The story of Panamanian boxing champ Roberto Duran has a mystery wrapped deep and tight inside its glove: Why, in the eighth round of his November 1980 rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard—whom he’d defeated five months earlier in a 15-round match that had been punishing for both—did he suddenly turn away from his opponent, waving his powerhouse arms like useless noodles while (reportedly) saying, “No mas”? Why would any fighter, especially one as scrappy as Duran, walk away from such a momentous match—courting the world’s ridicule and, worse, its fury?
Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Hands of Stone, a dual portrait of Duran and the superstar trainer who urged him to victory, Ray Arcel, doesn’t tell us why, because no one really knows why. Boxing, as Arcel (played by an understated, almost pensive Robert De Niro) says in the movie, is brains over brawn, and on that night, Duran’s brain, as infinitely unknowable as any other, definitely called the shots.
Jakubowicz’s movie is occasionally clumsy in its storytelling, but the boxing sequences, at least, crackle: Boxing movies have become the refuge for people who love the sport in theory but who can’t stand how dangerously brutal it has become, and on that level, Hands of Stone works well enough. But the real reason to see it is for Edgar Ramirez (Carlos, Joy), who plays Duran, a cocksure fighter who could also be downright nasty outside the ring. Ramirez captures all of that, but he also digs deep to find more. The performance works as a miniature study of machismo, which can be both a show-offy radiance and a kind of shade—a safe, sheltering rock for a man to hide behind. Duran, now 65, denies ever having said, “No mas” that night. But Ramirez makes you believe he could have said it—that even a man who would come to be known as one of the greatest boxers of all time could have, in a crucial instant, faced down his own unnamable vulnerabilities and thought, Enough. That’s the real fighting spirit, and it’s there in Ramirez’s eyes.