By: Sean Crose
While watching Mat Hodgson’s new documentary, I Am Duran, I found myself wondering how the director of such films as The Four Year Plan and Night Of The Fight: Hatton’s Last Stand had arrived at some of his creative decisions. There was an awful lot going on in this film, I thought. Perhaps too much. Then something strange happened. The movie stayed in my head after it had ended…and not in the bad way some films do, either. No, I Am Duran remained lodged in my mind because it gave me a fuller understanding of someone I had been aware of my entire life, an outrageous, talented, complex individual who left an indelible mark, not only in his native Panama, but on the worlds of boxing and popular culture, as well.
The film focuses on one of the greatest fighters of all time, Roberto Duran, a Panamanian legend who rose from poverty to the pinnacle of the sporting world, only to crash and return. Angry, bullying, charming, impressive, and admirable all at the same time, Duran captivated the public in his homeland, and well beyond in the course of an incredible career that lasted from 1968 to 2001. During that time, the fighter picked up major titles in the lightweight, welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight divisions – an impressive feat under any circumstances, much less in the star studded era that Duran plied his trade in. The fact Duran’s career saw him face the likes of Ken Buchanan, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Iran Barkley, Davey Moore and many other notables only serves to add a sense of wonder to the man’s achievements (as well as a sense of disappointment to the risk adverse boxers who currently dominate the sport). Ultimately, however, I Am Duran isn’t a movie about boxing. Boxing, in a sense, only serves as its backdrop.
“In this story there is only one legend,” Duran himself says early in the film. “That’s me.” And, sure enough, Hodgson strives to give as complete a picture of the man as possible. Some of the bigger names one could imagine appear to discuss the enigmatic fighter known as “Manos de Piedra (Hands of Stone)” Aside from boxing royalty like Leonard and Hagler recalling their old foil at length, the movie presents Duran’s wife, Felicidad, actor Robert DeNiro (who played Ray Arcel, Duran’s famed trainer in the film “Hands of Stone,”) and – perhaps, most surprisingly – former Panamanian strong man Manuel Noriega (who admits he tried to cheat while battling Duran at pool). What these and other notables from various walks of life do for the film is paint a portrait of a man consumed by a relentless drive.
The source of that drive – the brutal poverty of Duran’s youth in Panama, near the famous Canal Zone – is well documented, giving the viewer an understanding as to why and how this grinding, sneering, ultimately brilliant athlete was formed. Yet Hodgson doesn’t ignore his subject’s less than savory behavior. The movie shows its subject’s dark side, starting with the lead up to Duran’s first 1980 superfight with American icon Leonard. In order to get into the former Olympian’s head, Duran targeted Leonard’s wife for harassment. The strategy may have had the desired effect, as Leonard lost the bout by decision because he decided to brawl with Duran. Yet no great victory can clean away the repulsiveness of Duran’s actions at the time. Having the drive to win is admirable. When that drive leads to harassing an innocent woman, it’s repulsive.
Of course, as any sports fan who was alive at the time can recall, Duran got his comeuppance a few months later when, in their rematch, Leonard decided to outbox and humiliate his foe to the point where Duran actually quit the fight. Hodgson handles the moment well, showcasing Duran’s fall from grace, not only in the worlds of sports and popular culture, but particularly among his countrymen in Panama. A great warrior, after behaving horribly, had been made to look like a punk – something no homeland would appreciate, especially one going through the turmoil Panama was in at the time.
Yet, as Hodgson makes clear, people don’t have to be defined by their worst moments. Duran did indeed find the gumption to return to ring glory (the fighter’s time voluntarily training himself back into shape in a penal colony is particularly notable in the film). The movie also shows how, over time, Duran has matured as a person. He’s made peace with Leonard, for instance (they’re now genuine friends), and is a more gracious star than he was decades ago. Interestingly enough, one gets the feeling these positive developments may have had more than a bit to do with Felicidad, a fascinating individual who may well be the strong one in the relationship. Indeed, it’s the moments which focus on those from Duran’s past and present that make this movie strong. Hagler, and especially Leonard, are the high points of the film. They explain their first hand accounts of famous fights with a novelist’s clarity and flair.
And then, of course, there’s Duran himself, still outspoken and in-your-face, but at the same time charming and in possession of dignity and – yes – decency. The man is nothing if not worthy of the attention he receives here. As is Panama. Yet, although Duran and Panama are synonymous, Hodgson tends at times to try to mirror the story of Duran with the story of his homeland. Unfortunately, the chronologies don’t always run in sync. The first act of the film, in particular, is impacted by this miscalculation. Like it’s subject, though, I Am Duran refuses to be kept down. There’s a lot to like here, a lot of gems to be found – in particular an eerie moment where Hodgson cuts from Duran quitting the Leonard rematch to Duran and Leonard in the present day. Each man is silent. It’s a masterfully done, powerful example of fine film making, more jarring than an entire CGI infused summer blockbuster.
Or perhaps even a knockout blow from a world class fighter.
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