Opening at FilmBar
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
Bert Marcus’ boxing documentary Champs has a broad vision of the history of boxing and its cultural presence, but then, like many discussions about boxing, becomes laser-focused on two people and the one event that shaped the sport’s last golden era.
The boxers are, of course, Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson, and the event is, of course, that one time Iron Mike chomped on Holyfield’s ear. It’s funny how that one nibble is ground zero for so much of boxing’s modern relevance. It just steamrolls everything else in its path; even Muhammad Ali is a footnote.
This isn’t a criticism of this beautifully shot and carefully written documentary, just an observation of Champs’ meandering from grand history to petty soap opera. What’s even more curious, and this is criticism, is how the film tells the story of a third character, reformed prison boxer Bernard Hopkins, but largely neglects him in favor of the more famous fighters. I found myself wanting to watch an entire movie just on Hopkins, without all of Champs’ rehashing of the Tyson/Holyfield drama.
Champs begins with an array of talking heads — Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Ron Howard and many others — praising boxing’s philosophical implications: man-versus-man, man-versus-self, a refuge for poor inner-city kids, “an escape from violence through violence,” … on and on with an array of metaphors. They say it’s a perfect sport, which is what the talking heads always say in these kinds of sports documentaries.
We eventually meet Bernard, who falls in with the wrong people and ends up in prison. He takes up boxing behind bars and before long he’s the best fighter at a string of prisons. Later, after he gets out, he goes on a stunning winning streak and then devotes the rest of his career to responsibly promoting young boxers. These chapters of his life are carved up into the larger narrative of the Tyson and Holyfield fights throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
Even people who know nothing of boxing know of Tyson and Holyfield. These are old stories, but they are given refreshingly new life in Marcus’ film. Both men are interviewed extensively, and both appear to be wiser than they once were. Tyson, a convicted rapist, even cries, in a scene that is genuinely heartbreaking. Holyfield is much more likable, especially when the film covers his 1984 Olympic controversy, in which a woefully misguided referee disqualifies him as he clobbers his way to gold. He eventually won the bronze, although everyone acknowledges Holyfield as the gold medalist.
And then there’s the chomp heard ‘round the world. I remember this 1997 fight. I was in high school at the time, and it was endlessly debated who was the stronger fighter, a debate that is still being waged today by many boxing fans. Holyfield would later forgive Tyson, an act that director Spike Lee is still surprised by: “A piece of his ear is gone forever,” he says.
The stories of Tyson and Holyfield always felt interrupted as they were happening so many years ago. Now that both men are older, and are at peace over their roles in each other’s lives, their respective stories have some closure. And looking at the whole thing from beginning to end, you realize how Dickensian it all is: poor kids rising up amid the struggle of sport and personality, fighting with themselves more than each other, confronting their bad decisions, owning their mistakes and pushing forward past fame. Both men are shown in their prime, in sprawling mansions with Rolls Royces, white tigers and swimming pools as big as lakes. Today they live modest lives in the suburbs with pickup trucks and Ikea furniture.
Champs has a number of dead-end ideas, including segments about the prevalence of black fighters coming from inner-city ghettos, the role of concussions and repeated brain trauma, the need for federal regulation, the role of money and power. These are interesting ideas with no conclusions. Before the film can say anything relevant about these issues it drops them and switches topics.
The photography, though, is wonderful. Subtle re-enactments, slow-mo footage of training sessions, examinations of boxing neighborhoods, and lots of historical footage fill the air between the interviewers.
One scene really stuck out for me: Tyson, in the throes of despair, finally realizes how little and insignificant he is. “The world is bigger than me,” he says, which should be the mantra for every fighter.