Mike Tyson just couldn't let it go. "I beat him," he blurted out Saturday night at a Tribeca Film Festival panel, upon the mere mention of Buster Douglas, the underdog who knocked him out in Tokyo back in 1990. "They robbed me on the count. There's no doubt about it."
In the next seat over was an unlikely sympathetic ear, if you will: Evander Holyfield, who would subsequently claim Tyson's lost heavyweight title from Douglas directly. A fighter victimized by a few notably controversial calls himself, including a devastating disqualification in the 1984 Summer Olympics, Holyfield likewise took the opportunity to dismiss his 2008 loss by decision to Nikolai Valuev; "I'd forgotten how hairy Valuev was," moderator Jeremy Schaap added.
Nearly 17 years since their second and final encounter in the ring—you know, that one—the two retired pugilists came together, peacefully, with Schaap, director Bert Marcus, and fight promoter Lou DiBella to discuss the documentary Champs, which held its world-premiere screening at the New York City fest. An 85-minute feature blending anecdotes with activism, the film both celebrates and judges the sweet science, often in the same breath.
Spotlighting Holyfield, Tyson, and Bernard Hopkins—three boxers of the same generation that came up from American poverty to become titans of the sport—Champs uses the familiar rhythms of a boxing documentary as a platform to also highlight the social, economic, legal, and regulatory problems that drew these and other young men to the sport while leaving them ill-prepared for both success and failure. Uncomfortable parallels are made to the American prison system—of particular note, since Hopkins and Tyson both did time, albeit at different points in their boxing careers. Academics in law and sociology contextualize the broader issues, while such celebrity enthusiasts as Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington dole out aphorisms and well-intended cliches. Dramatizations sub in where footage is unavailable; even the "Bite Felt Round the World" has its time on screen, though it pales in comparison to the series of beatings and knockdowns shown from all three fighters' careers.
Distressing statistics abound, especially those that highlight the minimum-income disparity between boxers and professional athletes in the NBA, NFL, and MLB. In doing so, Champs, which counts Tyson and his wife Kiki among its producers, brings to light the lack of a central universal boxing authority on par with those sports, or even a players union, realities that many boxing fans may not be aware of. Even the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act of 2000, a federal law intended to protect fighters and add oversight and integrity to the so-called Sport of Kings, has proven ineffective and underutilized.
Despite the overarching grievances over insufficient regulation and shady business practices—as well as the well-documented downsides of Holyfield and Tyson's careers and lives—Champs doesn't wallow in doom and gloom. Much is made of their charity work, their positive ongoing professional connections to boxing and a new generation of fighters, their fervent dedication to their families. Hopkins, now pushing 50, continues to fight and win: He had to skip the panel, in fact, because he was in Washington, D.C. beating Beibut Shumenov and unifying two light heavyweight titles in the process.
Still, the past remains very present for the fighters and the rest of the gathered panelists. "Everybody thought they could beat me, so I got tested all the time," Holyfield asserted, clearly still offended by how often he was underestimated. "Mike wasn't really getting that test." Seemingly free of any animosity following a 2009 intervention by Oprah Winfrey herself, both men clearly admire each other now: "I lost to the most competitive guy in the history of fighting," Tyson admitted. He wasn't talking about Buster Douglas.
Having first entered the screening theatrically flicking popcorn into his mouth, Tyson proved himself to be the event's showman, frequently playing the room for laughs. He playfully swatted at Schaap's leading question about his finances and bad decisions with one-liners like "Have you seen my bank account?" and "I like my tattoo," delivered to a live audience all too eager to side with him. DiBella and Marcus, on the other hand, seemed eager to advance the more serious topics addressed in the film; Tyson at least echoed their calls for unionization. Holyfield, meanwhile, lived up to his reputation, stoic and optimistic, with hopes grounded in the now: "I want to be a better parent than my mother," he offered, affectionately.
Eventually, Schaap opened the floor to audience questions, which, typically, resulted in a raft of awkwardly phrased queries, and random self-promotional and personal babbles. Even still, nobody could've anticipated hearing the words, "Hi, I'm Taimak, star of the movie The Last Dragon." Indeed, Bruce Leroy himself had apparently procured a ticket like the rest of us in the hopes of publicly reminiscing about that one time in the '80s when Tyson allegedly told the actor to kick some bothersome dog in the face. (Who knows if that's true, but they hung out together once, at least.) Forever the crowd favorite, the champ deadpanned, "I don't remember that dog."
A second Champs preview screening is scheduled for Saturday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Tribeca Cinemas in NYC.
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