“It’s the most dangerous sport there is.”
From Rocky to Fat City and everything in between, poverty and/or dysfunction has often played the backdrop in most boxing movies. Even recent films based on the lives of real fighters like Mike Tyson (Tyson) or Dickie Ward (The Fighter) show a less glamorous side of the professional athlete we know as “the boxer”. However, very few films have made a direct correlation between poverty/dysfunction & the sport of boxing like Champs. It’s no mystery that deep-seeded pain is a driving force behind many boxing movies, but I’m not sure if the average Joe (or even the average sports fan) understands that real professional boxers are cut from a different cloth when compared to other professional athletes (not necessarily in terms of athletic ability, but in terms of background & motivation there is a difference). There’s something primal deep down inside that makes a person want to fight (literally) for a living rather than commit to a 9-to-5 (the same thing applies to wrestlers & mixed martial artists as well). Your average football player or baseball player doesn’t often bring the type of baggage to their sport that a boxer does to theirs, and Bret Marcus examines this in his latest film. In Champs, Marcus focuses on the lives of boxing legends Bernard Hopkins, Evander Holyfield & Mike Tyson (both inside & outside of the ring). With Bernard Hopkins we’re taken from his start in the Philadelphia prison system where he discovered boxing, to his record-setting 11 year title defense of the light heavyweight championship (20 successful title defenses). With Evander Holyfield we get a glimpse in to his humble beginnings in the deep south as an insecure young kid, to his reign as the world heavyweight champion. Tyson’s story takes us from Brownsville Brooklyn to his troubled times in the spotlight as one of the most controversial professional athletes of all time. But Champs isn’t strictly about Hopkins, Holyfield & Tyson; it’s a slightly alternative glimpse in to the world of boxing all together (the politics, the money troubles, the concussions, etc).
Evander Holyfield’s presence in Champs alone is proof of the wear & tear that boxers often deal with. His manner of speech while being interviewed leads me to believe that he’s suffered one too many concussions in his career.
Because Mike Tyson was a producer on this film I understand why he would be one of the three main focuses. But between James Toback’s Tyson (2009), the Spike Lee-directed one man show & the HBO biopic, there isn’t much left that we don’t know about him in 2015 (Champs even uses some of the same footage from Toback’s film). I don’t mean to downplay Tyson’s history but how many times can one talk about how intimidating or troubled he was? We get it already. Personally, it would have been nice if Tyson just played the role of a producer and given the spotlight to another iconic boxer – particularly a boxer of a different ethnic background. Anyone who knows anything about the sport of boxing knows that race is a major component. Black boxing fans root for the black boxer, Latino fans root for the Latino boxer, Italian-Americans root the Italian-American, and so on. Sure there are exceptions to this unofficial rule, but most boxing fans know I’m speaking the truth (if you disagree with this then you’re more than likely an overly politically correct person who doesn’t know much about boxing). Champs grazes over race but it would have been nice to see Bret Marcus go a little deeper and delve into other races. This film could lead some to believe that only Black boxers come from pain, struggle and/or poverty when that’s really not always the case. Latino, Asian & White boxers all have similar stories as Tyson, Hopkins & Holyfield.
In terms of style, Champs isn’t that much different from an HBO boxing special or an ESPN 30/30 documentary. It features interviews from the likes of Denzel Washington, Micky Ward, 50 Cent & Mary J. Blige (after a while, the commentary does become a little redundant and it feels like everyone is saying a slight variation of the same thing). Personally, I would have appreciated more commentary from the likes of Ward than Blige & 50 Cent (but I also know you need recognizable faces in order to sell this film to the masses). Personally, I think not having Holt McCallany as one of the interviewees was a huge miss for this film. Besides Stallone & Micky Rourke, McCallany is one of the few actors in Hollywood who serves as a bridge between cinema & boxing. Not only is he known for playing a boxer on multiple occasions (Lights Out & Gangster Squad), but he’s also involved in the sport on various levels ranging from personal training to organizations that help retired boxers manage their money.
What does set Champs apart from other sports documentaries are the slow-mo Errol Morris-esque reenacted vignettes that appear throughout the film.
No matter what criticisms I may have, the sport of boxing definitely needs this film (not since Frederick Weismann’s Boxing Gym has there been such a barebones look at the sport). I don’t even think I’m the target audience for Champs as I already know quite a bit about boxing (take my criticisms with a grain of salt). I grew up in the 80’s & 90’s when boxing was always a major event on television. You didn’t even have to follow the sport that well to know names like Arturo Gatti, Micky Ward, Buster Douglass Tommy Hearns, Pernell Whitaker, etc. Nowadays I’d be willing to bet the casual sports fan couldn’t name every current boxing title holder like they could in MMA (part of this has to do with the overabundance of boxing titles out there, but still…). With the continuous rise in popularity of MMA (and even professional wrestling to a lesser extent) boxing has become slightly less popular over the years. This is probably part of the reason why the boxing commission has held off on the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight for so long – it’s probably going to be last big money-making fight for quite some time. Champs is a great vehicle to introduce folks (particularly young folks) to the history, politics & struggles that are associated with the world of boxing.