As befits the latest installment of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 For 30 series, or any boxing documentary if you’re really feeling facetious, “No Mas,” (debuting Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET) is anachronistic from the get go. From the opening shots of Ray Leonard’s ageless torso as he pounds the heavy bag in his home gym, to the eventual face off between the two protagonists at the Arena Roberto Duran, all flaking paint and drooping signage as it looms over Panama City, the show reeks of a sterile, festering hostility.
Inside the opening three minutes, Leonard, with that same angelic face that still defiantly belies his years, announces his plan to visit the homeland of his one-time nemesis, Roberto Duran, the man with the hands of stone. The purpose of the trip is simple: to determine what took place when the pair met in the ring 33 years ago, in a fight that has gone down in history due to the immortal words uttered by Duran as he turned his back on the contest in the eighth round. “No mas.” Literally, “no more.”
Focusing on the first two meetings between the pair, the show begins with The Brawl in Montreal, the June 1980 bout that marked Duran’s move up to welterweight and the sternest test of Leonard’s career to date. Duran beat Leonard over 15 bombastic rounds that night, hurting his opponent in a way no one else had come close to doing, and earning the decision at the sight of the American’s gold medal winning Olympic effort some four years earlier. This was truly the best of both men, and despite all the subsequent controversy of the rematch it still serves largely to define them in the eyes of the fighting world.
“I was always taught that if there was a camera, you smile,” Leonard remarks early on. Duran must have skipped that lesson. The stills from the build up to their first meeting are fantastic, as are the recollections of Leonard’s management and his then wife regarding Duran’s conduct and demeanor at the time. The charming Olympian with the million dollar smile up against the Latino street fighter who once knocked out a horse with a single punch. It was a clash made in pugilistic heaven, and was always going to warrant a return fixture.
Already the fighter of the decade for the 1970s, Duran had blown through the stratosphere with his victory over the golden boy, while Leonard, even in defeat, had earned the respect of those wishing to see him tested. Leonard openly admits that Duran got into his head prior to the first fight, the roughhouse, gutter language of the Panamanian boiling his blood to the point that he was willing to trade with his opponent, to go toe to toe with a man renowned for his ability to brawl. It was a mistake, as anyone who’s watched the epic contest that unfolded can attest, but it also laid out the blueprint on everything Leonard was to avoid doing in the rematch. It taught him that, above all, he must not allow himself to be bent to Duran’s will.
Dating back as far as his ring walk prior to the first fight, Leonard describes his mental state as one of deep dissatisfaction. He resented the fact that he was playing Duran’s game, and he resolved never to do so again after witnessing the destructive results. The key point here is satisfaction, or lack of it, for it is that which bookends both the rivalry and the film. Leonard’s demeanor throughout the 80 minute runtime is one of unease, of a frustration that has built steadily down the years when faced with the lack of control he was able to wield over his adversary. Duran, by contrast, is largely expressionless. More vacant than bored, his stern, cold face seems to have grown even less emotive as the years have ticked by.
Steve Farhood refers to him as having been “the most macho man in boxing” leading up to the first meeting with Leonard, and while those infinitely black eyes are alluded to more than once, they appear significantly dulled nowadays, even when mere inches away from his all-star American rival. Not that Duran comes across as uncomfortable when pressed to explain what drove him to utter those immortal words, mind you. He is quite content to trot out the same answer we’ve heard so many times before, with a shrug rather than a snarl, more an existential resignation than a furrowed middle finger.
Those who remain most animated regarding the events of November 1980, when the pair faced off for a rematch in New Orleans just five short months after their first meeting, are the figures who sat ringside, or at home in the living room in the case of Mike Tyson, who is in fine form as a devilishly frenetic talking head. Certainly the fighters are less titillated by the memory. Leonard speaks movingly, with the resignation of a man who has had his moment snatched away. He is quite candid about admitting that his team aimed to get Duran back in the ring as soon as possible, that they were aware of his proclivity for gaining weight and living the high life between fights and wanted to use it to their advantage. In a sense, he wished for an ill-prepared Duran to square off against. He wanted a lesser version of the man who had forced him to endure the fight of his life in Montreal, and was rewarded with exactly that.
If Duran used his resentment of Leonard’s red carpet treatment at the hands of the boxing press to fuel himself before their first meeting, he appeared to employ little beyond diuretics to prepare for their second. His lack of conditioning is long cited as the reason for what unfolded in the eighth round of that fight, and Duran’s justification for opting out has always been that he was suffering from stomach cramps caused by a litany of pre-fight indiscretions. Twin steaks, hot coffee, champagne, the exact substance has varied down the years. No matter the specifics, the explanation just doesn’t sit right. Not with Leonard, as he sighs dejectedly throughout his opponent’s spiel, nor with Duran himself, who seems disinterested when asked to explain himself at film’s climax.
There is something insulting about the mundanity of his reasoning, as if such a prosaic discomfort is unworthy of affecting this extraordinary pair of men so deeply. Quitting, or being perceived to opt out of such a titanic contest, is anathema to boxing fans, especially in Latin America, so it was hard to believe such actions would come from a man as rugged and tough as Duran. They say his house was stoned upon his return to Panama and he was forced to go into virtual hiding for a time. Even in defeat, the spotlight was still very much on him. Leonard’s victory was perceived to be somehow tainted, and it is widely accepted that he got more credit for the courage he displayed in Montreal than for the victory he achieved in New Orleans.
For a time “No Mas” was an aberration, a stain on the country that had seen its greatest hero disgrace himself in front of the entire world, but Duran was able to achieve far more than mere redemption in the subsequent years of his career. About an hour in, he describes boxing as “a ride” — one on which he felt perpetually relaxed. As such, it’s hard to come away with anything other than the feeling that this was a bump, rather than a definitive plunge. The light at the end of the proverbial tunnel has grown to illuminate the whole journey, a fact made plain by the genial enthusiasm of the show’s commentators, who cannot help but speak admirably on their subject even when recounting the darkest days of his tenure as Panama’s foremost pariah. In Tyson’s words, “he made up for everything.” As true as this may be, such overwhelming admiration does little for the dramatic narrative.
Throughout the film, Leonard wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the likeness of his namesake, the great Sugar Ray Robinson. It’s a sign of respect for an icon, but equally a means of underlining his place in the grander scheme of things, tracing his lineage back through the ages. Duran, by contrast, wears a shirt bearing his own name. A cheap, relatively ill-fitting garment, it blares out his truculent legend across the bars and social clubs of Panama City. If Leonard sees himself as a proud torchbearer for American boxing, the poster-boy of a generation and the popular successor to Ali himself, Duran is just Duran: one man still blazing a brutally defiant trail against the established order.
And perhaps that’s the key to it all. Perhaps he saw resignation in their rematch as the ultimate act of defiance, the only means he had that night of tainting the establishment’s inevitable victory and ensuring that the rivalry would remain on his terms. Watching “No Mas,” you’d be forgiven if you came away thinking he succeeded, for the viewer is left with the distinct impression that Leonard is still the one bending. He is the one who must travel to Panama, to the stadium that bears Duran’s name in order to seek answers. He is the one who confesses to having been bested, both physically and psychologically, in their first encounter. At times his actions appear enslaved to good will, choreographed in anticipation of a reciprocal admission on his rival’s part. Yet Duran is content to sit back and let it all come to him. Once able to manipulate his opponent through fighting talk and machismo, he is now able to do so through cold indifference, through a placidity regarding the shared events in their lives that clearly unnerves Leonard when they meet face to face.
Ultimately, the words exchanged in their awkward, anticlimactic showdown are of little consequence, so much so that Duran’s explanation is actually dubbed over by Leonard’s internal monologue. “When the fight ended and I got the decision, it was more about what he did than what I did,” Leonard explains with a sudden surge of exasperation in his voice. “I made him quit.” That the latter point is so readily forgotten is perhaps Duran’s last laugh, for it ensures the rivalry will forever be perceived on his terms, stripping power from the opponent who, in his own glittery way, imposed his will to such an extent that it forced the hands of stone to rise in resignation, accompanied by those immortal words.
(TQBR was provided advance online access to “No Mas” for review purposes. Per ESPN: “Each 30 for 30 film will be available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video the day after its broadcast premiere. A six-disc collectible DVD Gift Set, featuring the first fifteen films from 30 for 30 Volume II, will be available at major retailers in-store and online on November 26, 2013. 30 for 30-related updates are available at www.facebook.com/espn30for30 and www.twitter.com/30for30.”)