“Champs” is a quotably slick documentary about the social, psychological and economic underpinnings of boxing, a clear-eyed look at the deadly and dirty sport often rhapsodized as “The Sweet Science.”
There’s nobility in the boxers this is built around — ex-con Bernard Hopkins, hyper-violent Mike Tyson and gentle and gentlemanly Evander Holyfield. But in this Bert Marcus film, it’s hard to see their success in this sport as anything but a mixed bag, an act of desperation by men whose circumstances afforded them few other options.
“People who fight…fight their way out of poverty,” one insider explains.
“Rich kids don’t go into boxing,” offers another.
The sport is surveyed and discussed as the historic route of the underclasses to change their station in life. Marcus talks to fighters, trainers, journalists, a couple of actors (Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington) who have played fighters, a couple of film directors (Spike Lee, Ron Howard) and singers (Mary J. Blige, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) who have connections to the fight game. The superficial picture that emerges captures something of the guts it takes to go out and take and deliver a beating. You are “conquering not only your opponent, but yourself,” as one talking head puts it.
Marcus lets Tyson and his ghost writer/biographer, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, regale us with some serious image burnishing, breaking down the hard world he came from, the father figure/trainer (Cus D’Amato) who rescued him, his stunning rise to be the most famous athlete in America. But “Champs” doesn’t totally let Tyson off the hook, capturing his rapid descent in similar, if less thorough detail. Tyson has a producing credit in the film.
Holyfield comes off now as he did then, a humble, sportsmanlike man of violence. But Hopkins, who gained fame not as an Olympian but as a Pennsylvania prison system champion before his release and years-long reign in his weight division, is the real heart of “Champs.”
Hopkins figured that prison “is a business,” a system that he’d fallen into that would never let him go. He put on the gloves to “beat the system.” And did.
There are no Tyson skeptics interviewed. There’s discussion of how these famous men often tumble into financial ruin. But there’s nothing about the brain damage, the true personal and social cost.
Marcus has enough experts here to get at something deeper. But he seems happiest sitting down with celebrities who have a poetic take on the sport, barely balanced by a few more prosaic realists who find little poetic in the situations that drive men into it.
Cast: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, Mark Wahlberg
Credits: Written and directed by Bert Marcus. An Amplify release.
Running time: 1:31