The Champ in His Twilight Years

At 1 a.m., the hookers outnumber the gamblers in the Panama City casino. They lounge on stools in their tight skirts, sitting in front of the slot machines, never putting in a quarter. The gringos in their convention-wear stroll by, taking a look, not wanting to appear as if they are looking.

The champ hovers near the bar, looking around to see who might recognize him. He’s dressed in jeans and an over-blown flight jacket, the type of jacket you buy when you’re drunk. He looks smaller than you would expect. The tourists and hookers tower over him, as they move in to get a selfie.

For every picture, he holds out his fists, the legendary fists, “Manos de Piedra,” the “hands of stone.” He still has the chiseled features, the tough jaw, instantly recognizable. The swagger is still there, the bad boy menace, even though he is far past 60 now. He is still Roberto Duran, the tough little kid who fought his way out of the slums of El Chorrillo to become champion, a man of power.

A new biopic coming out on Aug. 26, “Hands of Stone,” starring Robert DeNiro, pays tribute to Duran’s rise and fall, and the pathos of his fights with Sugar Ray Leonard. But it will likely only touch on the depths of his celebrity in Panama. In Panama, Duran will always be a legend. This is a young country that traditionally produces more scandals than heroes. Former Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera is one of the few international sports icons of a relatively young country that has always struggled with its identity.

Roberto Duran signs autographs in 2014 (Courtesy: Creative Commons)

Roberto Duran was no baseball or soccer star. He was a flawed warrior, a macho lightweight who earned respect with his fists. He was never the glib champion, a personality. He had none of the charisma of a “Sugar Ray” or Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns. He spent little time trying to amuse the reporters and hangers on who asked stupid questions. He was simply a Panamanian street kid with a chip on his shoulder. He survived on toughness — that’s all he had, all he would ever have.

Duran’s epic showdowns in 1980 with the popular, handsome Leonard were the stuff of fable. An ESPN “30 for 30” documentary recently chronicled the confrontations. After beating Leonard in a slugfest in the first match, Duran famously partied and ate like a king, only to turn his back in the second fight and proclaim “no mas,” in the face of Leonard’s taunts.

For generations, amateur sports psychologists will attempt to diagnose Duran’s actions that night. In Panama, his fans were horrified. He was treated like a criminal, a traitor. But Duran kept on fighting, winning back his fans. He eventually retired at the age of 50, beaten and battered, with a record of 103 wins and 6 losses.

“Even when his ability to intimidate had waned, the Doo-ran, Doo-ran cheers still echoed around sold-out arenas,” Christian Giudice wrote in “Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran,” the basis for the movie. “Even when he was only a quarter of his former self, a sad, overweight Elvis making his last call, he was still Duran.”

In the Panama City casino on this Tuesday night, he hovers near the bar. He is in no hurry. He doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

When another middle-aged man slaps his shoulder and asks for a picture, the Duran snarl eases into an uneasy smile and the fists come up for the pose. Maybe the hotel pays him to be here, to hang out with the hookers and gringos in town for conventions. Or maybe this is just what he does, the champ shaking hands, smiling for the tourists, happy to be recognized and reminded of his glory days.

Kevin Brass is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Ozy.com. His novel “The Cult of Truland” is set in the world of celebrity journalism.

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