“It really changes you, when you walk down the street and you know how to fight.” Actor Édgar Ramírez is talking about what’s happened since the months of preparation and focus on his portrayal of boxing legend Roberto Durán in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s biopic “Hands of Stone.” The film, which opens in theaters August 26, follows Durán’s story from his hardscrabble beginnings to the epic 1980 “Brawl in Montreal” victory over U.S. boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard — and their shocking rematch, against a backdrop of shifting national politics and identity in both countries.
He explains, “You develop an ability that comes with responsibility.” In a few words, Ramírez deftly illustrates the mental and physical give-and-take that is both a benefit and consequence of investing in a role. “There’s no way to portray a character without giving something really precious of yourself to it and also getting something in return.”
The results on screen are dramatic. When the real-life Roberto Durán saw the film, he thought that director Jakubowicz had made digital enhancements to Ramírez’s appearance.
In the opposite corner, Usher has channeled his star power into the role of Durán’s opponent, portraying Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I started looking for someone to play Sugar Ray Leonard, I auditioned many actors, but there was nobody that was truly nailing the part,” says Jakubowicz. “So I met with the legendary Freddie Roach, who trains Manny Pacquiao, among many others, and I asked him if he knew any boxer that could play Sugar Ray Leonard.”
Jakubowicz continues, “He said, ‘For Sugar Ray Leonard, you should get a dancer. It’s very hard to find a boxer with that level of skill and that particular style.’ I remember going home and thinking, Who’s the best dancer in the world? And Usher came to mind.” The director adds that Leonard loved the idea because the musical artist also has “the right smile.”
To become the man, Ramírez becomes a boxer
Although he’s known Ramírez a long time, Jakubowicz wasn’t convinced that he would be right for the part, but he thought he might see if the actor was up for the challenge. Ramírez was certain. As the son of a diplomat, he’d changed schools every year, and that meant fighting to defend himself throughout childhood.
Jakubowicz characterizes Ramírez and Usher as perfectionists. Their training regimens were grueling, and included “running, hitting the heavy bag, weights, sparring, more running, hitting the speedbag and more sparring,” according to the director. But neither actor emphasizes the incredible physical demands as anything other than an important aspect of preparation — one with not only physical but also mental and emotional rewards.
Ramírez simply states that before he could become Durán, the man, he had to become a boxer. “It was very important to live like a boxer, to struggle like a boxer, to go through all the challenges that being a boxer entails, before I could even start to put together the character. Before I learned his mannerisms, before I learned how he spoke, and before I even tried to capture his essence, I needed to become a fighter, to feel it.”
That meant moving to Durán’s native Panama for a year, where Ramírez trained first with the boxing icon’s sons and immersed himself in the culture of Panama’s national sport.
The experience was transformative for Ramírez, mentally as well as emotionally. “I trained surrounded by world champions in a very humble but beautiful gym that is basically a temple in Panama,” where, Ramírez says, the trainers treated him like everyone else. “They knew I was going to portray Roberto Durán, but they didn’t have any idea of who I am as an actor. They treated me just like any other fighter … because contrary to what many people would imagine, a boxing gym is a very welcoming place because every big fighter was a rookie.”
Given that he was to portray a living legend, Ramírez tapped into his training as a journalist to observe and explore national sentiment about Durán. The actor also spent time with Durán. From Ramírez’s perspective, the key to portrayal of a living legend is a matter of empathizing with the person, rather than a focus on imitation: “It’s not a photograph; it’s a painting.”
Ramírez describes Durán as “calm and precise as a boxer and very passionate at the same time,” a “combination of tenderness and rage that I found fascinating — that those two forces can coexist in one person, that we’re not just one thing or another.”
Usher finds training is the gateway to a state of mind
Meanwhile, Usher trained at gyms in Los Angeles and Atlanta, acquainting himself with general movement around the ring and then actually beginning to spar with amateurs. Finally, he worked with Sugar Ray Leonard himself. “Being a dancer naturally helped me understand how to move around a ring and pick up choreography. [Leonard] made me aware that a boxer has an idea of what he wants to do before he gets in a ring, and he’s kind of perfectly choreographed it. And the rest is improvised based on what is thrown at you.
From Usher’s perspective, the physical insights paved the way to the mental performance. Of Durán and Leonard’s first face-off in Montreal, Usher says, “Sugar Ray Leonard is 100 percent out of his element and completely off his game. Unfortunately, he [decides] to box Roberto Durán in [Durán’s] way.”
Usher explains further, “I guess I’m accustomed to moving around — now [in the role of Leonard], I have to slow everything down. I realized how difficult it was for Sugar Ray Leonard to stand still.”
While the “Brawl in Montreal” scene felt paralyzing to Usher, the renowned rematch — in which Durán stopped fighting and stunned millions of boxing fans with the words “no mas”(“no more”) — was a pleasure. In filming it, he says, “I was right at home. I was able to move around, lateral movement, working with the jab, work Durán with the jab, and really just live in the glory of what the moment was.”
Usher adds, “But greater than that [was understanding] the depth of what transitions both fighters had to go through to get to that place for both fights.” Usher tapped into the similarities between his and Leonard’s life experiences: “I really took the liberty to allow myself to emotionally go into places that were very personal to me. [Leonard] started out very young. I started very young. He always had this public persona. [I too] had a public persona and an image to portray at a very young age.”
Actors’ focus brings the legends to life
Despite the sweet science of boxing’s strategy, both actors agree that the true competition is not in the ring; it’s inside.
Usher puts it graphically, “[You’re going to] give him your all, and he gives you his. He’s going to throw some incredible shots at you. Can you take them? Do you have the guts to get back up and go back out there and take the beating that you know is waiting for you?”
In the course of his training in Panama, Ramírez found that “the only real competition in boxing is against yourself.” He cites a line of dialogue from the film: “If you lose your head, you lose the most important part of your body” in boxing — he adds, “because you actually win and lose the fight in your head.”
Although the actors’ interaction was limited prior to filming, each had acquired an understanding of the importance of process and presence to their respective characters’ signature boxing styles and victories. The actors also felt mutual respect for one another’s preparation. Ramírez says, “We became friends. We had a lot of trust. We helped each other. We wanted to make the best movie that it was possible for us to make.”
Jakubowicz is thrilled with the results, from the actors’ character transformations all the way to their physical performances. “We choreographed the fights based on the actual beats of the real fights, and when you see the movie and the actual fights next to one another, they are so similar that we couldn’t be more proud.”
“Hands of Stone” opens in theaters nationwide on August 26.