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‘Hands of Stone’: Boxing legend Roberto Durán’s glory and shame

Edgar Ramírez, left, and Usher Raymond star in

Edgar Ramírez, left, and Usher Raymond star in "Hands of Stone."

Singer-actor Ruben Blades was a member of the Roberto Durán entourage when his fellow Panamanian was at the top of the boxing world. But he happened to be in New York for the infamous “No más” fight, and had to watch it on closed-circuit (the Pay-Per-View of its day).

“There was this girl I always wanted to go out with,” Blades remembered. “I asked her many times and she always said no. Finally, she said yes and I told her, ‘Well, we’re going to go have dinner and dance, but first we have to go see the fight.’ So we went to see it at the Beacon Theatre. And when that happened I said to the girl, ‘Have a good night.’ I put her in a cab. And I never saw her again.”

“That” was Durán’s surrender in the eighth round of his Nov. 25, 1980, welterweight championship bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, reportedly muttering “no más” (“no more”) to the referee and walking away — a cataclysmic moment in boxing history and the climax to “Hands of Stone,” Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s bio of the celebrated prizefighter (opening Aug. 26). It was an act that rattled fight fans around the world, to say nothing of the people close to Durán.

“I went to sleep crying,” said Blades. “Freddie Brown [one of Duran’s trainers] called me at 7 a.m. to ask me if I knew what happened. Which tells you something.”

In the film, as in life, Durán — played by the director’s fellow Venezuelan, Edgar Ramírez (“Carlos,” “Joy”) — grows up in gritty Panama City, poor and fatherless; he steals mangoes from the hated U.S. Canal Zone to feed his crowd of siblings and first gets into the ring at the age of 8, having battled on the streets for years.

His acquires a pair of father figures on his way to the lightweight championship: his manager, the wealthy Carlos Eleta (Blades), who bankrolls his career, and his trainer, the celebrated Ray Arcel — given a portrayal by Robert De Niro that will no doubt be generating conversation around awards time. It is Eleta who pushes Duran into a second fight with Leonard, wanting to cash in on the obvious excitement surrounding a rematch. (Durán had beaten the popular Leonard in Montreal six months earlier.) Arcel opposes the fight, as does Durán, who famously liked to live it up — and eat — between bouts. The movie maintains, just as it subject always has, that stomach cramps due to rapid weight loss led to him turning his back on his opponent, and committing the unheard-of crime of quitting a professional prizefight.

In “Hands of Stone,” the glories are counterbalanced by the shame that followed the “no más fight.” As Ramírez noted in a recent interview, Panama is a country with only 30 million people, and it has had 29 world boxing champions. “Boxing here is like football in Brazil,” he said. “It’s part of everyday life. Roberto Durán brought so much glory to this country. He’s more than a national hero — he’s like the soul of Panama. Everyone has a story with Roberto. Everyone has an anecdote with him at a bar or a park or a restaurant. He embodies the soul of the country. It’s really amazing.” And when he quit the Leonard fight, the reaction among his countrymen was predictable.

But Ramírez’s experience seems to have been strictly positive. “The first time I shot in El Chorrillo,” he said, referring to the impoverished area where both Durán and former President Manuel Noriega came from, “I was pretty nervous. I was supposed to be the young Durán, 19 or 20 years old. I got to the set and suddenly this old guy turns around and shouts, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Durán!’ He was looking at me, and he said, ‘That’s Durán at 146 pounds!’ . . . and I almost cried.”

Blades hasn’t seen the film, he said, but he admired the story because it understands how multilayered real life can be.

“There’s a tendency to demonize people in general, and I know from experience things are more complicated than what they seem,” said the actor, who has a recurring role now in “Fear the Walking Dead.” The relationship between Eleta and Duran was like a father and son, and there was some competition between Arcel and Eleta for Durán’s affection.

“As greedy as Eleta may seem to some,” Blades said, “he forced Durán to put money in a CD. It is a known fact Roberto never wanted to fight for a while after a match; he wanted to eat and carry on.

“So Eleta’s position wasn’t just, ‘He’s becoming more and more irresponsible, and if I don’t make money off him now, I never will,’ ” Blades said. “But also, ‘If he doesn’t make money now, he never will.’ ”

Famous ‘cut man’ largely cut from film

The famously flat-nosed Freddie Brown, who died in 1986, was among the most famous trainers in the history of boxing, a Hall of Famer with particular talents as a “cut man” — the guy assigned to patch a fighter’s wounds, lest the pugilist bleed too much and the referee stop the fight.

One of Brown’s most famous acts of unlicensed medicine was mending heavyweight Rocky Marciano’s nose, which had been ripped lengthwise by a punch from Ezzard Charles in the second of their 1954 title fight. The bout was close to being stopped. Brown kept Marciano’s nose together. Charles was knocked out in the eighth round.

Brown was also a mainstay in the corner of Roberto Durán. So among the questions longtime fight fans will have about “Hands of Stone” is: Where’s Freddie Brown? Among those wondering is his daughter.

“I wish I knew. I really wish I knew,” said Arline Zuckerman of Kings Park. She said when the family heard about the film, and its virtual non-mention of her father’s pivotal role in Durán’s career, they tried to track down someone who would answer their questions. She said they got nowhere.

“My father was the one who trained him, he trained Durán for all his fights,” she said. Both Brown and Ray Arcel joined the Durán team for the fighter’s victorious 1971 lightweight bout with Ken Buchanan. Arcel is played by Robert De Niro; Brown is virtually invisible. “He lived with him 24/7,” said Zuckerman. “That’s how he did it with all his fighters,” who included Vito Antuofermo and Larry Holmes. “And he was with Durán from the beginning.”

What’s her explanation? “Ray Arcel was a good PR man for himself, but my father was never like that.”

“Freddie Brown is in the movie,” said director-writer Jonathan Jakubowicz. “He’s next to Arcel in all the fights. We did focus more on Arcel because we had to focus on his relationship with Durán. Freddie was in charge of supervising the physical training, Arcel was the strategy master. Arcel had a father-son relationship with Durán. Freddie didn’t. He was important, no doubt. But Arcel was the key to everything.” In the movie, Hector Tarpiniani is credited with playing Brown.

The climax of “Hands of Stone” — Durán’s “no más” retreat during his rematch with Leonard — revisits the moment that finally drove Freddie Brown from the ring. “He was in depression, it was terrible,” his daughter said. “I think he cried all the way home on the plane.” And he never talked much about it after, she said.

Zuckerman said she had a rapprochement of sorts with Durán a few years back during an event at Steiner Sports at Roosevelt Field, where ex-fighters were signing memorabilia.

“I saw it in the paper and said, ‘I’m going to this!’ ” she said with a laugh. “Every 20 minutes or so another fighter would come out and when Sugar Ray came out I said, ‘I’m Freddie Brown’s daughter,’ and he jumped up and gave me the biggest hug. I had to wait for Durán, but someone had already told him Freddie Brown’s daughter was there and when he came out he held me, he gave me kisses. He was fine. And I was fine. It was very emotional.” She acknowledged that the movies have to treat history the way they do, but she would have liked a little more recognition for her father, the legend.

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