’m sitting in the lobby of the Smyth Hotel in downtown Manhattan waiting for Roberto Durán, the man they call El Cholo, when I get a phone call from his assistant. “We’re on our way,” he says. “Just to warn you, he’s a little agitated.” This is expected. Since May, Durán has been on a global press tour for Hands of Stone, a new biopic about the boxer’s life and relationship with mentor Ray Arcel by Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz, which premiered at the Cannes film festival and had its New York premiere earlier this week. He is here with his wife of more than 45 years, Felicidad ‘Fula’ Iglesias, and his children and grandchildren.
Minutes after he arrives Durán pleads with his assistant for some water. “I’m sorry, just give me one moment,” he says in Spanish as he sits down. “I’ve been on my feet since last night.” It’s been a hectic ride for the 65-year-old retired fighter who speaks very little English, contending with the demands of a press junket alongside Robert De Niro, Usher and Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays him in the movie. Once he finally settles, Durán’s attention diverts once again as he keeps greeting his friends and family passing through the hotel lobby. His biggest concern is now an iPod he lost in his hotel room. “All my music is in that thing! We can’t leave until I find it. It has 3,500 songs.”
Just as I’m thinking the interview might take all day, it occurs to me that, even as a journalist, in order to get what you want from him you have to match his energy. You have to go in the ring with him. At this precise moment it becomes clear: he’s never truly out of it. Durán is always fighting something.
For Latinos, Durán is more than just an athlete or even a sporting legend. He is a mythological figure, a symbol who persists in Latin folklore decades after his fighting career because he represented the will and determination of a community who was fighting the social injustices of the times they were facing. Much like Ali stood up for the civil rights of the African-American movement in a segregated America, Durán was doing the same thing for the poor and underprivileged in Panama. The film, which alternates between Spanish and English, represents one of the rare chances where an American audience can witness a Hollywood movie where a Latino protagonist is not a crime lord or a drug kingpin. “This is an opportunity to change the Latino stereotype – we live in a world where you can call Latinos drug dealers and rapists and criminals and still have a chance at being president of the United States,” said Jakubowicz at the New York premiere. “Those are the stereotypes you see in American movies and TV shows, but now you’re going to see a true legend: a Latino boxer who overcame all his demons and became an inspiration for an entire people.”
Roberto Durán Samaniego was born on 16 June 1951 in Guararé, a four-hour drive south of Panama City, but was raised in El Chorrillo, a poor neighborhood on the water’s edge in the capital and walking distance to the mouth to the Panama Canal. During Durán’s childhood, tensions between the US and Panama were so hostile that authorities decided to build a wall – sound familiar? – between the Canal Zone and the capital in order to alleviate the tumultuous relationship between Panamanian residents and Americans who lived and worked inside the zonal area. Durán, a poor kid from the streets, remembers having to break into the prohibited zone in order to get mangoes from the trees so he could sell them and feed his family. “The best fruit was on the other side, so I would use a pair of pliers, cut the fence and climb up the trees to get the mangoes.” American soldiers, after noticing the eight-year-old breaking in, would fire shots of warning in the air to scare him away. “They knew we were kids so would only shoot blanks just to scare us.”
His mother, Clara, raised him and his siblings as his father, Margarito, a Mexican-American GI from Arizona who was stationed in Panama, left the family and returned to the states in 1954. After living almost his entire childhood without a father, it wasn’t until 1976 in California when they would reunite. In a 1980 interview with the Evening Independent, Margarito Durán recalls the meeting. “We embraced,” said Margarito. “We sat in a room at a hotel and it was no problem.” Durán confirms the meeting and agrees it was an amicable encounter, but when I try to get him to talk more about his estranged father there is a sense of restraint, as if there is still a lot of resentment and pain still unresolved. He takes a photograph out of his wallet and shows it to me. It’s a black and white image of a young Durán with his father from that hotel meeting. In the image, both men are hugging and smiling, as if all was forgotten in one frozen memory. “The only good thing that my father ever did,” he says to me, “was that he once picked up a magazine and recognized who I was.”
Perhaps this is where the fighter was born. Not in the streets where he had to clean shoes, or sell newspapers, or even at Neco de La Guardia gymnasium where he learned how to box thanks to Nestor ‘Plomo’ Espinosa, and later joined by the legendary Arcel, who made him world champion in four different weight classes. These are all vital pieces of the puzzle that created the fighter inside the ring, but the inner rage and the bull-like aggression he possessed, that is something that cannot be taught. It can only be experienced, and for Durán, it all began with his father.
Durán is perhaps best known for the infamous “No Más” rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 after he’d won their first meeting. Near the end of the eighth round Durán, clearly losing the fight, turns around and allegedly mutters the words, “no more” to the referee. There have been many pieces on the subject including a 30 for 30 documentary and our own investigation, and Durán himself, as he mentions in the ESPN doc, denies he ever said those words, but instead it was the ref, Octavio Meyran, who muttered them after Durán put his hands up and refused to fight. Either way, it was Manos de Piedra who was mentally beaten and stopped the fight, regardless whether the words were said or not. The movie also goes into detail, including the fact that he was in poor physical condition, had little time to make weight due to his ferocious appetite and that the fight was poorly scheduled between Don King and his promoter, the millionaire Carlos Eleta.
Perhaps something that is more important and is often forgotten in the memory of the boxing fan is the close bond that Durán and Leonard have built since their bouts and how they became close friends. There was a beautiful moment at the New York premiere when right before the screening, Durán and Leonard embraced each other and the entire audience stood up and applauded. “This is something that people forget,” says Durán. “I never said ‘no más’ and me and Sugar are great friends.”
Durán wanted me to know that he was extremely proud of the film as it’s a testament to how much people validate what he has done for the sport, but there are certain parts which he was less keen on. “I’m very happy with the movie and Edgar Ramirez did a fantastic job. He’s a great actor,” he says. “But I didn’t always like the way they made me and my wife (powerfully played by Cuban-Spanish actress, Ana de Armas) look sometimes. There are scenes when she is smoking and drinking and she doesn’t do either, she never has. Also, they often made me look like a womanizer and that I insulted Sugar’s wife in front of her before our first fight. None of that happened.”
I asked the director Jonathan Jakubowicz about these concerns. “First of all, there are stories about Jake La Motta and how he hated Raging Bull after seeing it for the first time, so if Durán’s biggest problem with the movie is that Fula was smoking and drinking, I’ll take it,” jokes the 38-year-old director. “But to address the point, this movie is not just about Roberto Durán, it also examines Fula’s story, specifically after that fight in New Orleans and how she had to deal with a depressed man, someone who didn’t want to leave the house for three months or do anything. So it wasn’t just Durán who was broken, it was also his wife. So for us, the smoking and drinking was a creative choice that was made because it showed the distance and depressed state that she was in at the time.”
Regarding the insults aimed at Leonard’s wife which Durán categorically denies, Jakubowicz stands firm. “Listen, I want people to know that aside from a filmmaker I am also an investigative journalist and I interviewed Sugar Ray Leonard on this very subject. We talked about it on more than one occasion and every time he tells me this story you can see the anger building within him. I also talked to Angelo Dundee (Leonard’s renowned trainer, who died in 2012) a few months before he sadly passed away and he also confirmed the story. I think Durán is perhaps repenting what happened and wishes to forget about it as it can’t be easy to see your entire life – the good and the bad – on the big screen.”
We may never know the exact details of what happened nor we may truly be able to fully understand the complexities of a fighter who has been through so much both inside and out of the ring. One thing is for sure, Roberto Durán, the kid from the slums of Panama who became the greatest lightweight on the planet, has never been perfect as his temperament has always represented a double-edged sword, both his greatest ally and most dangerous enemy. “Durán is a man made of flesh and bones,” says Jakubowicz. “And all his demons are part of what made him a great boxer and in beating them is what specifically makes him a human being and a hero. And this is what Latin Americans need, we need someone who’s made of flesh and bones, a hero who knows what it’s like to also be imperfect. We need real heroes just like him.”
Just as we finish talking, Durán enters the room, elated because he has just found the famous iPod with 3,500 songs. ‘You have no idea how happy I am to have found this,” he tells us. “Do you know how many songs it holds?” he asks.
I do know, but I still want him to tell me.