No matter how you choose to measure it, Roberto Durán is one of the greatest boxers of all time. Many consider him the greatest lightweight champion in boxing history. In the prime of his career, he moved up in weight to beat an undefeated Sugar Ray Leonard for the welterweight championship. And at age 37, he would win a share of the world middleweight championship by defeating Iran Barkley. Durán’s defiant streetfighting style made him a legend with fight fans. But on one night in New Orleans, fighting in a rematch against Ray Leonard, Durán turned his back on the sport, a sport from which he was ready to retire, and was then abandoned by the entire boxing world. In the new film, Hands of Stone, we see Durán’s rise from a childhood of incredible poverty in Panama to become the lightweight champion of the world and a national god. We see his greatest career triumph and tragedy against Leonard, and his subsequent redemption in boxing. Now 65, Durán hasn’t lost an ounce of feistiness, as he sat down with us at the AQ studio.
Why did you decide now was the time to make Hands of Stone, a movie about your life?
I never really wanted to make a movie about my life. I had been approached multiple times. I only ended up doing the movie because my family said it would be important for my legacy.
You can only fit so much of a man’s life in two hours. What didn’t make it into the movie that you wish was there?
I don’t want to say too much because there’s a lot. There’s been talk of maybe making a second movie that would use a lot of the material that I gave them. They left out a lot about the parts of my life when I nearly starved. I was homeless and living in abandoned houses at night. There were so many hardships that I dealt with growing up hungry with my mother. They didn’t focus on any of that. One of the other things that wasn’t in the movie at all was how much my management stole from me. Maybe they saved some of it for the second movie. A lot of the story that I told didn’t make it to the screen. But the movie that’s made is made, and that’s it. The movie is just a small part of who I am, but they did better than what’s already out there about me.
You also have a book coming out in September.
Yes. There was an unauthorized book written about me, a book that I didn’t approve. The book augmented a lot of the stories in my life with a lot of lies. So I got together with a company to do my own book. My book will be 100% my story from my own words.
Obviously the movie focuses quite a bit on your two fights with Sugar Ray Leonard. What would you like people to know about those fights that they may not know?
One of the things I forgot to tell the director was actually a pivotal part of my story. After the Sugar Ray Leonard defeat in our second fight, everyone left me in the locker room. I was there by myself with my family. My manager Carlos Eleta left. Ray Arcel left. Don King left. Everybody. I only had one friend that stayed behind with me. Instead of jumping on a plane with his family, he got bus tickets for all of us. We took a bus from New Orleans to Miami. From Miami, we took a plane back home to Panama together. One friend. That’s it. The only person other than my family who looked out for me after that, after I had been generous to so many people. At that point, my manger Carlos Eleta had full control over my money. He kept telling me that he was putting it away for me for when I was going to retire. There were many times in my career that I wanted to retire. And I never got the money. Not one dollar. I lost all of it. It was definitely a low part of my life. The only thing they left me with was the airplane ticket home to Panama.
The movie leaves off with your fight against Davey Moore for the super welterweight championship at Madison Square Garden. But you fought for eighteen years after that!
Where the movie leaves off, that part of the story is even more brutal and more emotional than anything else that happened to me before. What I went through, people have no idea. Hopefully it will be in the next movie. I have a great memory. I remember every minute of those eighteen years of my career. I don’t have any issues with my memory the way some fighters have when they fight for too long.
Maybe that’s because you were doing all the hitting and they were the ones getting hit.
Exactly (laughs)! I didn’t like to get hit. I avoided as many punches as I could.
Do you feel you don’t get the recognition for being a great defensive fighter because you were such a warrior in the ring?
Nobody has the defensive skills that I had. Nobody. Not the old school guys. Not today’s fighters. Nobody!
Many say you were the greatest lightweight champion of all time. You beat Ray Leonard at welterweight. You also won the middleweight championship. Does it bother you when today’s fighters don’t challenge themselves to move up in weight after they’ve dominated a division?
It does upset me! If you’re a boxer and you’re hungry to be great, you should take any opportunity you can to challenge yourself! When you challenge yourself to move up in weight and fight the best, and everyone thinks that you can’t do it and you’re the underdog? And you still win? That’s what makes your legacy bigger. Your legacy grows when you challenge yourself to do things that people say you can’t do.
You also went up in weight at a time where there were no nutritionists, no protein shakes…
Vitamins were a new thing when I was training. I did it the old fashioned way. We gained weight, and we lost it. We did whatever we had to do to make weight. What’s not fair is that when I was doing it, I had to weigh in the day of the fight. Now they weigh you the day before! Do you know how much your weight can change in a day?
You’ve said in the past that the fighters weren’t the challenge, the weight was.
There were times during my career when people didn’t want to fight me. During those times, I would be undisciplined. I’d put on a lot of weight. Then they would come and offer me a lot of money, and so I would fight them. Even if it was hard to lose the weight, even if I wasn’t in the right weight class, those fighters still wouldn’t knock me down. But making weight was always a challenge. I don’t understand why boxers don’t take advantage today. These guys make millions now for almost every fight, not like in my day. If you don’t want to fight, why are you a boxer?
You’ve said there were many times you wanted to retire from boxing during your career. When was the first time you were really serious about it.
After I beat Ray Leonard in Montreal. All I ever wanted to do was fight to make enough money to buy my mother a house. That was it. After I beat Sugar Ray Leonard in Montreal, I had all the money I ever needed. I was ready to retire right there. I didn’t even want to fight Leonard a second time. After the second Leonard fight, I was definitely done. But I knew I had to go back and give it another shot. It couldn’t end that way.
You were very generous, especially to the poor in Panama. It seems like you were happy to have money, but it was never really important to you.
I’m not filthy rich given what my career has been. But I’m happy. I have my family. I have my health. I have a few small businesses. I’m the national ambassador for sports in Panama. I own a gym there. And I have a very popular restaurant in the main district in Panama City. I’m happy with what I have. I don’t need anything else.
Do you think growing up hungry and poor helped you survive all the difficult things you faced throughout your career—people giving up on you, having your management take your money, and so on?
It’s logical. Definitely. It built character for me. I always wanted to do good for people. I always wanted to give to people. It was never about money to me.
What are you most proud of as a fighter?
Being a world champion. That was more important to me than anything. To be champion of the world. And I won fighting people that were worth fighting in the ring.
Were you prepared for how your life changed when you first won the lightweight title at age 21 against Ken Buchanan in Madison Square Garden?
Nobody is ever prepared for anything. Change is what prepares your path in life.
A 21-year-old Roberto Durán defeats Ken Buchanan for the world lightweight championship at Madison Square Garden.
What’s your greatest fight that we never had a chance to see?
Without a doubt—Ernesto Marcel. I saw another boxer from my gym fight him, and Marcel won a decision. I was really angry about it. I told my manager Carlos Eleta that I wanted to fight Marcel. Make it happen! Aleta and the boxing commission were concerned because I was only 17, and Marcel was much older and more experienced than I was. He was already a champion. I don’t know how Aleta convinced the commission to make the fight. Aleta even pulled me aside and asked me, “Are you sure you’re going to eat this guy for dinner?” And I said, “Trust me. I’m going to spin him around like a top.” I beat Marcel by TKO, but my whole corner had to pull me off him. It’s an infamous fight in Panama, but they don’t talk about it here in the United States much. Two months after that, Marcel won a championship title.
How tough was Marcel?
Let me tell you a Marcel story. Alexis Arguello was coming up in the ranks. They gave him an opportunity to fight Marcel. Everybody thought Arguello was going to win, because he was doing so well. Marcel beat the shit out of him. He won by decision, but he almost killed Arguello in the ring. Later that year, Arguello fought Ruben Olivares and won the featherweight championship.
When you beat Marcel at age 17, did you already feel you were ready to fight for a title?
I was young. I fought for respect. I wasn’t thinking about being a champion. The people around me were maybe. I just wanted to feed my family. I could have been champion at 17, if they would have let me fight. But all my fights were at Madison Square Garden, and they had a rule that to fight for the championship, you had to be 21. So I was allowed to fight, but not for the championship until I turned 21. That’s when I beat Buchanan. Wilfred Benitez of Puerto Rico is actually the youngest champion. I think he was almost 18 when he won the super lightweight title. But that was after they had relaxed the rule. Otherwise, I would have been the youngest champion. And in those days, we fought fifteen rounds for the title.
Why did you fight until you were 50 years old?
I didn’t know how to do anything else! I’m a fighter. If some of the things I wanted to happen had happened, these boxers wouldn’t have had a chance. At this age, I believe I’m better prepared from the life experience. Obviously I can’t fight now. But if I could, with my boxing knowledge, they wouldn’t stand a chance.
You recently trained Shane Mosely for a fight. Did you enjoy training a fighter?
I really didn’t want to train Mosely. My kids convinced me to do it, but I wasn’t really interested to be honest. I did it as a favor for my kids, not for the money. When I had Mosely in Panama, he couldn’t lose. But he wasn’t disciplined. When Mosely went to Big Bear to finish his camp, he was in the shape of his life. I told all my friends to put their money on Mosely. I put my own money on him. The guy he fought (David Avanesyan) was an amateur. If I gave him a punch now, I could knock him out.
The first two rounds, Mosely had him. In the third round, Mosely lost his focus. In the fourth round, I’m looking at my son saying, “What’s wrong with him? He shouldn’t be this weak.” Mosely’s wife told me after the fight that she didn’t do anything with him, and didn’t break any of the training rules. When they got to Texas, his wife said he left her at the hotel and would go out with his friends. Once I got there, I got a translator and immediately bawled him out. I don’t know what he did to lose focus, but he did.
If a young hungry fighter came to Panama and asked you to share your amazing boxing knowledge, would you help them?
I don’t give advice to anybody. I don’t like to give advice. If someone approached me to train them, and they were serious about it, I would think about it. But it wouldn’t be about money. I’m not really interested or looking to do it. If I do train someone, it’s for my own legacy. That fighter would have to be the best. And I mean the best! Because if he loses, I lose.
Hands of Stone opens in theaters nationwide on August 26.