by Sean Crose
“There’s no one that can’t relate to this,” says director Bert Marcus, speaking of the appeal of the fight game. “Boxing is such a great allegory. I think that’s why it’s been used in so many films over the years.”
Marcus is right. We as a society see ourselves in boxers. We admire the Babe Ruths and Michael Jordans from afar, but there’s something about the Mike Tysons and Jack Dempseys that we connect with on an almost subconscious level.
Perhaps that’s why Marcus’ new documentary, Champs, deals with more than just its main subjects: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins, respectively. Indeed, Marcus wants his film to start “a conversation about really important issues.”
Marcus, a friendly, engaging interviewee, speaks with passion about the “irony inherent in the sport of boxing,” an irony that isn’t too hard to find, but is rather easy to ignore. “The men and women choosing to partake in this sport,” says Marcus “they’re choosing basically to escape violence with violence.”
That’s a message Champs communicates more than effectively. Peering deep into the lives of Tyson, Holyfield and Hopkins, the films shows viewers just how brutal their formative years were. Truth be told, there are moments in the film where what is on the screen appears to be something out of a third-world country.
What the viewer is seeing, however, are images straight out of the urban United States. More specifically, they are images of the exact environment each fighter emerged from. Say what you will about these men, credit has to be given where credit is due. Each found a way to rise to the top.
Yet, while the film makes it clear that boxing was a legitimate ticket out of poverty and hardship for its famous subjects, it also showcases how cruel the sport can be – both in and out of the ring. “It’s so much more than a barbaric brawl,” Marcus says of boxing. He admits, however, that boxing’s critics have a legitimate argument to make.
“Unfortunately, where their point becomes valid,” he says, “is the way the sport is regulated and run.” As every observer of the sweet science knows, boxing not handled adequately at all by the powers that be.
“You have the most dangerous spot in the world that’s not being cared for properly,” Marcus argues. “Boxing is regulated on the federal level, but it’s very limited.” And, one may argue, very ineffective.
Marcus provides a glaring example of this incompetence by pointing out that boxers are required to “have a single MRI,” but that “no follow ups are required.”
Paging Jermain Taylor.
“It’s a joke,” Marcus says of the negligence shown to boxing. “It’s so unacceptable.”
Champs, however, isn’t all doom and gloom. Not by a long shot. In fact, the most moving part of the film of deals with Mike Tyson confronting his own bad behavior while realizing redemption is more than just a pipe dream.
“Mike is just an incredible individual,” says Marcus. “He’s just so honest and raw and real.”
And smart. Believe it.
Those who see beyond the image have known for years that, even when he was at his most flawed, Iron Mike was always brainy. “Mike is like a boxing encyclopedia,” the director claims. “I don’t think a lot of people are privy to that side of him.”
Perhaps Marcus’ highest praise for Tyson, however, comes from a simple comment: “He’s probably the easiest person I’ve ever worked with.”
As would befit a documentary about boxers, Champs pulls no punches. Although the film is empathetic towards its subjects, it offers no excuses for Tyson’s and Hopkins’ past criminal behaviors (nor, it should be added, do the fighters themselves). What’s more, the movie showcases Holyfield’s ability as a youth to avoid the dangers and temptations of his environment.
That being said, Champs is more than a character study. It’s a boxing film that isn’t afraid to shine a light on the sport’s – and our society’s – flaws and darker recesses. For boxing, Marcus claims, is “like the wild west and it’s a real reflection on what’s going on in the world.”
Overall, the film is a powerful statement from a director who clearly admires the sport of boxing, even when he’s indicting it.
“We want to create change,” Marcus says.