It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
“Champs” is a documentary that wants to say something sociological about the sweet science of boxing. In this regard, it has an undeniable power; few non-fiction films on this subject filter boxing’s easily obtainable barbarity through the prism of class in America. Interview subjects point out that “nobody rich ever took up boxing,” and that “boxing is the American dream in its purest essence—you can go from bum to superstar overnight.” These are potentially fascinating and provable notions, yet “Champs” never fully coheres around either of them despite having details that would facilitate a more tightly executed treatise. It’s like a thesis whose next draft would be destined for greatness.
“Champs” divides most of its runtime between three boxers, two retired and one active. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield represent the retirees, two men who are inextricably linked not only by the heavyweight title but also by minor bouts of attempted cannibalism. Bernard Hopkins, whom viewers may know the least about, rounds out this trio of men who rose to fame from impoverished beginnings. This is a well-chosen group of subjects, men whose lives traverse roads so similar they evoke a great, tragic novel. Listening to their stories, one notes that while truth can be stranger than fiction, they are both slavishly devoted to the paths their creators have constructed from thin air.
The boxers’ stories are used as examples to highlight the sociological elements “Champs” seeks to discuss. So many past and present practitioners of pugilism stumbled upon their craft as a means of avoiding or escaping the seductive troubles their environments provided. As successful boxers get name-checked, the same life patterns emerge: poverty, the search for a father figure, joining a substitute family like a gang, the specter of constant violence and the curse of being a member of a race or group that was, as one talking head puts it, “the low man on the totem pole.” No matter which of these (or all of them) contributed to the boxer’s life, they somehow wound up at the neighborhood gym (or in Hopkins’ case, the prison gym). There, they discovered some grizzled old cuss who beat them into shape, sometimes literally, and gave them an outlet for their aggression.
In fleshing out the concept of boxing as the “purest example of the American dream,” it is noted how quickly one can go from rags to riches—and back to rags. All it takes is one good punch to turn somebody into an overnight sensation or dethrone an existing one. Just ask Buster Douglas, whose knockout of Tyson stunned boxing aficionados and gamblers alike. Or Holyfield, whose 1984 Olympic trial disqualification-slash-robbery did little to counter the stigma that boxing is the most corrupt sport of all the majors.