YOU know I have no love for Showtime and I f**king hate [Showtime’s head of boxing Stephen] Espinoza, but this is the true history of our sport, not that YouTuber s**t,” admitted Bob Arum.
It likely pained the veteran promoter to say it, but he was merely doffing his hat to the team behind the new Showtime four-part documentary series The Kings, which covers the life and times of boxing greats Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard. It might be the first high-end boxing docuseries of its kind. It has a look and feel of the Netflix hit The Last Dance, which colourfully charted Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The Kings mixes politics with punching, society with sport and history with the hurt business.
There’s a real sense of occasion for the nine fights the four legends shared, but it’s the parts in between where the narrative comes in to its own. Slickly bridging the gap from Muhammad Ali’s historical impact to the emergence of a new heavyweight era with the brutality of a young Mike Tyson, The Kings takes you on a tour of modern history, from the Ronald Reagan days at the White House, to problems in Panama and, perhaps most effectively, the societal unrest in Detroit and Newark, hometowns of Hearns and Hagler respectively.
This story, of politics, poverty and conflict is not lip service. There’s real meaning to it, and it makes you wonder whether Hagler and Hearns, not only desperate to be top dogs of one another in the sport, fought with that much more intensity and ferocity in their bids to free themselves from two collapsed economies that had given them nowhere to turn and that had caused cities of millions to give up hope. “Boxing is life and boxing is a metaphor for struggle so it lends itself to talking about the bigger picture and what’s happening at the time, particularly back then when everyone watched boxing and it was on the front page,” said Mat Whitecross, director of The Kings.
The show does a fine job of showing how Hearns is from the Motor City, Detroit, while the fabric and identity of the city is crumbling in a recession while Hagler is spawned from the boiling pot of hatred and unrest from the race riots that had engulfed his Newark hometown.
Leonard, meanwhile, is the golden boy cashing in on his 1976 Olympic jackpot while Duran is the outlandish character of the crop, talking about wild parties and threesomes in training camp.
While there’s fantastic archive footage throughout, Duran actually came to England to tell his side of the story. The crew had the option of visiting him in Panama but feared they wouldn’t get his attention there.
“It was great,” said Whitecross, who is a Spanish speaker as parts of his family are Argentine. “We got to hang out for a couple of days.”
Then, after finding out that one of Duran’s favourite films was Raging Bull, Whitecross saw the Robert DeNiro classic was playing at a theatre nearby and he booked tickets as a surprise. Duran loves Raging Bull and he’s been friendly with DeNiro. However, after being told what they were going to see the legend asked, “Have they remade it?”
“No,” came the reply.
“F**k it. I’ve seen it.”
They wound up going to watch The Joker instead, and Mat had to spend the time translating it for Duran.
Sadly, there were no new interviews with Leonard – who has his own documentary or film in mind – or Hagler.
They couldn’t get Hagler on board and even though the shooting and editing was wrapped up before Marvin’s untimely death in March, they did manage a dedication to him in the final episode.
Of course, fight fans would have loved to have seen the Four Kings together again, in a reunion, but that was always going to be a mammoth task.
As it is, the finale was somewhat uplifting despite the various issues the fighters faced after boxing. Hearns carried on way too long, his career petered out and not much followed. Leonard had continued battles with depression and addiction and didn’t go out on his own terms, either. Duran boxed on and on until a car crash and he’s had numerous health scares since. Then, Hagler, who left on the loss to Leonard and never returned because he knew there was more to life than boxing, was dead at 66.
Still, while the closing portion of the series could have been negative, there was a positive steer back to the fighters, how they were, what they achieved and how they represented their time.
Originally the series was going to be three episodes, featuring three fights in each one and there were concerns that the show might end on a whimper rather than bang because the last fight between the four [Leonard-Duran III, with both well past their primes] was hugely anti-climactic.
Whitecross had cut another version with another five to 10 minutes of footage at the end but Showtime bosses weren’t keen.
“They felt it was depressing, with the damage [that boxing had caused] and diminishing returns and we needed to come back and look at the overall legacy and the handover to Tyson,” Mat explained.
Arguably what sets The Kings apart is the political narrative, of presidential campaigns, scandals and unrest. It’s not just a sports documentary, it’s the 1980s in a capsule.
“I knew as we were doing it it’s going to be a marmite thing that people enjoy or they won’t,” Mat admitted. “Some of the best writing ever on sport is about boxing and it’s about more than sport, it’s about more than what happens in the ring. I think it represents something and it represents the pinnacle whether you’re talking about Ali or Tyson or these four guys or if you go back to Jack Johnson it’s about much more… It’s about society. It’s such an extreme, operatic, over the top sport that it ends up at its best representing everything else and I don’t feel you can understand what’s going on in the ring without understanding what’s going on around it and vice versa.”
Talks are ongoing for a UK release for The Kings.