“In order to understand the mindset of a boxer, I needed to become a boxer myself,” Ramírez says. “I couldn’t even start the process of understanding Durán without my own physical transformation.”
So before he spent any time crafting his portrayal of Durán, he relocated to Panama—a country of just under four million that has produced twenty-nine world-champion boxers—for more than five months to train at La Cuadra de los Rockeros (translation: The Block of the Rockers), a legendary gym in Panama City. Holed up, with nothing to do but push his body to limits he didn’t think possible, Ramírez altered his body so that he could then alter his mind.
ESQ: Before this film, how much experience did you have with boxing?
Édgar Ramírez: This was my first time. The whole process was completely new.
What about scuffles when you were a kid?
I always stood my ground with bullies. I would not take shit from anyone. My father was military so I traveled a lot, so I had 13 to 15 first days in new schools. Bullies transcend culture, unfortunately, and I had to deal with them wherever I went. I knew how to defend myself. But I didn’t know how to fight.
So when [director] Jonathan Jakbowicz offered me the role, he said, “It would be great if you could move to Panama and train with Panamanian trainers.” I was more than happy to do that.
Did you prep before heading down?
I waited. It was better to be a clean canvas. Panamanian boxing is unique—it’s very musical. It’s almost like a dance. It has a lot to do with being in the Caribbean, and with salsa. When you see a Panamanian boxer, there’s a style. There’s a playfulness in the way you throw the punches.
What was the first day in the ring like?
I was terrified. The first big hurdle was learning to relax my shoulders. I was so robotic. My trainers would say, “Just relax your shoulders, it’s very easy!” And I was like, Fuck! As I kept training and dieting and doing rope work, I started to lose weight. The lighter I got, the quicker I moved. I boxing, weight is everything. If you don’t make the weight, you don’t fight. So I needed to get lean mass to let my muscles flow. It was a magical thing: A month and a half into the process and suddenly I was throwing my punches quicker. I had a sense of rhythm.
Who was on your training team?
My training staff is actually in the movie. They’re famous in Panama. Panama has a little over 3 million people and has had 29 world champions. It’s like soccer in Brazil.
I had a trainer, a coach, a physical therapist, and beautiful old lady named Maria Toto—she took care of getting my gear ready, washing my towels. She was like a nanny—she gave me water, she put a special cream on my body that would make me sweat like a fucking pig. It was a beautiful process.
Were you working with a nutritionist?
Just my trainers. The process was very Rocky style, nothing fancy. Breakfast was porridge, oatmeal, fruits, and eggs. And then proteins and vegetables until the next breakfast.
At the beginning I trained with Durán’s sons—they helped me with the baby steps. But they’re privileged, children of a great athlete. In order for me to understand Durán’s life, I needed to train in underprivileged areas. So I trained in the slums. There, you don’t have such a thing as a nutritionist. Some of those kids just eat whatever they can. Boxing is a poor man’s sport. All you have is your bare hands to make a living. And that’s also the poetry and mystery and drama. You’re fighting for your food. It is literal, it is not a metaphor.
What was it like the first time you got hit?
You feel it. But it’s part of the process. Of course, this is all choreographed, so it didn’t happen often. Also, learning how to box is part of the protocol of a fighting film. Because if you know how to fight, you can avoid accidents. I spent a long time learning how to box.
A month and a half away from when we started shooting, I hadn’t practiced my accent and mannerisms, and I freaked out—typical actor’s neurosis. I thought I’d focused too much on the fighting. In time I realized it was the best time spent, because the only way to understand a boxer’s mindset is to go through the struggle that boxers go through.
What was the most surprising thing about learning to box?
That it’s all in the head. Boxing is all about how cool and controlled and clear your mind is. Violence only gets in the way of you winning a fight. It’s a sport that’s more about the strategy than anything. You lose or you win in your head.
What feedback did your trainers give at the end of your training?
It sounds weird for me to say this, but they were very satisfied. They couldn’t care less about me being an actor. They didn’t know who I was. They treated me like any other fighter. But they knew this movie is about paying homage to their national hero, and they wanted me to get it right. Whenever something wasn’t working, they’d tell me. Sometimes they’d send me home. They’d be like, “You’re fucked up. Go home and rest.” But in the end, they were very happy.