering, absurdly frizzed up wig, Cathey looks more like a large troll doll than the distinctively colorful King, one indication among many of the movie’s lazy reliance on caricature and cliché. As a result, Hands of Stone will surely tax viewers who have already endured their share of Rocky sequels or similarly hackneyed sports movies, and have understandably said no más to sitting through yet another big finish in which the beleaguered hero musters one more win against the odds, his teary-eyed fans cheering away.

In real life, Durán has notably mellowed. He owns a restaurant in Panama City, where he is surrounded by family and scores of friends happy to attest to his legendary generosity. Durán’s status as a national hero in Panama is largely restored. Hands of Stone might have considered more artfully the fleetingness of fame and the fickleness of crowds. It might have explored more thoughtfully the nature of the machismo that Durán at his peak so famously exemplified, with its links to honor and pride as well as aggressive posturing. It might have dramatized more fully Durán’s relationship with Arcel, who is best remembered for his psychological shrewdness, and the way he modified his training methods to account for his fighters’ various habits and quirks.

There is ample material in the life of Roberto Durán from which to fashion an interesting biopic. Unfortunately the maker of Hands of Stone missed it entirely.