An unfocused mishmash that thrives only when it fixates on footage of actual bouts, Champs is a portrait of three former championship boxers, a treatise on the social inequality that drives the sport, and a lament for the mistreatment of its athletes. Concentrating on legendary title-winners Bernard Hopkins, Evander Holyfield, and Mike Tyson, writer-director Bert Marcus’s film is a collection of comments about, to name just a few, winning, losing, perseverance, discipline, violence, compassion, exploitation, responsibility, and ambition. Such issues are smushed together with a haphazardness made all the more frustrating by the fact that archival clips and photos that help trace the careers of the film’s subjects from the mean inner-city streets (and, in Hopkins’s case, prison) to the heights of their profession, boast an electricity that’s hard to deny. But the doc is so all over the map that its analysis of the social forces that drive young disadvantaged men to boxing—a pastime historically embraced by those most in need of escaping impoverished circumstances—proves glib, and its depiction of the struggles that boxers face upon achieving sudden superstardom comes across as superficial and, at times, contradictory.
Specifically, Champs attempts to make the argument that most championship boxers, hailing from uneducated backgrounds and thus unprepared for the immense wealth and fame they acquire, are victims of a system rife with predatory managers, promoters, and trainers. Yet while that’s true of both Tyson and Holyfield, it’s not of Hopkins—a difference made all the more stunning by his truly rough upbringing, which saw him serve five years in prison before becoming a pro. How Hopkins avoided these pitfalls is a subject that’s as glossed over by the film as his career, which is largely ignored so more time can be spent recapping the now-familiar rise-and-fall sagas of individuals such as Tyson. That Iron Mike remains the most captivating boxer of the past quarter-century isn’t in doubt. However, rather than limiting its gaze to Tyson, Champs instead endeavors to be a wide-ranging examination of the sport’s appeal, its virtues, its role in social movements, its lack of regulations, and the way it both elevates and preys on those looking for a way out of their hard-knock situations. Those are all topics worthy of scrutiny, but unfortunately, Marcus’s doc isn’t interested in anything more than skimming the surface, content to merely feign concern over boxing’s (and boxers’) future while providing a Cliff’s Notes history lesson and reveling in the admittedly impressive sights of legendary bruisers beating each other into oblivion.