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Knockout performances elevate Roberto Duran biopic, ‘Hands of Stone’

“No mas” is what he supposedly said to the boxing referee as he walked to his corner and quit fighting. Roberto Duran has denied saying it ever since, but it has always been the way history tells the tale of his rematch against Sugar Ray Leonard. (The first bout stands as one of the few bouts Leonard lost in his professional career).

Stomach cramps, Duran said later.

It was one of the great existential moments in the history of sports. No one in his right mind at the time would have dreamed of calling Duran a coward or weakling, despite quitting. Duran was as tough as champion boxers ever get.

Some of his punches were like messages from the apocalypse. That’s why they called the Panamanian fighter “Hands of Stone” (“Manos de piedra”) which is the title of this well-made, if conventional biopic about Duran.

Fear was not really a word or concept in Duran’s vocabulary. Boxing fans of the 1970s routinely said (as they once did of Sugar Ray Robinson) “pound for pound he was the best and toughest boxer in the world.” He was almost, in his weight class, the same kind of wrecking machine as the young Mike Tyson.

So when Duran, in the biggest money fight he’d ever have, just walked back to his corner in the middle of the fight and stopped, it was one of the most amazing moments in sports history. It had none of the corrupt flavor of Sonny Liston remaining on his stool rather than coming out to finish his bout with Muhammad Ali (who was Cassius Clay at the time).

And it was one of the most enigmatic especially if he really did say “no mas.” No more what? No more big fight hoo-ha, Don King style? No more Ali-esque dancing and tormenting from his opponent Sugar Ray Leonard? No more what?

There was a movie there. And “Hands of Stone” knows it. It’s an American-Panamanian movie made mostly in Panama. It’s an efficient, if seldom inspired, movie about a fearsome boxing champion who, in one amazing moment, said what a good half of the human race fantasizes saying on the job some days: “no mas” or, in another context, as Johnny Paycheck immortally put it “take this job and shove it.”

That’s the way the film seems to see it. Duran, as the movie tells the tale, spent so much of himself making the weight for that fight that he depleted a lot of his spiritual resources for fighting.

He had psyched out Leonard the first time they fought. Now he was psyched out.

The film is a conventional boxing biopic with fight scenes well-directed by Venezuelan Jonathan Jakubowicz.

But what makes this movie as good as it is – which is pretty good indeed – are the performances: Edgar Ramirez as Duran and especially Robert De Niro as the real hero of “Hands of Stone,” Ray Arcel.

Arcel was the boxing guru who had, a decade before, struck a deal with the mob to stop trying to get boxing established everywhere and get out of boxing so that they could keep it in New York, thereby controlling it and its profits too.

As the movie has it, Arcel broke his pledge to keep out of boxing by managing Duran for nothing.

He’s a fascinating character played by De Niro who hereby proves: 1) How weirdly loyal he remains to the world of boxing which he served so magnificently in “Raging Bull” and 2) that if you can keep De Niro interested, he is still one of the best actors we have. Just try looking somewhere else in “Hands of Stone” when he’s onscreen. Even when the camera tries to, you’re going to have trouble.

De Niro clearly liked the script and this director and he’s very good as Arcel.

So is R&B star Usher, who plays – would you believe – Sugar Ray Leonard. Usher is witty in a different way than Leonard. He has a different kind of self-satisfied smirk. But his performance works.

So does the whole film.

Let’s face it, the true mystery of Duran – what exactly was going on in his head (heart and stomach) when he supposedly said “No mas” – is unlikely ever to be solved.

It’s good to have a solid and professional biopic reminding us of that.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

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