Usher fights for masculinity in ‘Hands of Stone’

Usher Raymond and Jurnee Smollett-Bell star in HANDS OF STONE

LOS ANGELES-On June 20, 1980, professional boxers Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard squared off for fifteen rounds in the “Brawl in Montreal.” Duran, with a record of 71-1, beats the formerly undefeated Leonard, taking his WBC Welterweight Champion title.

Four months later, the two opponents meet again for a rematch in New Orleans. This time, a mentally and physically fatigued Duran turns his back to Leonard and quits, famously telling the referee “No Mas” and allowing Leonard to reclaim his title.

These are just few of the historical moments captured in Hands of Stone, a biopic about Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran’s (Edgar Ramirez) rise to fame with the guidance of trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) and his rivalry with American icon Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV).

Usher Raymond stars in HANDS OF STONE
Usher Raymond stars in HANDS OF STON. EPhoto: Rico Torres © 2015 The Weinstein Company.

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, the story follows Duran’s life, but hinges heavily on his relationship with Leonard. The two men are placed in the ring to compete not only for the honor of their country, but for themselves.

“This movie is not necessarily just about Sugar Ray Leonard – it’s Duran’s movie – but Sugar Ray Leonard has a big part in the story of what Roberto Duran’s legacy represents through the ‘No Mas’ fight,” Raymond says.

The defiant Duran whose entire life had been a fight for survival, finally gave up. Though wildly disappointing at the time, his act represented more than quitting – it was a refusal to continue to be manipulated by a system that did not serve the fighters it thrived on.

Hands of Stone takes place from 1964 to 1983, during the golden era of boxing. High-profile fights were televised globally and often fixed by the Mafia. By not defending his title, Duran took power away from the promoters.

As a result, he lost the respect of his fans, almost ruining his legacy.

As world champion boxers, both men were burdened with the task of carrying a nation on their backs. Duran fought with hard-hitting “manos de pierdas” to restore pride in his beloved Panama, which was occupied by the United States at the time. Leonard fought to maintain his image as a shining icon and Olympic gold medalist. His major endorsements and “boy-like smile” left little room to display character flaws.

“Sugar Ray’s a very modest person, it has everything to do with where he started and what it took to make him who he is as an [athlete], so he probably wouldn’t say this, but I’ll say it for him,” Raymond says. “I think that was the first time he decided to sit in his confidence, his arrogance – not arrogance in a way that was out of control, but there was something, and I wanted to play that.”

Raymond plays on that arrogance – as well as love, athleticism and perseverance – humanizing a man who is lauded as a national treasure to this day. His approach to this role was inspired by a script that instantly grabbed his attention and brought to life with the help of one-on-one training with Leonard himself.

“I was able to tell a piece of the story that he might not have been able to tell at that time, and that was the story of his masculinity,” Raymond says. “The story of who he was as a man defending his woman.”

As Edgar Ramirez and Usher Raymond carefully reenact these pivotal performances, it’s clear that once the money and politics are removed from the ring, all that is left are two men fighting for what they believe in.

Hands of Stone opens in theaters nationwide August 26.

Lead photo: Usher Raymond and Jurnee Smollett-Bell star in HANDS OF STONE Photo: Rico Torres © 2015 The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved