By Michael E. Donoghue
I first met Panamanian boxer Roberto Durán, the famous “Hands of Stone” whose biographical movie of the same name has just been released this month (click here to watch a trailer), when I walked by his ornate home in the El Carmen section of Panama City on the way to a taxi to the National Library. He was getting into a car, surrounded by family and handlers, and I simply waved to him and called out “Buenos dias, campeon! (“Good morning, champ!”) He smiled and waved back and once even shook my hand with a grip so hard, it hurt. Whenever I walked by his home, I was always looking for Durán’s 700-pound lion Walla, which had been given to him as a cub. The champ would sometimes wrestle Walla in his backyard as a full grown lion until the Panamanian government forced him to put Walla in a zoo.
I met Durán on two other occasions several years later when I interviewed him for a research project. I was in the company of Rubén Carles, former economic minister of Panama. We met the boxer in his raucous restaurant/bar in the El Cangrejo section of the capital city. Even at the age of sixty-three, and wearing a scraggly beard, Durán still emanated the aura of a legend with penetrating dark eyes and a powerful physical presence. He gave me the threatening glare he often directs at strangers who want something from him. He warmed up after Rubén vouched for me. Durán also respected the fact that I knew a lot about his career, especially his relationship with General Omar Torrijos, the military leader of Panama from 1968-1981 (he negotiated the 1977 treaty that transferred the Canal from the United States to Panama). Torrijos was a sort of father figure to Durán; the latter had grown up on the streets, in horrendous poverty, as one of thirteen children. His father, a Mexican-American in the U. S. military, had abandoned him when Roberto was very young.
Durán rose out of that poverty to build an amazing boxing career. Over thirty-three years—from the age of seventeen to fifty—he boxed 119 fights, winning 103 (seventy of them knockouts). He won five world titles and established himself as one of the three or four greatest nationalist heroes in Panamanian history, as well as a favorite of boxing aficionados around the world. Ranked by several boxing journalists as one of the top five pound-for-pound fighters who ever lived (“The Fifth God of War,” one called him), Durán especially dominated the lightweight division (135 pound class), which he held for an unprecedented seven years (1972 to 1979). He then went on to win the welterweight crown (147 pound class) in 1980, the junior middle weight title (154 pound class) in 1983, the middle weight championship (160 pounds) in 1989, and, finally, at the age of forty-eight, a share of the super middle title (168 pounds) in 2000.
Durán’s unique persona—ferocity mixed with empathy—intimidated his opponents but endeared him to his countrymen, who called him “Cholo” (“Indian”). They saw him as a representative of the mestizo majority of his country, the mixture of Hispanic and indigenous heritage that many Panamanians embrace. While researching my book on the Panama Canal Zone, Borderland on the Isthmus (2014), I came across Durán often in the literature as the personification of Panamanian pride and national identity during the long struggle to establish true sovereignty in the wake of U.S. dominance in the Canal Zone, a colonial enclave. Their second-class status offended Panamanian dignity and impeded the construction of an authentic nation.
When I sat down to interview “El Cholo,” he brushed off many of my questions with scowls and impatience—and an occasional playful though fearsome grin. You always had the feeling when you spoke to Durán and he looked at you that way that he might just take a swing at you. Durán was used to fielding inquiries about his fights so he seemed pleased when I switched my approach and asked him about something different: his friendship with the General Torrijos. He told me the general would provide him with training facilities, even putting him on the island of Contadora, away from liquor, rich food, and other distractions while getting ready for a fight. But the general was also very kind and generous to him and treated him like a favored son providing him with flights, vacations, and homes when he needed to get back to Panama or wanted some down time from his tough fight schedule. The general even forgave him when Durán infamously quit in the ring during his rematch with American boxer “Sugar Ray” Leonard in November 1980 (Durán had upset Leonard earlier in the year). The second fight was the celebrated “No más” fight. The overweight champ had failed to train properly for the bout and grew frustrated with Leonard’s agile, fluid boxing style. Leonard had not fought that way in their first fight. Much of Panama turned against their hero when he quit in the ring, saying “No más” (“no more”). Giving up in that way was an unimaginable violation of the macho code that Durán had upheld his whole life.
Durán regained his nation’s love and admiration when he came back and won another championship three years later. But tears welled up in his eyes when he spoke of his sorrow at Torrijos’ shocking death in a still controversial plane crash in 1981 before Durán had a chance to fully redeem himself in his mentor’s eyes. You could sense the love he still held for Torrijos who had nurtured and championed young Roberto earlier in his career. He still misses the general deeply. These reflections shaped the writing of my essay “Robeto Durán, Omar Torrijos, and the Rise of Isthmian Machismo” that was published last year in David M.K. Sheinin’s (ed.) Sports Culture in Latin American History (2015).
The last time I saw the champ was in January 2016. I was returning from dinner with friends and stopped at his tavern. Durán is not there every evening but he was in fine form that night drinking rum, dancing to the salsa band in his club, even getting up and singing with them which he insisted I do as well. I danced and drank with him and his family and was surprised that he remembered me – and even called me “Miguelito,” my “apodo” (nickname) in Panama. The snapshot of the two us is from that night. It offers a glimpse of the both the danger and the humanity that Durán exudes. I look forward to seeing the movie about his life in the coming days. Viva Durán! And Viva Panama!
Michael E. Donoghue is associate professor of history and author of Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014). His current research is Race, Gender, and Identity in U.S. Military-Cuban Relations 1941-1964, which will examine the conflicts and intersections of race, identity, and gender that emerged between US military and the Cuban people from World War II until the 1959 collapse of the Batista regime – and how these associations contributed to the anti-American atmosphere of the 1953-1959 Cuban Revolution.