Boxing was once the epitome of the American Dream. A sport that offered hope to those less fortunate, providing a way out of poverty and a bridge to new opportunities.
By fighting for their lives, boxing hopefuls could earn riches and someday become contenders, like Rocky Balboa, who overcame all odds to become champion of the world on the big screen. Or in real life, Muhammed Ali, who floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee.
That dream has disappeared in the decades since as boxing deteriorated into a corrupt and exploitative game of shady promoters. With no unions, no safety precautions, no health insurance, financial assistance, or guidance, professional boxers are now thrown in and out of the ring without a lifeline. And it’s not just the struggling fighters subject to this sad reality. The environment of boxing has become so toxic, it’s tarnished and destroyed the lives of many fighters participating in the sport today, and many of its biggest champions are not immune.
In a new documentary directed by Bert Marcus called Champs, boxing is analyzed from a variety of different views. The film hones in on the sociology of the sport, the careers it makes, and the post-ring lives of three world champs: Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Bernard Hopkins. From poverty to fame to misfortune, their stories become cautionary tales of a sport in need of serious intervention. With insightful interviews and compelling footage, the film begs for changes to the rules and conditions that govern boxing, as well as the safety and welfare of amateur and professional boxers today.
Prior to the film’s release, MovieMaker caught up with writer, director, and producer Bert Marcus to talk about the present and future state of boxing, a possible way forward, and, of course, the famous ear-biting rivalry between Tyson and Holyfield.
Mark Sells (MM): You produced Teenage Paparrazo and How to Make a Living Selling Drugs before directing Champs. Was the transition difficult?
Bert Marcus (BM): When I was producing those films, I was also very active in the writing, editing, and filming, wearing all kinds of hats. Our films are small and we don’t have a lot of producers, so you can be very hands on to the extent that all the jobs start to blur. As a result, it really wasn’t a tough transition into directing. The bigger challenge was coming up with an important subject that could bring about change and be part of a mainstream conversation.
MM: So, why boxing?
BM: The film was inspired by my passion for the sport. It represented an opportunity to showcase the irony inherent in boxing, once heralded as the pinnacle of American athleticism and entertainment, often referred to as the “sport of kings,” and how it became corrupt, falling from grace. It’s also really interesting on a human level.
So it was something that spoke to me. I felt that if you could get into all of these issues that fighters go through, i.e. economic insecurity, broken homes, inaccessible education, physical abuse, crime, prison, substance abuse, financial ruin, depression—audience members might be able to rise above. They might be able to conquer the struggles and overcome the failures in their own lives.
MM: What can you share about the logistics of the documentary? How were funds raised, how long was production, and where can audiences see it?
BM: My production company raises its own film financing. We have a film fund for socially conscious documentaries (and are creating our first narrative film fund) and a great group of investors who are very enthusiastic about making films that make a difference in people’s lives and incite real, positive change in the world. It’s what they want to do and it’s why I got into moviemaking in the first place.
A lot of documentaries can have that preachy aspect to them. But we’re trying to do something different. Our goal is to open up to broader audiences, younger audiences, shoot films in the highest quality possible, and provide an entertainment experience that is also educational.
We shot Champs for about two and a half years, sold it at the Tribeca Film Festival to Starz and Amplify, and are excited to have a theatrical presence on March 13.
MM: Tyson, Holyfield, and Hopkins. There are a gazillion boxers that come from difficult environments. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, for instance. Why did you choose these three?
BM: I chose these three guys because they come from the same generation. They’re pretty much the same age. And I thought that interweaving their different backgrounds and personalities would be a unique way to tell the story. They’re so different, yet so similar in many ways.
MM: Apart from financing, which is huge, what was the biggest challenge you faced in making the documentary?
BM: The hardest part is finding people who really believe in you and the way you can tell a story. People get into filmmaking for a variety of reasons, but with documentaries, you want to leave your mark, make a positive change, and put out great work that inspires people. It sounds cliché, but so true.
Making documentaries, you can never dictate what people say and how they say it. You want to keep it honest and raw. So, when you get into editing, there are lots of challenges—making sure the story is fluid, that you’re getting across what you set out to do, and that you’re making sure it’s a cinematic experience that’s entertaining. All of those aspects, plus music, graphics, getting it into the right festival, finding the right distributor and/or the right sales agent—it’s one challenge after another, but a fun process, especially when you’re passionate about what you’re doing.
MM: What was the most valuable lesson you learned in making Champs that will carry over to your next project?
BM: I probably would have flushed out more ways to publicize these initiatives. We’re doing better at it now, but it was really hard to tell early on because I wanted to see where the film would take us. The goal for a film like this is really to make change, whether through one person or a group on a larger scale, and for that to happen, you have to have a great plan.
MM: In Champs, you discuss the ugly business of boxing as it relates to the treatment of boxers after they leave the sport. What is currently being done to address health and welfare of boxers?
BM: Unfortunately, nothing. You have a sport where the top one percent of fighters make 99 percent of the money. That’s why you have the Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao fight coming up that’s in the $250 million range. The problem with that is that the average independent fighter’s salary comes in at around $30,000, while the lowest average salary of other professional sports falls between $400-500K. That’s a huge discrepancy. Yes, there have been many films about boxing, but nothing that addresses the disparity in income and the lack of protection for the fighters. This is a sport that preys upon the lowest common denominator.
Boxing is regulated at the federal level, but on a very minimal basis. You have the Ali Act , meant to improve the safety and welfare of professional boxers and to ensure promoters are truthful in their financial dealings; however, no U.S. attorney in any state has ever prosecuted a case under it. The sport continues to fail the people who made it what it is. Ninety percent endure some type of brain injury during their careers. Sure, a single MRI is given to a professional boxer at the start of his career to get a license to fight, but no follow-ups are required. People don’t realize it. This film aims to change that and get people to start looking out for these guys.
MM: How are Mike, Evander, and Bernard doing now?
BM: I think they’re all doing great. They have such a tremendous humility about them. Not just in the movie, but working with them. They’ve really struggled in their own lives, trying to figure out their purpose and what to do after their boxing careers. Mike and Evander, at the pinnacles of their careers, were making upwards of $300-400 million. They were iconic heroes. And Bernard started a lot later in his career. After he got out of prison and his career started to take off, Mike and Evander’s light started to dim inside the ring. So did their money. Add to that major family troubles, depression, drug use, financial ruin; plus, a lot of things from their youth that started to come out.
It’s fascinating how some of the most iconic figures have been such amazing champions, fighting all odds within the ring, but then they don’t have any of the tools to be a champion outside of the ring.
Today, the attention has gone away from the one thing that they were known for their whole life, the one thing that gave them a sense of purpose. So, finding that purpose again has been something these guys have been working on, dedicating themselves to their families, dedicating themselves to films like this, and charities that really help people. Mike and Evander both have started promotional companies that are geared toward helping amateur boxers, providing mentors and financial advisors and therapists who can give them family support. It comes from a completely different perspective, where they can help guys in situations where they weren’t helped themselves. They’re not in it to be the next big promoter. They’re not in it for the money. It’s for the amateur fighter and the love of the sport.
Bernard is doing a great job with a similar thing at Golden Boy, a bigger company with more prestigious fighters. But I give a lot of credit to them, lending their stories, leaving themselves vulnerable, allowing audiences to see them and relate to them in a different way. They’re all on the up and up, especially Mike and Evander. They really crashed hard after the pinnacle of their career.
MM: Have Evander and Mike made amends after the famous ear-biting match?
BM: Yes. And actually this is the first time they’ve been in a film together. It was something we wanted to do. We wanted to get them together and make a powerful film, but not do it in a way that just focused on their careers and that fight. We wanted to make it more universal and more meaningful than just a rivalry.
MM: What does the future hold for the sport?
BM: I don’t think boxing is going anywhere. MMA and UFC are run in a much more professional way. You have very smart people running those companies. With boxing, it’s capitalism run amok. You don’t have business people helping the sport grow. They’re not a part of terrestrial television like UFC has with this huge deal with Fox Sports. And the younger generation is getting a lot more exposure to it. Years ago, boxing had Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns fighting, there was Howard Cosell and Wide World of Sports—it was much more acceptable. Even at the amateur, Olympic level. Those deals were huge for boxing. But, it lost all of that as shady promoters entered the scene and began running things. Sadly, it’s still like that. Do I think it will change? I hope. But it needs a lot of work and with a little luck, this film can be a catalyst for that change. MM
Champs is available nationwide in theaters, on-Demand, and on iTunes, starting March 13, 2015.