Champs is a documentary with soul.
But the soul is bruised, battered and boxed in.
The world of boxing is both "the American Dream, and it's the American Nightmare," according to one interpretation.
A viewer perhaps is used to stories of the rise and fall of winners, but Champs provides more context. It is sociological as well as soulful.
Curtis Jackson - rapper 50 Cent - talks about growing up in poverty. He says, "Either you are to be a punk or you are going to start to harden up." "It was do or die," singer Mary J. Blige says. "You have to be strategic."
Champs falls into three sections. The first is fighters and others growing up in hostile, poverty-stricken environments, almost all lacking a father figure. The second is their climbing to success. And the third is their fall at the hands of their own weaknesses and the predators around them. One expert says, "The sport has a purity to it. But the business might be the most unsanitized of all businesses."
The basic focus is on three fighters - Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, and - of course, Mike Tyson.
Evander Holyfield, growing up in Atmore, Alabama, had parents who couldn't read, but he had a strong mother who made sacrifices for him. Bernard Hopkins, growing up in North Philadelphia, was sentenced to prison for 18 years - but he was paroled after five year for good behavior. And Mike Tyson, in Brooklyn, New York, was bullied as a boy.
All three grew up in myopic, brutal cultures. All three found boxing as an outlet and a viable future.
Al Bernstein, boxing expert and sportscaster, brings clarity and credible analysis about the fighters and their oppressive worlds. He says, "Boxing gives you a chance to literally fight through it."
All three fighters found someone to help them get beyond their potentially dire circumstances. The most famous is trainer Cus D'Amato, who died in 1985, a year before Tyson won the heavyweight championship. D'Amato brought Tyson into his family. One of Tyson's friends said if he had some white guy's help he'd leave the hood, and told Mike to do so.
D'Amato was missed in more than one way. To Tyson's later misfortune, he was surrounded by those who saw him as a source of cash and power. This is not to excuse Tyson's vast character flaws, but it suggests what helped him go wild.
Bernard Hopkins, out of boredom and to avoid danger, went to the prison gym and became a fighter. He says in prison he became "the Middleweight State Penitentiary Champion." He was on his way.
Bernstein praises him. He says, "Bernard Hopkins is a testament to the fact that anyone can reshape their thinking, their life." He concludes that Hopkins' life showed him as "an absolute pillar of self-discipline."
Writer/director Bert Marcus has accumulated some powerful footage. The fight between Holyfield and Dwight Owai for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship in 1986 is compelling and inspiring. As is Holyfield's controversial bout in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles which wound up in a bitter defeat. Holyfield shows consummate grace given the ugly circumstances.
Also fascinating is the footage of Tyson's stunning defeat at the hands of Buster Douglas. [Where and with whom Al witnessed the fight adds to the surprise.]
One of the strengths of Champs is that Marcus is able to get to the personality of his fighters. Generally they are thoughtful, well-spoken, and have something to say.
A questionable decision is Marcus's choice to conclude with a tacked-on comment by Mike Tyson that seems contrary to the essence of the film.
At the end, Tyson says, "I see a new birth in the world. I see people respecting people more."
Champs was released in 2015. Not only fighters change, but times change too.