Stephen Whitty

Columnist, critic for national and international outlets. Author, lecturer, host.

Mar. 18, 2020
3 min read
Champs

It’s the only sport that matters.

Feverish fans of hockey, football, baseball and basketball can argue all they want, of course. But boxing is fundamentally different. Two warriors enter a ring. One walks out victorious. The other may not walk out at all.

It’s stakes like that which give the sport its savage excitement, a power that the documentary Champs often captures.

With such a huge subject, focus is essential, and filmmaker Bert Marcus has narrowed his own canvas cleverly. The hour-and-a-half film revolves around three African-American prizefighters. Each one came from an impoverished background. Each one went on to world championships.

Yet each one tells a different story.

Bernard Hopkins provides an inspiring example of redemption, a man who put prison behind him and constructively redirected his rage. Mike Tyson tells a sad tale of self-destruction and addiction, as he fights to keep his brutal professional persona from taking him over completely.

And Evander Holyfield? That may be the most tragic story of all because he started out on a straighter, narrower path than his two contemporaries. He had focus, he had faith, he had a calm patience. And yet not only did he still run into trouble, he still doesn’t seem to understand how.

Marcus fleshes out their surprisingly frank, on-camera interviews – it probably helped that Tyson was one of the producers – with some startling facts about the sport. The average purse for a run-of-the-mill ESPN bout? $15,000. The amount the boxer sees? Less than half.

There are also some sobering stories about the physical toll these bouts take on their participants. Fight footage reveals people staggering, shaking, passed out cold. Computer simulations show how a single uppercut can send the brain bouncing around the skull like a puck in a game of air hockey.

Given the inherent drama of the subject, and the brevity of the running time, it’s a shame the film is padded out with some celebrity footage that contributes little. Outside of playing a boxer in “Hurricane,” what insight does Denzel Washington have to add to the subject? Apart from sometimes sitting ringside, what’s Mary J. Blige’s experience?

Not much. Nor do some heavy handed dramatic recreations of Mike Tyson’s homelife, or some predictable testimony from armchair academics that, yes, indeed, prison is terrible.

But these three prize-fighters – particularly the thoughtful, centered Hopkins – hold our attention. As do their fights, some excerpted here at length. How incredibly savage they are. How completely, utterly, inhumanly horrifying.

And yet how impossible it is to look away.