The latest boxing documentary is at its best when it isn’t really about boxing. Before moving on to the in-ring action that defined the careers of Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, and Bernard Hopkins, director Bert Marcus opens Champs with a dissection of the sport’s socioeconomic roots. “Rich kids don’t go into boxing,” one talking head says bluntly, explaining how a great many up-and-comers envision the sport first and foremost as a means of escaping the poverty of their youth.
Once those kids make it, however, promoters and glad-handing entourages milk them dry and bail at the first sign of trouble. Tyson (who also co-produced) remains one of the most interesting athletic figures of his generation, as magnetic now, talking about pigeons, as he is in the montages of his glory days.
It’s through him that Champs finds its focus; how many other legendary athletes’ stories feel tragic even at their peak? There’s an expectedly bittersweet quality to the depiction of his and Holyfield’s highs and lows in particular, from championship reigns to the devastating emotional and financial fallout of unexpected losses. (Hopkins, for his part, has found fulfillment advocating for fighters to hire personal attorneys and accountants via the Golden Boy Promotions firm founded by Oscar De La Hoya.)
But there’s nothing especially new or vital to these familiar scenes; ditto a late excursion into the realm of concussions — undoubtedly an epidemic for athletes of all stripes, but one that further muddles an already unfocused film.