Through their mastery of one of the most punishing athletic competitions imaginable, champion boxers Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Bernard Hopkins seemed to escape violent environments and bleak futures to achieve fame, fortune and a version of the American Dream. But even after their huge victory, their journeys away from darkness were far from complete, as boxing is a sport filled with pitfalls – from financial mismanagement and personal overindulgences to poor regulation regarding the health consequences of the sport. For fighters rising from poverty to prince-dom without proper mentors or representation, their ability to "deal" sits on a vast spectrum from debilitating failures to absolute fantasy.
In the new film Champs, cutting-edge, maverick documentarian Bert Marcus (Teenage Paparazzo, How to Make Money Selling Drugs) takes a no-punches-pulled look at both the beauty and the ugliness inherent in the world of boxing, as filtered through the prisms of personal histories related by Tyson (who also produced the film), Holyfield and Hopkins and embellished by a who's who of boxing insiders and celebrity aficionados of the sport.
Marcus and Holyfield joined Not Impossible to delve into the penetrating personal peek into the world of "the sweet science," and to look forward as new technology and new regulations promise better experiences for the next generation of fighter.
Bert, What got you interested in making a film about this subject?
Marcus: I'd seen so many films on boxing and sports, and I wanted to make something that transcended the sport of boxing and make a film that was going to be really socially relevant and hopefully, have a strong social impact, but do it through a really fun, entertaining way. And I had a nice friendship with Mike Tyson. He was gracious enough to come on as an active producer, the first time he's produced a film. Working with him was just an incredible experience and, really, it's something that anyone can hopefully be inspired from, to be able to overcome the most daunting and difficult circumstances in their own lives.
How easy was it to get the boxers to put the tough exterior aside and really talk about painful things in their lives?
Marcus: I mean, it's never easy to talk about these things, for anybody. But these guys were gracious enough and, I think, willing because they really feel like their lives and their stories can really influence people and inspire them in ways that a lot of other people's can't. And I think these guys, they weren't handed a lot of the tools and programs in place and resources to be successful outside of the ring. And when they see young people these days who might be entering the pitfalls that they went through, they want to help influence them and help turn people's lives around.
It's quite shocking to learn how little support and government regulation there has been on the sport and concern for the athlete's long-term well-being. Do you see any movement in a positive direction towards fixing that?
Marcus: I mean, I'm hoping this film is. Mike, Evander and Bernard are playing big roles in trying to start their own companies and work with young amateur boxers and get awareness out there [by] participating in this film, really spreading the word about it and hopefully helping young people who are entering the sport who will never achieve the things that they've achieved, but still are in harm's way by the repercussions and the financial issues they might have surrounding them. Giving them the proper support system and team [people, lawyers, accountants] and then guiding them, giving them advice, and sharing their stories so that these other guys can know what to do to make sure they have a successful career post-boxing - a successful life, for that matter.
Holyfield: In some cases, we do see improvement, and in some cases they have made changes. It’s what’s seen on TV and what’s not seen on TV. These are the same things. People would have never thought nothing about it if they didn't show it on TV. But because it’s on TV, it got more exposure. These are the things that you have to realize, that if they want things to change, they have to come together collectively and make decisions and put the rules out there. Until they do, everybody will just have to talk about it. Tomorrow, you’ll see it again if there ain't no rules and regulations.
The film digs into the notion that each generation of boxer seems to be pulled from a particular American underclass. Why do you think that has been the case for all these years?
Marcus: Boxing is the ultimate paradox. The irony in the sport and the irony of boxing is something that really drew me to it. You have people who are essentially escaping violent situations through violence in the ring. And I think these guys were preyed upon because it was known as the poor man's sport. Yeah, it used to be the sport of kings, but it's really a sport that's successful, and people don't have to get money to get into. These guys are already fighting through life and fighting through obstacles. It's a good outlet. Unfortunately, once you delve into the business, there's a lot of aspects of the business that, unfortunately, are not there to help people succeed and thrive, unlike other major sports.
Have you seen technology advances that are helping the current generation of boxers to not take the physical damage of the past?
Marcus: I'm not sure if it's safer yet. I mean, there's definitely been a lot of advances made in that area, as far as research and figuring out the punches that people are taking and whether people should re-enter the ring. I mean, there's nothing that makes it so people aren't allowed to enter the ring, so that's a problem. The problem is there's just no structure in the sport. And the reason I find the sport so interesting is it's a microcosm of a much bigger thing going on in the world, and especially in this country. It's why I was drawn to boxing, and why I found it to be interesting. There's no union. It's so minimally regulated by the federal government: It's state by state, and it's a very disorganized sport that unfortunately doesn't look out for the well-being of the men and women who turn to that to escape their lives, to better their lives.
Holyfield: I think the game is better. I think the rules they made have improved boxing tremendously. They changed 15 rounds to 12 rounds. It's less punishment. They upped the weight for the big guys so it’s ten ounces, but it used to be eight. So they've done a little bit and it’s working.
By choosing to work on this film, Bert, you clearly had an awareness of the territory you were entering – but what were the surprises for you along the way?
I guess one of the biggest surprises was just how much [people] who aren't a fan of this sport – or aren't even sport fans for that matter – can relate to these guys, understand where they're coming from, who they are and how they came to be the people that they are.
Bert, now that Mike and Evander and Bernard are in their current phases of life, did you see a commonality amongst them?
Marcus: Yeah, I think the commonality is they're such different individuals and have such different personalities, but they come from the same generation. And I think the things that they share is perseverance and the will to just get through and thrive and succeed, professionally, personally, no matter what the obstacle is.
And I think that's why I, at least, find them so relatable and people that I really admire and respect. They're guys that want to share their stories and help influence the young generation and allow people the insight and allow them to look inside to what they had to go through to evaluate and reflect on their life differently. That's the one thing I've been so impressed with by all three of them, they just want to use their stories to better society and better people's lives.
What were some of the key things that Mike Tyson brought to the table as a producer?
Marcus: You're talking about one of the most established athletes in sports history. And someone who has been through it all, just in life, outside of the ring as well. So Mike really brought that raw, real perspective, gave us great insight into what it's like to be behind the mind of a champion. Both good and bad. And the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for him and other fighters as well. And he also was really instrumental in reaching out to people and getting people to really open up to us and share things in their lives that they haven't ever shared before.
Mike has had such an interesting, sometime tragic profile in the public eye – people have very conflicted opinions of him, and Evander, you have a complicated personal and professional history with him. Tell me what people should know about Mike Tyson.
Marcus: His humility is something that amazes me, to be honest. When I sit with him, I just like to absorb all the things I can because he's just one of those guys where he's very open. It's just refreshing in today's society to find somebody who's honest like that and just upfront on who he is – the good, the bad - to be able to make fun of himself. He's been humbled in so many ways. I think the other thing too, he's just a very smart person and very, very well-read. And he's also a very talented entertainer and filmmaker. He was a great producer on this film, and not just a producer by name, but a real active producer who really helped this film become what it was, and we're very grateful.
Holyfield: The relationship that we have is a good relationship. We just simply talk about the things that we accomplished in the game of boxing. Even this film, he invited me in and [that's part of] how we were able to get past it. Forgive each other, and move on. What would life be if that doesn’t happen?
Do you feel that boxing is a savable sport?
Marcus: I mean, I'd like to think so. I don't know. The optimistic side of me hopes that that can happen, but major changes need to take place. And whether that happens or not, I'm not sure, but I hope that this film is a really strong vehicle to spreading the word to making that happen.
Holyfield: Boxing won't do nothing to you. You’ve got to understand, boxing is the game. But the people in the game are the ones that’s different. So the whole thing is, as long as you keep it in the proper perspective: Baseball is a game, but do you have cheaters in baseball? Yeah, you do. So it’s going to be the same because you always got good people and you always got bad people. The game itself is still "the sweet science."
Champs is now available on iTunes, check out the trailer, below: