For the most part, the genre of boxing documentaries has largely focused on the big fights and the pugilists with the most personality, and you could be forgiven for making a similar assumption about “Champs” on first glance. Legendary boxers Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins take center stage in the film, but the story being told isn’t one you’re likely expecting. Joining the boxers are sports writers, professors, trainers and more, for a look at the sport through a sociological lens, one that sees the pursuit of boxing as the journey to the American Dream, and everything good and bad that comes with the system both inside and outside the ring, which is far from perfect. Less about what it takes to win a title belt, “Champs” examines what it means to be a man in a sport that often views the competitors as animals.
What unites the trio of fighters whom the documentary revolves around, are the dire circumstances of their upbringings. All were born into poverty. Tyson and Hopkins had trouble with the law early on, while Holyfield had to learn from a young age that life doesn’t always deal you a fair hand. And their narrative is one familiar to many of the greatest champions in history who have come into the ring, many of whom literally punched their way towards a better life, with a select few reaching the highest levels of boxing. But what awaits them when they get there? Fame, fortune and celebrity undoubtedly… and many would assume that this is the American Dream realized, but unequipped to handle the pressures that come with it, particularly in a sport where you can enter the ring a champion and exit it a former champion in the flash of eye, this can leave even those greatest champions of the sport vulnerable financially and emotionally.
What emerges over the course of ninety minutes is an increasingly complex portrait of the sport that strikes a nice balance of being both celebratory and critical. Tracking the rise of each fighter, “Champs” underscores the incredible skill, talent and fortitude each had on their way to the top, but also never shies away from pointing out the systemic failures that let them down. Tyson, who at his height transformed the entire sport and made it one of the most popular entertainments in the country, was surrounded by people who didn’t have his best interest in mind, and were only concerned about the money he could make them. For Holyfield, it was the press who underestimated him and his own stubbornness to keep fighting even at an age where it wasn’t advisable. But perhaps most of all, even after decades and hundreds of millions of dollars spent around the world on major events, it’s the sport itself that leaves boxers still fighting long after their careers are over.
As “Champs” makes clear, while other major sporting organizations have unions, rules and regulations to protect players, with resources to advise them as well, boxing has nothing in place to support the very athletes whose literal blood and sweat power the profession. The average salary for a boxer, after paying their managers, trainers and more, is a mere $32,000, compared with hundreds of thousands for other pro sports. Moreover, there are no structures in place to monitor or protect boxers medically, even though it is one of the most punishing sports physically, with 90% of boxers having sustained brain injuries at one time or another. While we live in a society where anyone is free to make the decision to box, as “Champs” underscores, that doesn’t mean we can’t act with some respect and understanding toward what these individuals are risking for the benefit of a large network of businesses and organizations that will never have to face or feel an uppercut.
Director Bert Marcus makes an assured debut, made particularly more impressive given he’s juggling a few different formats. While “Champs” utilizes the standard talking head interview framework, it deftly weaves in re-enactments — that at times are much more beautifully shot than how that kind of material is usually treated — in addition to a wealth of archival footage. Perhaps most of all, while the director has no shortage of famous people showing up — Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington, Ron Howard, Spike Lee, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent — their contributions are carefully and tastefully selected, with Marcus largely ceding to the more knowledgeable and less flashy experts, who are the ones that truly contribute the context to make “Champs” as insightful as it is.
There are likely more definitive books or documentaries about these boxers, but you’re not likely to find a documentary about the sport taken from this unique perspective. Even if you’re not a fan of boxing, “Champs” is a compelling look at the society from which many fighters emerge, the industry that promotes them, and the people on all levels who often let them down. It’s a fair and fascinating assessment of a sport that, especially with the rise in popularity of UFC fighting, is trying to remain relevant. A re-emergence is likely not far away, but if boxing is to become the powerhouse event it once was, “Champs” firmly argues it has to fix itself first. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival.