An enlightening enough primer of a particular era in boxing history for those that might be unfamiliar, Bert Marcus’ debut documentary Champs both pares down its choice of subjects and bites off more than it can chew. It’s well meaning and mostly informative (if your knowledge of boxing history is pretty minimal), but it’s also somewhat sloppily unfocused on precisely what it’s trying to accomplish.
Marcus takes an overhead view of the boxing world by specifically looking at a trio of fighter from the post-Ali and pre-Mayweather era of the 1980s and 90s: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins. Tyson needs very little introduction, and mostly everything he or anyone else says about his life has already been exhaustively covered in other films. Holyfield is the only champion in the sport outside of Ali to win the championship on three separate occasions. Hopkins made history by becoming the oldest person to ever win a major title after years spent in prison. Their stories are told through a mix of archival footage, recreations, and candid talks with the fighters, trainers, journalists who have no problem picking apart everything these guys did wrong, and sociological experts.
Marcus follows all three fighters from their equally poor and dangerous upbringings to their ascents in a sport where everyday violence can be overcome through in ring poise, stamina, and aggression. Tyson and Holyfield have already had storied careers that have been documented countless times before, so it’s a bit disappointing that Hopkins – who arguably has the best story – gets the shortest end of the stick most of the time.
When the film stops feeling like three separate biopics crammed into a single package, Marcus tries to frame the sport as a place where the impoverished have found some meaning and a mixed metaphor for “the American dream.” This could sustain a film on its own, and to some degree the cursory knowledge is integral to understanding how these fighters perceive their lot in life, but quite often it gets picked up and forgotten about just as a point is about to be made. It jettisons most talk of wider reaching implications to get on to the next major life event for the core subjects. Worse, most context is provided by needless celebrity interviews (Mary J. Blige, Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington) that have nothing of interest to say, and instead deliver poetic platitudes about the sport and the athletes. There are a lot of missed opportunities to look back and forth in history to how the impoverished face of boxing has changed, instead fixating firmly on the 80s with only a passing nod to how history has been repeating itself. The Irish and Italian fighters of the 30s and 40s, the racism faced by African Americans in the 50s and 60s, and the Hispanic fighters of today almost get shrugged off despite facing a lot of similar challenges.
Marcus’ work is entertaining, but aimless until the final third when talk exclusively moves towards discussions of how boxing has become one of the most corrupt and unregulated sports in the world. It’s easy to remember the monetary and legal woes faced by Tyson and Holyfield’s long, slow slide into irrelevance, but it’s another to look at how the sport curiously doesn’t have a player’s union (when almost every other organized professional sport does) and is governed by a body that does very little to look out for the physical, financial, and mental well being of participants engaged in one of the world’s most damaging blood sports.
In the end, Champs works, but probably not as well as it could have. There are moments where it plays like an excellent version of an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, but others where it seems to be restating the obvious. It’s fine for what it is, but there was potential here for some championship material.