Fame often cultivates pervasive mythologies around public figures. For Mike Tyson, the public mythology suggests that the Tyson we know is nothing but a disgraced former prizefighter. Once a talented pugilist, his descent included bankruptcy, incarceration and ear-biting.  With Champs¸ director Bert Marcus begins to question the narratives around boxers Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins as he explores their childhoods, careers and the ways that the boxing industry failed them. I attended the Sunday (20 April) screening, but the documentary premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday (19 April) and it was followed by a live Q&A with Tyson and Holyfield.

The film begins with an introduction to each former boxer’s neighborhood and home life. Tyson is a heavily-bullied boy from Brooklyn with an absent father and an abusive mother. Bernard Hopkins is a kid in North Philadelphia whose father has a penchant for drug use. Evander Holyfield is the youngest of nine children being raised in Atlanta. Re-enactments of scenes from their childhoods are cut with long pans of desolate neighborhoods. From here, Champs uses personal interviews and match footage to track the rise and fall of Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins in professional boxing. The biographical aspect of the documentary is where Champs excels. Tyson’s piece of the story overshadows that of Hopkins and Holyfield, though this seems fitting in light of his comparative notoriety. Holyfield is the second most prominent figure, but his rise to the top and his fall from grace/into bankruptcy pale in comparison to Tyson’s repossessed white tigers and foreclosed mansions. The least known of Champs’ three central characters, Hopkins looks like an afterthought in this film.

The most moving scenes in the film also belong to Tyson. In one such scene, he recalls robbing houses with some neighborhood boys and his voice breaks as he explains that they used the money to buy him clothes. In footage from his last professional bout, he quits before the seventh round and apologizes for letting everyone down.  It is difficult to watch a man famed for his toughness as he gives up. The emotions in Champs are strongest when archive footage like this is used and Marcus is adept at choosing exactly the right clip to provoke the right visceral reaction.

However Marcus falters as he tries to link this biographical information to broader social statements. He brings in Fordham University’s John Pfaff to say that childhood poverty leads to adult poverty. This is a valid point but it never gets thoroughly examined. Frustratingly, Marcus continues to gloss over thoughts on social issues only to leave them unfinished. He uses Hopkins’ time in jail as a transition into the idea that prisons are a business, but he drops the thought almost immediately. Various celebrities make true-but-basic statements like “rich kids don’t fight” without questioning what it is about poverty that pulls disadvantaged youth into boxing. To explain the appeal of boxing, Marcus employs a psychologist who offers the debatable evolutionary psychology trope that human beings are inherently attracted to violence. He could examine why skill in controlled violence is one of the few ways that people in violent environments can make it out, but he does not. Marcus chooses easy simplifications and presents every bit of sociological information so gracelessly, it feels like he only brings them up to make sure you know that he knows.

He also combines talking heads, re-enactments, archived footage of boxing matches and talk-show interviews, informative CGI graphics and crisp shots of Las Vegas scenery. As a result, Champs is a cluttered film. At times, the visual transition between different kinds of scenes are awkward when the narrative connection between scenes feels forced. Marcus uses CGI animation to show what the effects of boxing are on the body, but old footage featuring fighters with swollen eyes and shaky legs conveys more about the dangers of boxing than a low-budget CGI brain bouncing around a skull. Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Mark Wahlberg, Denzel Washington and Spike Lee make appearances to discuss their perspectives on poverty and boxing, but I never fully understand what makes their presence in the film necessary. In an 85-minute film, minutes cannot be squandered on monologues from seemingly random famous people.

Champs had the potential to be a powerful narrative that re-examined the lives of three individual boxers while scrutinizing the environment that breeds and subsequently destroys fighters. Instead, it is part-biography, part-depressing boxing trivia and part-PR for Mike Tyson. For a first directing gig, Marcus did a good job putting together an entertaining feature-length biography, but his failure to address complex themes may leave a viewer expecting “to explore the meaning of the American dream in a society increasingly fragmented between rich and poor[1]” just a little bit underwhelmed.

Champs opens in box offices on 1 July.


[1] 2014 Tribeca Film Festival Guide Entry for Champs

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