Hands of Stone

Let me cut right to the chase here -- this is a great movie.

Hands of Stone is a movie about the great Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, active from the 1970’s until his retirement in 2002, at age 50.

I almost didn’t see this movie, despite my intense interest in 1960’s-2000 boxing, which was the Ali-Frazier-Duran-Leonard-Hagler-Holmes-Tyson-Holyfield golden era of the sport. Stone received many mediocre reviews prior to its release and I said to my wife, “Let’s skip it.” She said, “No. I’ve heard some good reviews and besides, most of the negative reviews are from people who know nothing about boxing or its history. We should see this.”

As usual, she was completely, totally right. Like the 2000 movie Ali starring Will Smith, Hands of Stone gets all the important things correct and captures the essence and manner of the main character perfectly. Duran grew up on the streets of Panama’s slums, using boxing as a way out. He earned the nickname Hands of Stone early on, because of his ability to hit so hard, in spite of his small stature (a 5’ 7” 135-lb lightweight).

After coming to the U.S, a string of impressive wins put him in line for a title fight against highly regarded lightweight champion Ken Buchannan of Scotland in September 1972. Buchannan was no match for Duran’s relentless aggression, and Duran won after the fight was stopped following the 13th round, with Buchannan faking having taken a low blow, claiming he couldn’t continue. What a prophetic and ironic way this would prove to be for Duran to win the title. The referee rightly discounted Buchannan’s hollow claim and awarded the fight to Duran on a technical knockout (a TKO in boxing terminology).

In 1976, the U.S. Olympic boxing team won an unprecedented five gold medals in Montreal, a team featuring the soon-to-be famous Spinks brothers (Michael and Leon). The star of the team, however, was unquestionably the charismatic and telegenic Ray Leonard, who took the nickname of a former boxing great “Sugar,” after Sugar Ray Robinson. A new generation of sports fans now knew only of ‘Sugar Ray’ Leonard.

Turning professional right after the Olympic Games ended, Leonard proved that his talents and abilities as a boxer were truly special. His articulate manner and sharp wit -- along with his handsome looks and cool demeanor -- reminded many people of the previous boxing generation’s big attraction, Muhammad Ali. That he was trained/managed by the same person as Ali (Angelo Dundee) and hyped by boxing’s biggest broadcaster (Howard Cosell) as was Ali, only added to that perception. Leonard was boxing’s big draw, in an era when boxing enjoyed perhaps its greatest popularity and -- because of satellite broadcast technology -- its biggest worldwide audience.

By the late 1970’s, Duran had run out of worthy challengers for his lightweight title, having beaten every comer. Leonard had won the welterweight (147-lb.) title in 1979. With only a scant 12-lb differential between them (147-135), Duran and Leonard appeared to be locked in on an inevitable collision course

The collision took place in June of 1980 in Montreal, the site of Leonard’s Olympic triumph. In a fight for Leonard’s welterweight title that attracted worldwide attention and focus unlike anything seen since the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier contest a decade earlier (although it seemed like a lifetime earlier), Duran and Leonard put on an unsurpassed exhibition of heroic, intense boxing drama that stands to this day as one of sport’s (any sport’s) great moments. With the unrelentingly ferocious action moving one way, then shifting without warning in the opposite direction, fans were on the edge of their seats, unsure of the outcome even as the bell sounded at the end of the 15th and final round.  Duran prevailed by the closest of margins on the officials’ scorecards, but no one questioned the decision afterwards, not even Leonard or Dundee. It had been razor-close, but Duran had won, without doubt.

Leonard and Dundee lobbied for and were granted a rematch, just five short months later, in November 1980. Duran had partied and lived the high life following his June triumph -- determined to put Panama’s slums behind him forever -- and was clearly not in either the proper mental or physical shape to meet the determined, motivated Leonard in the rematch. Thus begat one of sport’s most unforgettable occurrences, as a frustrated, ill-conditioned Duran, being outboxed and embarrassed by the slick, fast-moving Leonard, abruptly quit in the 8th round. He simply turned his back on Leonard in the middle of the round, uttering his now infamous words, “No mas.”

The movie captures all of this perfectly. Edgar Ramierez is as authentic an on-screen personification of a real person as there has ever been. R&B/Hip-Hop singer Usher is nearly as good as Leonard, and Robert DeNiro gives a classic performance as Duran’s legendary trainer, Ray Arcel. The movie takes no “sides”: it doesn’t attempt to portray either Leonard or Duran as a particularly evil or sympathetic character. The fight sequences themselves are extremely well done, adhering to the action in the actual fights quite closely, with very little of the Hollywood clichéd Rocky-esque exaggerations.

Because of Duran’s very long and convoluted boxing career, I wondered where the movie would choose to end the story. They chose a good spot. In 1983, three years after the No Mas debacle, Duran has made a comeback and fought himself back into title contention. He’s facing young, undefeated Davey Moore in New York’s Madison Square Garden before 20,000 fans for the Junior Middleweight (154-lb.) championship. In what many thought would be an ignominious end to his career, Duran instead pulls out one of his greatest performances ever, stopping the heavily-favored Moore in the 8th round in truly frightening fashion to win the championship.

Like the Miles Davis jazz movie Miles Ahead, Hands of Stone shows once again the danger of distorted views and missed points that occur when non-experts review movies about highly-specialized subjects about which they are simply unqualified to write.

For the truly-informed boxing aficionado with a clear view of boxing history, Hands of Stone is simply a fabulous movie.

Let me cut right to the chase here -- this is a great movie.

Hands of Stone is a movie about the great Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, active from the 1970’s until his retirement in 2002, at age 50.

I almost didn’t see this movie, despite my intense interest in 1960’s-2000 boxing, which was the Ali-Frazier-Duran-Leonard-Hagler-Holmes-Tyson-Holyfield golden era of the sport. Stone received many mediocre reviews prior to its release and I said to my wife, “Let’s skip it.” She said, “No. I’ve heard some good reviews and besides, most of the negative reviews are from people who know nothing about boxing or its history. We should see this.”

As usual, she was completely, totally right. Like the 2000 movie Ali starring Will Smith, Hands of Stone gets all the important things correct and captures the essence and manner of the main character perfectly. Duran grew up on the streets of Panama’s slums, using boxing as a way out. He earned the nickname Hands of Stone early on, because of his ability to hit so hard, in spite of his small stature (a 5’ 7” 135-lb lightweight).

After coming to the U.S, a string of impressive wins put him in line for a title fight against highly regarded lightweight champion Ken Buchannan of Scotland in September 1972. Buchannan was no match for Duran’s relentless aggression, and Duran won after the fight was stopped following the 13th round, with Buchannan faking having taken a low blow, claiming he couldn’t continue. What a prophetic and ironic way this would prove to be for Duran to win the title. The referee rightly discounted Buchannan’s hollow claim and awarded the fight to Duran on a technical knockout (a TKO in boxing terminology).

In 1976, the U.S. Olympic boxing team won an unprecedented five gold medals in Montreal, a team featuring the soon-to-be famous Spinks brothers (Michael and Leon). The star of the team, however, was unquestionably the charismatic and telegenic Ray Leonard, who took the nickname of a former boxing great “Sugar,” after Sugar Ray Robinson. A new generation of sports fans now knew only of ‘Sugar Ray’ Leonard.

Turning professional right after the Olympic Games ended, Leonard proved that his talents and abilities as a boxer were truly special. His articulate manner and sharp wit -- along with his handsome looks and cool demeanor -- reminded many people of the previous boxing generation’s big attraction, Muhammad Ali. That he was trained/managed by the same person as Ali (Angelo Dundee) and hyped by boxing’s biggest broadcaster (Howard Cosell) as was Ali, only added to that perception. Leonard was boxing’s big draw, in an era when boxing enjoyed perhaps its greatest popularity and -- because of satellite broadcast technology -- its biggest worldwide audience.

By the late 1970’s, Duran had run out of worthy challengers for his lightweight title, having beaten every comer. Leonard had won the welterweight (147-lb.) title in 1979. With only a scant 12-lb differential between them (147-135), Duran and Leonard appeared to be locked in on an inevitable collision course

The collision took place in June of 1980 in Montreal, the site of Leonard’s Olympic triumph. In a fight for Leonard’s welterweight title that attracted worldwide attention and focus unlike anything seen since the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier contest a decade earlier (although it seemed like a lifetime earlier), Duran and Leonard put on an unsurpassed exhibition of heroic, intense boxing drama that stands to this day as one of sport’s (any sport’s) great moments. With the unrelentingly ferocious action moving one way, then shifting without warning in the opposite direction, fans were on the edge of their seats, unsure of the outcome even as the bell sounded at the end of the 15th and final round.  Duran prevailed by the closest of margins on the officials’ scorecards, but no one questioned the decision afterwards, not even Leonard or Dundee. It had been razor-close, but Duran had won, without doubt.

Leonard and Dundee lobbied for and were granted a rematch, just five short months later, in November 1980. Duran had partied and lived the high life following his June triumph -- determined to put Panama’s slums behind him forever -- and was clearly not in either the proper mental or physical shape to meet the determined, motivated Leonard in the rematch. Thus begat one of sport’s most unforgettable occurrences, as a frustrated, ill-conditioned Duran, being outboxed and embarrassed by the slick, fast-moving Leonard, abruptly quit in the 8th round. He simply turned his back on Leonard in the middle of the round, uttering his now infamous words, “No mas.”

The movie captures all of this perfectly. Edgar Ramierez is as authentic an on-screen personification of a real person as there has ever been. R&B/Hip-Hop singer Usher is nearly as good as Leonard, and Robert DeNiro gives a classic performance as Duran’s legendary trainer, Ray Arcel. The movie takes no “sides”: it doesn’t attempt to portray either Leonard or Duran as a particularly evil or sympathetic character. The fight sequences themselves are extremely well done, adhering to the action in the actual fights quite closely, with very little of the Hollywood clichéd Rocky-esque exaggerations.

Because of Duran’s very long and convoluted boxing career, I wondered where the movie would choose to end the story. They chose a good spot. In 1983, three years after the No Mas debacle, Duran has made a comeback and fought himself back into title contention. He’s facing young, undefeated Davey Moore in New York’s Madison Square Garden before 20,000 fans for the Junior Middleweight (154-lb.) championship. In what many thought would be an ignominious end to his career, Duran instead pulls out one of his greatest performances ever, stopping the heavily-favored Moore in the 8th round in truly frightening fashion to win the championship.

Like the Miles Davis jazz movie Miles Ahead, Hands of Stone shows once again the danger of distorted views and missed points that occur when non-experts review movies about highly-specialized subjects about which they are simply unqualified to write.

For the truly-informed boxing aficionado with a clear view of boxing history, Hands of Stone is simply a fabulous movie.