Champs is as much about boxing as it is about the triumph, and failure, of the so-called American Dream. The Mike Tyson-produced documentary from first-time director Bert Marcus explores our very unique brand of patriotic idealism through the prism of a sport that gave us greats like Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, a sport that can oftentimes be as awe-inspiring as it is brutal.
Rather than an overview of the entire history of boxing, Champs hones in on the stories of three specific champion fighters – Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins. Chronicling the incredibly different trajectories of their careers, the documentary highlights the common threads that they and many fighters like them share: extreme poverty, physical abuse, and sheer desperation.
In many ways, this is more a social documentary than a sports documentary, underlining boxing’s paradoxical quality of being a way for many underprivileged, mostly black and Latino men to escape violence through violence. Reenactments of Tyson, Holyfield, and Hopkins’s childhoods add context to a textured narrative that employs archival footage, expert interviews (with some filler from “boxing enthusiasts” like Mary J. Blige and Mark Wahlberg), and infographics to paint the bigger picture of what it takes to become a champ.
We’ve already gotten to know a considerable amount of Tyson’s background, since over the past few years the former heavyweight champion, at one point arguably the most visible athlete in the world, has made a push to reshape his image. He’s made fun of himself in the Hangover movies and opened up about a troubled past in his one man show turned Spike Lee joint for HBO, Undisputed Truth, and here, he offers candid insights into his own destructive past behavior.
But while Tyson’s confessions of abuse, criminality, excess, and financial ruin dominate much of the narrative, it’s the observations of Holyfield and Hopkins which round out a story ultimately bigger than the three boxers. Hopkins especially, who began his career as a prison inmate serving a 20-year sentence and later went on to become the oldest fighter to win a boxing championship, displays an incredible amount of awareness and savvy not only about the sport but about his role in a system that chews up and spits out most fighters before they’re 40-years old.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest take away from Champs is learning just how brutal the sport actually is, not just physically but mentally and emotionally. Earlier this year, Michael B. Jordan talked about how he feels that the black man is “America’s pitbull.” It’s hard to know what to think sometimes of Tyson, how to reconcile his past deeds with the man he purports to be now, but watching the extensive archival footage of a 17-year-old Tyson, barely out of juvenile detention, being trained as a literal fighting machine and seeing that juxtaposed with an older, hardened, and deflated former champion is a striking representation of Jordan’s metaphor.
These fighters become defined by their physicality, their worth hinging upon how well they can fight and how much they can make for promoters, managers, and handlers. It’s a little astonishing that these men can willingly walk into a ring to beat each other to a pulp, but even more astounding that even now there is little in the way of regulation to take care of these men both financially and medically after their careers are over.
In one segment an expert points out how intrinsically tied to to the advancement of the Civil Rights movement the game has been, and in another segment, its severe lack of regulations, and the pittance that non-superstar fighters make in the ring, is scrutinized. In that way, while Champs ends on an optimistic if cliche final note, it does strike an interesting balance between idealism and skepticism, asking frank questions about how race and class have played a role in a sport that’s produced some of the greatest athletes of all time.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.