Boxing, horse racing, and track and field used to be major sports in America. That they held some kind of claim to sporting prominence decades ago speaks to how different the country is now that nearly every popular sport makes its way onto television today in the most widely available fashion. No Mas attempts to recapture an event when boxing was king, when the heavyweight champion of the world or the fastest man alive was undoubtedly an international sensation. But even more specifically, it harkens back to a time when the United States was captivated by a weight class below heavyweight, the welterweight title bout between Sugar Ray Leonard and Panama’s Roberto Durán.
No Mas oozes with heavy nostalgia for an era of the sport that I wasn’t alive for, and since boxing has moved exclusively to pay-per-view and the talent pool has dwindled—especially in the heavyweight division—it will never reach the fever pitch it did at its height again. Boxing is a niche sport in American that commands a lucrative price from the smaller and smaller audience as time goes on. But this film focuses on a brief time period that recaptures the excitement of the months leading up to that lucrative fight in Montreal in June 1980 and the quick rematch in New Orleans a few months later.
Sugar Ray Leonard was an Olympic gold medalist, an undefeated, charismatic fighter with panache outside the ring. He’s still a compelling personality, a consummate charmer. And No Mas makes a good choice in centering the film around his interviews insofar that it provides a solid foundation to build around. The first half of the film outlines the anticipation and hype leading up to the first showdown. Leonard has such a prominent career, following in the popular footsteps of Muhammad Ali, an icon even in a lower weight class. But up from the lightweight division comes Durán, a man of his people, idolized by Panama, from a much poorer upbringing, determined to knock the cocky, privileged American on his ass.
There are many promising elements in No Mas, especially when it sets the scene from the first fight, through the intervening months, and leading up to the rematch. Unsurprisingly, Mike Tyson is also a live wire in his interview describing the first fight, or anything else about the rivalry. Christie Brinkley, an aspiring photographer in addition to her modeling career, got the chance to be Don King’s ringside photographer, providing some unexpectedly intriguing insight into the buildup of the second fight. But all of this leads up to the infamous title, the words supposedly uttered by Durán as he gave up in the eighth round during the rematch, as he was losing badly to a showboating Leonard. Tyson does a great job unpacking Leonard’s actions as gamesmanship, a tactical maneuver designed to rankle Durán that worked perfectly. But the entire film is slanted in Leonard’s favor, to make him look good, atone for some of his attitude mistakes, while only tacitly acknowledging Durán’s legacy in the midst of sandbagging him again.
After Leonard lost the first fight to Durán, the film portrays him as the honorable and still respected hero to his fans and the boxing world. Despite getting nervous because of the pressure and coming out flat, the late rounds convince the viewing public that Leonard is some vaguely honorable figure. But after retiring and then coming back to boxing, Leonard pulls some cheap tricks to put Durán on his heels. The promoters put up a huge payday for Durán in exchange for a much quicker turnaround to a rematch. The only problem with that was Durán’s partying lifestyle, gaining a ton of weight celebrating the biggest win of his life. Leonard banked on Durán’s inability to get into fighting shape. And sure enough, with only days left, Durán needed to lose around 10 pounds, so he fasted, took some diuretics, and severely weakened his body in order to make weight for the fight. None of Leonard’s tactics are questioned; he’s just the honorable American fighting back from his first defeat to regain his rightful title. That positioning made me very sad, as the film clearly delineates a good side and a bad side instead of taking an evenhanded approach to the rivalry.
When Durán commits his massive faux pas surrendering in the second fight, he’s labeled a coward, weakling, a fraud to all the machismo and rage he displayed previously. The modern-day reunion sections want to emphasize those assertions: that Leonard still considers Durán a rival but has softened after retirement while upholding honor, and Durán will finally admit that he was just scared and beaten. The final third of the film finally gets around to giving some time to Durán and his life in Panama, his feelings about the fight and the constant explanations afterward, and what it was like to live in Panama until everything died down. He got his redemption as a fighter, and proved that the “No mas” fight was an anomaly. And it’s easy to understand why that may be such a hard thing for Durán to revisit, or to unwrap the truth about, even now or only to himself. For one, it might not be true, no matter how much anyone believes it. All the food intake and dieting information, from Brinkley and others behind the scenes figures, only serves to emphasize how underhanded the scheduling tactics had been by Leonard’s team, deflating the honor tack that every one of his supporters takes in the film.
No Mas wants to extract that cathartic moment for Leonard, and by using him as the chief talking head, it sides with what he wants in the situation. But he doesn’t deserve to get a satisfying answer at the expense of publicly humiliating Durán again and making him relieve the pain of a very public aberration in his behavior. Rivalry stories work best not when there is an easy hero and villain, but when both opponents have merits and faults, resting on equal footing. No Mas doesn’t create that atmosphere. It is Sugar Ray Leonard’s story while leaving the more interesting life away from boxing uncovered, only really dragging Durán on screen in an attempt to force him to divulge a satisfactory truth to Leonard. Like Sugar Ray’s frustration that the storyline in New Orleans was all about Durán’s surrender and retirement, No Mas is frustrating because it skews heavily toward one side of the story.
It’s a rather cruel coincidence that No Mas premieres on the same night that the Panamanian national soccer team failed to qualify for Brazil 2014. Panama has never qualified for the World Cup, and in this cycle the team came agonizingly close, only to have the United States thump them down at the bitter end. No Mas seems intent on aligning with the American boxer in a rivalry that was far more interesting from the other side, fails to handle or examine Durán in such a way that would make him comfortable opening up about his actions. It frames the rivalry in troubling fashion, with the honorable, spiritual American in the right, and the foreign, frightened, humbled opponent still hiding in the dark. Leonard even gets a patronizing voiceover that he can let go of the issue and move on with a lightened heart. No Mas digs into a fascinating moment in boxing history in the United States when the sport was still capable of creating a major cultural event, but it does a disservice to half of the rivalry that created the commotion in the first place.
- Mike Tyson, with the unintentional benefit of hindsight, about rash decisions in the ring: “Sometimes you don't know what you’re going to do.”
- I cannot stress enough how happy I am that Don King was only mentioned in passing.