“Boxing is a reflection of our country’s biggest issues,” said film director Bert Marcus in a phone interview about his new boxing documentary, “Champs,” featuring Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins, and Evander Holyfield.
The documentary makes clear that one of our country’s biggest issues, related to boxing, is exploitation. The NFL doesn’t take care of its own. Football’s brain-slamming concussions are only now beginning to be grudgingly addressed. But at least there’s some oversight. Boxing’s sometimes lethal concussions are simply taken for granted.
Marcus points out that the U.S. prison population has quadrupled since 1980, to 2.4 million inmates. America represents only 5 percent of the world’s population, but incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. That’s big business.
Considering which race predominates in the American prison business, it looks a lot like that other U.S. exploitation business for which we were once well known—slavery.
Anything else? There’s America’s growing addiction to violence as manifest in the proliferation of violent sports (UFC), movies, gangsta rap, “Grand Theft Auto,” and the resultant trending of our American citizenry to go postal with automatic weapons in kindergartens. But that would be a different movie.
Bert Marcus makes high-quality documentaries to spur conversations and hopefully raise the winds of change. While these issues are not news, Marcus’s mission in movie-making—here specifically designed to motivate musing on the machinations of the boxing business—is most admirable.
The Main Contenders
Meet Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins, and Evander Holyfield. Evander had nine siblings; his parents couldn’t read. Bernard’s mom had to stretch two cans of pork and beans out for six kids. Mike’s parents sold women; his promiscuous mother beat him viciously.
Such upbringing often leads to gangs and prison. Bernard Hopkins landed in the slammer, then became boxing’s middleweight state-penitentiary champion. He looked the epitome of a hardcore convict. The intimidation factor of fellow ex-convict Mike Tyson’s hulking ferocity, in his prime, is legendary.
The great reveal in “Champs” is that Hopkins, the man, is articulate, wise, and compassionate. As are Tyson and Holyfield.
Tyson, a stratospheric super-champ on the level of Ali, has engendered great curiosity—how’d he capitalize on his talents and attain the pinnacle of success? We measure ourselves against our heroic figures.
Tyson tells the story about visiting his dying child in the hospital, and about how people were leaving their own dying children to come and sit with him and hear his words. The vitriolic self-loathing and grief on display during this reminiscence is powerful, because he always felt he’d failed his fandom by not providing pillars of morality strong enough to support the dais that fans came to kneel on, seeking blessings. He had no spiritual sustenance to dispense. His fame was based on his fighting alone. He was a shadow warrior. A ronin serving no master. Except, of course, notorious boxing promoter Don King.
Tyson’s now laid down the warrior sword and taken up the elder staff. As Marcus said, the biggest surprise in getting to know these three fighters of unparalleled prowess was their humility. Tyson has gone back to hand the ladder down to the up-and-comers. All these men quietly give back.
Boxing: An Escape Route
But what are they giving back? Marcus wants to change the boxing world for the better. Where does the change need to begin?
Boxing is traditionally linked with poverty. America contains the largest pockets of poverty in the developed countries.
NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley explains that poverty has a self-perpetuating effect, that the ghetto culture of adopting short-term solutions locks its inhabitants into ruts virtually impossible to escape from. It’s a testament to the sheer willpower of these three champions—ghetto escapees all.
Boxing is a warrior path out of the ghetto. The American dream is synonymous with hard work; it’s said of Hopkins that his discipline was mythic. As Hopkins himself says about life in prison, “There’s always someone plotting against your vulnerability. But every time I got stabbed, my street-cred went up.” Imagine the discipline it takes to keep going in the face of all that.
Hopkins defended his middleweight championship for 11 years. He fought at age 48 and kept his middleweight shape for 20 title defenses.
Tyson corroborates that what separates the greatest is how much they’re willing to endure. Tyson says of Holyfield, “He got cheated at the Olympics, but endured, took the loss, and became famous.”
Where’s the Paradigm Shift?
It’s pretty much a given that the bootstrap paradigm of boxing as an escape route will be with us for a while. So why is Marcus upset enough to make this film? What’s the most deplorable aspect of it all?
He laments the cold, dead-eyed lack of respect for the heroic dedication. The lack of humanity. Unrewarded hard work exemplified in the systemic carte blanche scavenging by shrewd bottom feeders of the disenfranchised and the undereducated. Certainly, there’s compensation in the dangling carrot of mammoth prize winnings, but winning a championship belt is like winning an Oscar—only a select few breathe that rarified air. Meanwhile, where’s the basic humanity that would insist on helping the almost-rans, in the form of systemic oversight?
And then there’s this typical scenario: Tyson transformed boxing and raised the sport back to being one of the most popular forms of entertainment on the planet, but because he was uneducated and had no organization to safeguard him, he went from $300 million to Chapter 11.
Every sport but boxing has a union. Ninety percent of boxers endure brain injury. Hopkins understates when he says, “When there are no checks and balances, there’s a problem.” Boxing represents the American dream and the American nightmare.
“Champs” suggests that the first step toward safety in boxing would be a national commission to replace local, ethically unsavory authorities, not to mention eradicating the influence of organized crime, which whole books could be written about.
Freedom of Choice
It’s mentioned a couple of times during the documentary that rich people don’t box. One can tell which ethnic group was most socially oppressed by the dominant fighter of the day’s ethnicity. The more that group gets into Harvard, the less it’s going to box.
Be that as it may, some men of privilege choose special-operations military careers, which are far more dangerous than boxing. Significantly more special ops warriors die in battle than boxers.
With a common cause and an elevated sense of patriotism, men are willing to choose to look death in the face with no safety net. And while SEAL teams don’t have the government support they should, either, they have a sophisticated brotherhood to look after their own.
Whereas in special ops everything is about sacrificing individual wants for the success of the team, boxing is the direct opposite. Boxers are great warriors, but they are, by definition, ronin: samurai without masters. The boxing landscape is a vicious, size-you-up, dog-eat-dog underworld.
Senator John McCain famously likened MMA (mixed martial arts) to cockfighting and wanted to wipe it off the map entirely. Why not outlaw all human fight-sports altogether?
Human-induced animal fighting is a wretched enterprise, but human beings have free will. And fighters for whom fighting is a calling, love what they do. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), similar to Special Forces, has its fair share of former philosophy majors. The warrior path calls men across all classes. It calls women lately, too.
“Champs,” however, champions all the men who’ve fought because they had no choice. For just as some men with the talent for medicine choose the battlefield, so might many boxers have thrown down the gloves to take up the scalpel and stethoscope had they had guidance and choices.
For now, let warriors of the ring and the Octagon do what they do if it brings them joy. And since it brings the fans joy as well, let it be regulated and compensated with all due respect for the great sacrifices involved.
May the movie “Champs” rain down awareness upon the violent, dirty business of boxing like borax upon cockroaches.