Mike Tyson in Champs (Photo: Bert Marcus Productions)
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Bert Marcus
STARS Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield
Often swinging wildly at the subjects at hand but always managing to stay off the ropes, 2015’s Champs is an unwieldy yet nevertheless informative documentary that alternates between examining the world of boxing at both the professional and personal levels.
On one hand, this nonfiction feature from director Bert Marcus, whose most recent piece was The American Meme (reviewed here), examines the issues that affect all pugilists who carve out a successful career inside the ring, from the difficulties of coping with fame and fortune to the machinations of unscrupulous promoters and agents who seek to bleed them dry. On the other hand, the film also spends time on three specific champions, detailing how each of them found their way into the profession and what they learned (or didn’t learn) over the years. Attempting to fit so much information into a 90-minute running time understandably leads to an ofttimes scattershot approach, but it’s to Champs‘ credit that it largely retains its momentum despite its whiplash tendencies.
A few talking-head celebrities appear along the way, including boxing fans Spike Lee and Mary J. Blige as well as three filmmakers who were part of past boxing flicks: The Fighter’s Mark Wahlberg, The Hurricane’s Denzel Washington, and Cinderella Man’s Ron Howard. Nothing any of them have to say is as compelling, though, as hearing the stories — and seeing the vintage footage — of the three raging bulls at the center of the film. Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins are all interviewed and analyzed, and while Hopkins and Holyfield are featured in many interesting interludes (such as when Hopkins elects to train in the prison facility where he was incarcerated, as a reminder that he never wants to go back there), it’s Tyson who controls majority shares in the film’s roller coaster trajectories.
The footage of Tyson in the ring is especially mesmerizing, as he throws punches like a man possessed and takes out opponents with alarming ease (in 1986, his fight with Marvis Frazier lasted all of 30 seconds!). Watching this dynamo in his element, it’s easy to see exactly how he was to the sport of boxing in the 1980s what Marlon Brando was to the art of acting in the 1950s.
Yet the film points out that while there were many who taught Tyson how to be a better fighter, there was no one who taught him how to be a better human being. This has been evidenced throughout his life, via some incidents that are noted over the course of the movie and many that aren’t. His rampant misogyny and brutality toward women are particularly troubling, from his rape conviction (he still claims innocence) to his battering of ex-wife Robin Givens (he proudly owns that one) to his endorsement of fellow sex offender Donald Trump. As for violence against men, he’s had a history of assaulting people both inside and outside the ring (yes, the ear-biting incident with Holyfield is covered in the movie).
It wouldn’t be accurate to state that Champs ignores Tyson’s unsavory behavior, but it does minimize it. Yet one glance at the credits offers clarification. Listed as one of the producers? Why, none other than Mike Tyson. Imagine that!
(Champs is available on DVD as well as streaming services such as Amazon and iTunes.)