Mat Whitecross: “It’s easier to create strong children than to mend broken men.”
By Chris Akers
Part two of my interview with Mat Whitecross about his excellent documentary on the lives and careers of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns..
There is a moment in the final episode of The Kings where Bonnie Greer talks about how the heavyweight champion of the world was someone who, even if you weren’t a boxing fan, the general public would look up to.
In describing the end of the era of The Kings, she mentions Mike Tyson. And not in flattering terms. The epitome of the excess of the decade of his peak.
Yet Tyson was nothing less if not a character. His magnetism an attraction for the front and back pages even past his fighting peak. It could be argued that characters in sport, in general, are in shorter supply now compared to yesteryear. It is a view that Mat Whitecross has some sympathy for.
“It feels that way with sport in general, that you’ve lost a lot of the characters,” says Whitecross. “You have them, obviously Tyson Fury’s a character.
“We’re doing a show on the Paralympics at the moment and one of the great things for me is that they haven’t been media managed. A lot of people we’re talking to have been very open and honest with us.
“People were speaking from the heart, talking about their lives in a very open and honest way. I think that happens less and less with mainstream sports, just because I guess there’s more money and people know that they could say the whole thing and it could get derailed and they don’t want to blow their sponsorship, and it just becomes more corporate doesn’t it.”
While Hagler, Hearns, Leonard, and Duran fought in a decade where characters in sport were in abundance, it was the decade where what athletes would say was evolving. It was the decade between the outspokenness of particular athletes to the more tempered, corporate, media-trained interviews that athletes conducted more and more from the 1990s.
“It was going from an era where athletes had been outspoken,” Whitecross explains.
“Muhammad Ali, by taking a stand, blew a lot of opportunities that were open to him and lost three years of his livelihood. So I think in that sense the four boxers took him as a warning to don’t get political, don’t take a stand. They could do things in a small way, make charitable contributions and so on but not stick their neck out. I think that it does lead to the era of Michael Jordan saying, ‘Republicans wear sneakers too,’ and all that as you don’t want to offend anyone. You don’t want to be too interesting, as otherwise, you’re going to knock your brand as you’re making more money off the court than on it.”
But if anyone one of the four kings was a character, it was Roberto Duran. He had a wide appeal, and his lack of English did not hinder him.
“He was very much like his own person. Everyone had to come to him on his terms.
“It’s funny as he can speak English. It’s relatively basic, but he can speak it. I think he chooses to make people come to him and speak on his terms. You see after the first Leonard fight when he is interviewed after the fight, he started speaking in English. And I remember seeing that footage and thinking ‘Hang on!’ This was before I met him. My family’s from Argentina, so I can speak Spanish. We did the interviews together and it was just the two of us. I guess that helps as well, as you’re not having to be filtered through someone else. It was just more direct and you can engage with each other straight.
“But he was someone who was very much ‘This is me. Take me or leave me,’ and I think that appeals to people. There were no filters. You don’t listen to those interviews and think he’s holding something back. He’s just speaking exactly what’s on his mind.”
Tyson’s torment in and out of the ring when past his peak, was in contrast to the calmness that boxing gave him as a young teen. Indeed, boxing gives young people solace and surrogacy of fatherhood that they may have never had in their lives before.
The start of the second episode sets the tone for this when a quote by the abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglas, ‘It’s easier to create strong children than to mend broken men,’ appears on the screen.
Teddy Atlas developed this theme when he talks about the father relationship that a lot of boxers have, explaining that it’s a twisted relationship in many ways. Whitecross seems to subscribe to this view concerning the four kings using boxing as a surrogate father.
“It feels that way for me. They did come from very difficult backgrounds. I think each of them is looking for a father figure, maybe except for Ray, but I think Ray’s parents had quite a dysfunctional relationship as well. There are certain areas of their lives that we have more detail on, then we didn’t have enough screen time for it.
“Tommy was someone without a father and Marvin was someone without a father. They were looking for people to help shield them from this world. Even someone who is regarded as the toughest of the four of them Marvin Hagler, to hear him speaking about the Petronelli’s and how he asked them not to hurt him. He’s a very sensitive soul inside and I think the same thing for Tommy. For someone who has a ferocious reputation in the ring, there’s a concealed boy aspect to him inside.
“The people around the ring were there as parents. In some cases, it was a good thing like the Petronelli’s, and in some cases, it was probably a bad thing. That’s the way boxing is. Even though there’s not mafia corruption anymore, there is a white-collar version of corruption that comes in later and people don’t necessarily have your best interests.”
As well as the boxers looking up to figures that helped them develop in the sport, the boxers themselves had people who looked up to them. Whole cities at times would place their hopes on their boxer, and this was particularly true of Thomas Hearns.
“Detroit is such an iconic American city. It was the Motor City and it was the home of Motown. It had this incredible history and that all went away. And you had a lot of problems and a lot of poverty. You’re looking for role models, you’re looking for figures that can lift the city. Even someone as young as Thomas Hearns, who was 19 years old at the time he was starting and become a public figure.
“I think it was a blessing and a curse for Tommy because it’s a lot of pressure to put on young shoulders. It can lift you on the one hand. Having that support for his first championship fight. I’m sure that was something that lifted him when he was going in against Cuevas, a tough fighter, and he demolished him in the second round.
“But then later on when he’s going into fights against Hagler, against Leonard, I don’t think it’s pushing it too far to say that he struggled. It was a burden at that point. You’re going in and you’re not fighting just for yourself. You’re fighting on behalf of a whole community. It’s a huge amount of pressure to put on someone that young.”
Following their defeats came the process of redemption. Hagler’s win over Hearns was his true coronation as champion, a superstar, as due to the racial tension of his fight with then champion Alan Minter, he couldn’t collect his belts due to the hail of beer cans and glasses directed at his head.
“Hearns’ redemption after his defeat to Leonard was stopping Duran in two rounds. Duran himself was redeemed in the eyes of many people after No Mas when he beat Davey Moore and later Iran Barkley. Leonard’s redemption was proving that he could achieve what his talent was capable of, as his childhood was fairly horrific.
Each was using each other to redeem themselves past what they already were.
“I think that’s why boxing always attracts such great writers. I remember talking to a couple of the boxing writers and saying ‘How much of this do you think is true? How much is me as a filmmaker or you as a journalist trying to hype and romanticise?’ But the more you speak to the boxers, the more you feel they think about it in those terms.
“Just the nature of being in a ring. It’s so stark. You go in there. It’s you against another person and everything in your life has led up to that moment. All your sense of self-worth is based on whether you can beat this other person.
“Whenever we talked about redemption, these were words that were coming out of the boxers’ mouths. Tommy uses the word all the time saying he needed to redeem himself. After every single slip up or failure, his line was ‘I need to go back and make amends for the way I’ve let down my whole city,’ which is very intense. By the time we get to the fourth episode and it’s talking about how none of them wanted to quit and they keep on coming back again and again, against all advice and sound judgment. I think it’s got that element of Greek tragedy about it, which is the thing that makes you heroic and rises you up destroys you in the end.
“To become a champion, you will keep going past every possible level of endurance. But you look at Leonard at the end of Leonard-Hearns I, any normal person would have stopped. But he comes back and wins. But then on the flip side, when you’re past it and your health is at risk and you’re not who you were, there’s still a part of your brain telling you that you can do one more fight.
“Marvin was the only one who gone out early and that was partly to do with this chip on his shoulder, having complete disgust at the whole system.”
If there is one thing making this documentary has done to Whitecross, it has changed how he views the sport, albeit the conflict he originally had is still there.
“Boxing is controversial for a reason. It does involve going in there and taking another person apart. It is tough physically, but it can also be psychologically hard. People used to say it, and I remember reading about it and talking to Duran about this idea that, you try and break someone down to the point that they weren’t the same afterward. Think about the way Duran destroyed Davey Moore. He just wasn’t the same person afterward.
“There’s something very brutal and very unforgiving about it, which I struggle with. You can see the way people are damaged by it financially, psychologically, physically, all these things. But on the flip side, there is something glorious about it. You see the levels of athleticism that are beyond any other sport as far as I can see. The triumphs, the intensity, the emotion, and what it represents is something incredible about it too. You can deny it and that’s what makes it such interesting material to make a film about. I feel conflicted about it.
“I felt conflicted about it going in. What I was impressed by talking to these people is that they all feel conflicted too. These aren’t naïve people. I think the people are very aware of what the issues are and yet despite all of that they still love it which is fascinating to me.”
This conflict could be due in part to boxers exposing themselves in a way not seen in other sports. Sporting contests create drama and that is a big part of their appeal. While with team sports, you have supporting characters who can take the focus away from an athlete, boxing leaves its combatants bare. The spotlight is on them and no one else.
“I think that’s true. Teddy Atlas expressed it similarly, saying that it’s an express train. That you can find out a lot about yourself in other places, but it’s in the ring where it happens the quickest. And I think that sense of you can go in there and disguise anything up until that point. You can dress it up as much as you want, but it’s not until you step into the ring that you know who you are.
“When it comes to the first Leonard-Duran fight, Steve Farhood talks about it saying that Duran goes into that ring 100% he’s going to win and Leonard goes into that ring 100% he’s going to win. And one of them is wrong! And it’s only until they go into the ring that you realised what’s happened.
“It’s so glorious and damaging as well, as should someone be put under a scalpel that way, in the glare of all the lights? It can raise you like it did Duran after that first fight or it can destroy you like it did Duran after the second Leonard fight.”
In an era where the two or three most dominant fighters in a weight division will often not fight each other, Hagler, Hearns, Leonard and Duran competed nine times between themselves.
The Kings is a wonderful documentary that focuses on four boxers at the top of the world, with vastly different upbringings, backgrounds, and personalities, that were perfect fits for each other, in terms of the legendary fights that had against each other and the legacy they left behind.