Roberto Durán shouldn’t exist.
No, not in the flesh-and-blood literal sense, but in the legendary space that many fighters before, alongside and after him could never live in. After all, despite incredibly dire circumstance, he was an ambition-less kid who was happy shining shoes and selling newspapers. The idea that boxing would make him not just rich, but a near deity, might not have registered to him right away. But as many other wayward youth who put on the gloves, all it took was one fateful time at the local gym.
There have been several documentaries and films that have told selective parts of Durán’s career, mainly the story. You know, the one where he quit with a dismissive hand wave of his rival. Yet, a new documentary provides the rare chance to find out how Durán inexplicably survived enraging the boxing gods after “No Mas.”
I Am Durán is an intimate portrait into one of the sweet science’s most feared, but charismatic fighters to ever step between the ropes. Spliced with interviews from promoters, admirers, Hall of Fame opponents and adoring family, the Mat Hodgson-directed film dives into the life of the Panamanian icon in a way that older viewers can wistfully reminisce, and younger ones can stare into a colorful history.
Said history is a significant feature, but not just Durán’s own. The story of “Manos de Piedra” is told in a narrative that intertwines with the Central American nation’s politics and social climate. It’s alluded to that the pugilist – and not stereotypical unsavory products Panama was linked to – was the country’s greatest export. Hodsgon’s team attempts to weave the timeline of Panama’s history with that of Durán’s in-ring career, and you are supposed to get a fuller picture of someone who was known as a man of his people amidst the decades-long political war waged around the United States’ control over the Panama Canal.
Many an observer will tell you that Durán’s fists were the force of a nation. But beyond the subject himself, you’ll marvel at the luminaries that come on camera to talk about Durán’s impact in the ring and on the streets with his countrypeople. Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Oscar de la Hoya and Ricky Hatton spoke about how they were inspired by Durán, one way or another, as they began their careers. Larry Merchant brings his unmistakable ringside cadence while Springs Toledo brings an insanely good analysis of Durán’s style and tactics. Don King and Bob Arum speak of his promotional might. With their own boxing fandom shining through, Sylvester Stallone talks about working with him for Rocky II while Robert De Niro speaks about the importance of the late trainer, Ray Arcel, whom the actor portrayed in the 2016 biopic Hands of Stone.
For its ebbs and flows in mainstream attention, what makes boxing the ultimate storytelling sport is that the legends are generally paired with one another. When you think of Durán, you have no choice but to think of "Sugar" Ray Leonard, who speaks extensively about their two encounters in 1980. (They met again for a third time in 1989 where Leonard bested him in an unheralded title fight.) Likely if you’re planning to watch I Am Durán, you’ve already seen the compelling ESPN 30-for-30 offering, No Mas. The Bristol-produced look into the stunning second fight is largely seen from Leonard’s point of view, though both men had a fascinating conversation about that controversial night which would answer some questions and inspire new ones.If you forgot who he was, here are two stones to remind you. (Boxing Hall of Fame)
However, we should be fortunate that “No Mas” is not the only fight featured in this film. We hear from Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who Durán battled with in a thrilling 15-round 1983 tilt for the middleweight crown. Iran “The Blade” Barkley, a former champion who won titles in three weight classes, looks back on his meeting with the Vegas betting underdog Durán where the much smaller, but older Panamanian emerged in what Ring Magazine called “Fight of the Year” in 1989.
You are forgiven if you become a little confused or perhaps impatient with the traffic that comes from merging these seemingly separate stories of nation and icon. There isn’t that perfect intersection of sports and politics as there is with figures such as the late Muhammad Ali or even living and markedly younger contemporaries like Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James and others of this moment. Durán, at least in the foggy recollections of yesteryear, wasn’t particularly seen as an outspoken critic or supporter of any regime – well, at least it’s not fully apparent here. He shares a boyhood story of meeting General Omar Torrijos, seen as a dictator by most observers, but a liberator within Panamanian borders. And we have one of the perhaps final interviews from the notorious General Manuel Antonio Noriega, who hosted the training camp for Durán’s first fight after the infamous “No Mas” match.
However, none of the additional voices should overshadow Durán himself as he speaks openly about his peaks and valleys. He’s still cagey about the second encounter with Leonard, still bristling at the thought that "Sugar" was the better man that night in Montreal. Of course, this is despite their friendship, one developed many years later after the rather combative Durán apologized for his profane comments about Leonard’s wife in promotion of the bout. Thanks to his son Robin and wife Felicidad, you learn that he's a much more jovial man than the scowling, vicious counterpuncher that stalked in the ring across five decades.
Even though it may meander some with the political backstory – which is certainly vital in explaining the conditions in which the legend was built – I Am Durán is a compelling time capsule of one of the sport’s most dynamic personas.
From Universal Pictures, I Am Durán is available now via digital download on major platforms.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.