To watch Champs, a new documentary about the world of boxing and three of its most prolific athletes, is to watch two very different kinds of films duke it out. The first is one chronicling the rags-to-riches stories of how Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins and Mike Tyson battled a life of poverty and the continual threat of jail time to reinvent themselves as world champion boxers. However, despite intimate interviews with the athletes and inspiring stories of adversity, Champs also gives academics and sports journalists the time to analyze and criticize much of the sport, from crippling injuries to a lack of health and safety standards.
The two sides cancel each other out. In an attempt to achieve a well rounded discourse about the sport – one that reveals the hope, one that exposes the hurt – Champs turns into a simplistic documentary. Bret Marcus’s film is like a disjointed introductory thesis to a more complex series of films about boxing, too brief and superficial to be much of a knockout.
The three subjects all came from poor neighborhoods, places where the thought of an American Dream didn’t enter one’s mind. (Marcus introduces these early segments by panning across a squalid area strewn with graffiti and then morphing the setting into the glittery lights of the Las Vegas strip.) Holyfield recounts how one of his teachers told him that he was going to just be a statistic. Hopkins speaks of his mother trying her best to ration pork and beans lunches for her kids. Tyson speaks of growing up in a den of sin and prostitution that made him eager to find a home with thieves and gangs.
Even though he is not as popular as the other two, Hopkins has the most interesting segment. For a loaded criminal record, he went to serve an 18-year prison sentence. In a place where he had to stand tall and not be afraid, he found an outlet in penitentiary boxing, where he quickly became the state middleweight champion. Despite his even more unlikely rise – most black prisoners are re-paroled within three years of their release, which he avoided to become a successful boxer – Hopkins gets around half of the screen time as the two more prominent athletes. There is a bit of talk about the lack of similar programs in prison today, but considering the dearth in screen time Hopkins gets, a more illuminating deconstruction of this shortcoming was needed.
Champs is rousing when it focuses on the big fights and the redemptive ascents to fame and heavyweight titles among the three men. It is when the film touches more serious subject matter related to the sport that Marcus’s doc begins to feel too shoehorned, trying to cover a vast amount of issues but failing to examine a single one with much detail. The history of American boxing and its role as a savior for generations of immigrants is mentioned sparingly. Aspects of race relations connected to the sport are also mostly ignored too, besides Holyfield’s story of how he was not interested in fighting professionally after losing to a white man.
The film is also very eager to include talking head interviews. College professors add social analysis about boxing’s place as an American pastime, but too little else of merit. Next to the athletes’ stories, these talking head interviews seem out-of-place. Why must one hear a more academic reasoning of why boxing can be symbolized as the fight and struggle of a poor man to get to a higher plane, if Holyfield, Hopkins and Tyson already embody that dream in their stories? Meanwhile, actors like Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg and Cinderella Man director Ron Howard talk about their enthusiasm for the sport, with quotes that seem to be cribbed from interviews about the boxing films they worked on.
Halfway through the film, Wahlberg says, “Boxing is the sport which all others aspire to be.” A minute later, a commentator speaks about the barbaric theatricality of the sport, negating Wahlberg’s prior statement. Champs is a film trying to chew on too much, acting both as a champion for an American pastime and as a critic for all of its problems. These latter issues, meanwhile, are scrubbed over without much effort, making it seem that Marcus had to include some of the negative effects of the sport so his film could avoid being labeled as too hagiographic.
Champs’ sharp shift from a film about the love of the sport to a harsh condemner of its violence and culture is not just odd, but ineffective. Further, the contradiction of this American Dream is not addressed profoundly enough, with so many negative topics given minimal airtime. Marcus’s doc fails to go into much depth on the rape charges against Tyson, as well as the continual poverty many fighters who achieved some inkling of fame and success currently fight through. Just as the film wavers on how much it wants to pump one up or point fingers, Tom Caffey’s musical score also moves between stirring rock beats and simmering electronica.
The short glimpses at some of the drawbacks to boxing – the lack of professional regulation, the likelihood of destructive injury – only feel like footnotes in what should be a more prominent argument. As soon as Marcus finishes with these valid points, he returns to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, hoping to end the film on a conciliatory note. Champs tries to both inspire with its underdog stories and illuminate several problems with the sport today. In its attempt to do both, it fails to do either one with much depth or originality. Just as Tyson did to Holyfield’s ear, the director tries to bite off too much.
Uneven and too brief for its brawny subject, Champs fails to be an affecting underdog story or an in-depth look at boxing’s many problems.