You don’t want to be a boxer. That’s basic message Champs delivers over and over again. This is not a film about the glory or art of boxing. In fact, it makes words like “glory” and “art” when applied to the sport almost seem like insensitive softeners used by admirers from a removed enough perspective to safely glorify something quite ugly and brutal.
Champs explores the social and economic pressures that creates boxers, repeatedly making the case that no rich person gets into the boxing game. It is a sport occupied by desperate and often angry people who believe that through hard work, perseverance, and determination, they can make a better life for themselves.
Most of them don’t. Occasionally some of them do. But once boxers leave the horrors of poverty behind them, they have to contend with the horrors of the boxing industry, which Champs paints as a highly exploitive world even more cruel and wicked than the crime-filled streets these athletes worked so hard to escape. Champs goes to great lengths, sometimes belaboring the point, to illustrate how little chance an average boxer has to navigate the world of accountants, managers, and lawyers with their winnings intact, to say nothing of their inability to spend with care after a lifetime of poverty. Meanwhile, they perform in one of the most unregulated or protected sports out there.
Champs doesn’t do anything special as far as presentation goes. Relying almost exclusively on talking heads and archival footage, this is more or less a TV documentary. But that lack of style fits well with the film’s clinical presentation of facts. This is a no-nonsense, informative presentation with no real interest in entertaining you. Instead, Champs aims to both educate and infuriate.
But it’s not all misery and sadness. Champs alternates its more informative segments with examples of its points applied through the careers of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins. We see all three men go through many ups and downs, but each of them end up doing work marked by altruism and charity, offering heartwarming (though somewhat conflicting in Tyson’s case) conclusions to such a bleak overall film.
Boxing is a strange sport. People really adore it despite the fact that they’re essentially getting amusement from watching two people with peak powers of physical destruction beat the hell out of each other for money. Champs removes all possible willed ignorance a fan might construct to help enjoy such a thing. It argues not that the sport should be abolished, but that it is in great need of regulation and protection for its athletes, which hardly seems like a controversial stance.