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Reviewed by:
  • Champs dir. and prod. by Bert Marcus
  • Rudy Mondragón
Champs (2015). Dir. and prod. Bert Marcus. Amplify and Starz. 85 mins.

Bert Marcus's Champs reveals that boxing is a vulnerable sport inherently connected to poverty, the prison-industrial complex, discipline and punishment, and the United States' fascination with violence. The film begins with the insights of multiple prominent figures known for their involvement in boxing, including musicians, actors, journalists, and promoters. For hip-hop artist Mary J. Blige, boxing is about fighting for one's identity. For author George Willis, it is about people from underprivileged backgrounds using the sport to escape poverty and violence. For boxing promoter Lou DiBella, "boxing is a reflection of our society, of the haves and have nots."

The documentary is driven by the complex lives of three famous black boxers: Bernard Hopkins of North Philadelphia, Mike Tyson of Brooklyn, and Evander Holyfield of Atmore, Alabama, all of whom share their lived experiences with boxing. Their narratives are augmented by commentary and context from academics, boxing-industry participants, writers, and experts. At first glance, the film's title suggests Champs is about three boxers who are champions inside the ring. However, the documentary's strengths rest in how it contextualizes the unique struggles of these boxers before their rise to fame, during the peaks of their careers, and after boxing.

Hopkins, Tyson, and Holyfield share their experiences about growing up in poverty. Tyson states that, regardless of how much money and fame one accrues in boxing, one never forgets the impacts of being poor because "poverty hurts and leaves an everlasting effect." Sociologist Dalton Lonely, from New York University, follows up Tyson's point by addressing the myth of the "American Dream." For Lonely, the American Dream is dangerous because it hides the truth about poverty in this country where one in five kids grows up poor. For young and underprivileged boxers, the possibility of achieving economic betterment through boxing supersedes the sport's exploitative realities.

What separates Champs from other boxing films is its courage to expose the darkness of how the American Dream is used as a tool to lure fighters into the industry. Boxers who come from poverty can certainly find fame and achieve financial success, but this is only a small percentage. DiBella argues that the idea that one can break out of poverty through boxing is bleak, given his estimation that only 1 percent of boxers make 99 percent of the money in the sport. The documentary also reveals that, unlike other professional sports, boxing has no guaranteed minimum salary. The narratives of the boxers and experts further show that boxing is a sport where fighters become disposable the minute they no longer have value to those in power. In the film, boxing analyst Al Bernstein describes the sport as "laissez-faire capitalism run amok." This highlights the imbalance of privileging the business side of boxing and the absence of federal regulations. Hopkins echoes this concern by calling into question the nonexistence of a labor union in boxing to legally represent and protect fighters. [End Page 229]

In addition to addressing themes of poverty and the American Dream, Champs narrates boxers' experiences with the prison-industrial-complex. Tyson served time at Tryon State School for Boys in Fulton County, New York, as well as the Indiana Youth Center. In 1984, seventeen-year-old Hopkins was sentenced to eighteen years in prison and was released after serving five. The historical moment these two found themselves pursuing boxing careers was at the height of the 1980s "war on drugs" campaign. It was a moment when 75 percent of parolees returned to prison within three years. During Hopkins's detention, he became State Penitentiary champion and learned that boxing presented possibilities for a life beyond poverty and prison. Hopkins is a rare example in that he found great financial success and popularity in the sport despite the structural barriers presented to formerly imprisoned men of color.

Life after prison is often more difficult to bear than the prison term itself because of the stigmas attached to and prejudices against ex-convicts. For example, discrimination and exclusion are perfectly legal...


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pp. 229-230
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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