A little while ago, director Adam Wingard got into a bit of hot water over why he chose to make King Kong the POV in his blockbuster “Godzilla vs. Kong.” His precise words: “Nobody wants to watch ‘Rocky’ and have it be about Apollo Creed.” It was an eyebrow-raising bit of clickbait, and it awakened a reflection on my relationship with a series in which I like almost every installment (sorry, “Rocky V” fans). However, that love is cognizant of a functioning dissonance with these films and their very clear messaging, all brought to the forefront of my mind by Wingard’s words. For starters, I get what he was saying was basically “we all like the underdog.” My problem was the character he used to make that point was never truly an underdog—that is the fantasy of the “Rocky” movies, a series that plays in a vacuum breathing off the air tube of white victimhood, while shutting out real world complications and well … facts. Facts not only about racial injustice, and inequity, but about the fighters it’s actually based on.
Muhammad Ali and one Chuck Wepner met in the ring on March 24, 1975 in a fight billed as “Give the White Guy a Break.” That title itself embodied the attitude from which “Rocky” would spring forth, and from which many of its underdog themes make their home. Wepner went a full 15 with the Greatest of All Time, but that is the extent of his feat. He was toyed with for much of the fight, repeatedly hit with vicious combos and furious jabs by a clearly disinterested and leagues-better Ali. The hits were furious not because of Ali putting so much power behind them but because Wepner was so slow and Ali so fast, made all that much more visible by by fact that on a few occasions Wepner walked into Ali’s fists. In round five, Ali would dance around the ring for the large portion of the round, tapping and bopping Wepner in the head at will with surgical precision. For Wepner’s performance to inspire a champion like Rocky Balboa is a leap, but such is and has been the audacity of whiteness. This is the difficult part: that audacity can often produce something great. It is through the detailed care to reproduce an oft-repeated white obsession—with both victimhood and being an underdog in a society where they are clearly the dominant oppressor—that made “Rocky” a classic.
The first “Rocky” is a barrage of iconography that embodies the well-recognized notion of how the white working class has it just as tough as anyone in the country. The beginning sees Rocky walking through the weathered, worn, muscular streets of Philadelphia, where white men doo wop about “taking it back like it was before” on the corners, and white kids form mischievous gangs in trash beleaguered streets. He works as an enforcer for a mobster who has a soft spot for him, goes home to a tiny apartment where everything can be found in one space, and the lights are never anything but dim. His best friend is a rather abusive drunk, and the women of his dreams works at a pet store. Rocky has a rolled up mattress as a punching bag, but the largest connection to victimhood is his humility. What always separates Rocky especially from Apollo, even more so than will, is this humility. This is an exercising of a commonly held racist belief that black people’s pizzazz, our flavor, our panache is concrete, and somehow it goes before skill and leads to our downfall.
It’s a version of Billy Hoyle in Ron Shelton’s “White Men Can't Jump” quoting himself saying “A white man wants to win first look good second, a black man wants to look good first win second.” There are little to no instances of the truth in this, but white people refuse to come off it. It’s represented in the Venice Beach basketball game in “American History X,” when a bunch of non-basketball-playing white boys beat a team of Black men who do this everyday. The winning halves of films like “Step Up,” “Save the Last Dance,” “Bring It On,” and even “8 Mile” borrow from “Rocky,” using the idea of white will and especially humility as a formula for victory over what amounts to a gross perception of Black arrogance and uppity-ness.
Apollo Creed’s ego is as repetitious a theme throughout these movies as Rocky’s indomitable will. Having already dug into that well twice already, “Rocky III” excavates another tried and untrue trope, the Black brute vs. the white man’s pride. It’s “Black Peril” by way of white insecurity, this time in the form of erotic degradation of the white man’s prize, and in his face no less! The besmirching of Rocky’s woman is meant to further the certainty of Rocky’s “right” to win. What’s interesting here is that in aspects of both poverty and wealth, Apollo and Rocky are often presented as equals, with “Rocky III” suggesting Apollo came up the hard way himself. However, by parts three and four, Rocky Balboa is quite wealthy, leading one to ask how his whiteness distinguishes him from Creed.
In “Rocky III,” Balboa is trained by Creed to move, to be stealthier, and to be a bit faster, because Clubber Lang (Mr. T) is the more powerful boxer. This is without a doubt the most sound strategy in any case where a fighter gives up pounds and strength to another. But eventually Rocky will abandon Creed’s strategy for his own of staying inside the “phone booth” as it is called and trading punches with the superior Lang, something not only Creed but even his own trainer Mickey advised him not to do. To understand the inherent meaning of this, one must understand the history of boxing especially as it pertains to Black fighters who historically have been known for using movement, stealth, defense, and speed to become champions. Despite their dominance in the ring, the persistent perception of these fighters was as dodgers and runner. You then only have to connect this perception to its ultimate conclusion of a lacking in will, desire, and heart, which is not in comparison to any known reality, but in comparison to an ideal forged and created by whites after the fact that they couldn’t come up with any other reason or tactic with which to knock or beat most Black fighters. Rocky is the strongest and deepest representation of a long-standing idea that there is a “right way” to play sports, and that the right way is the white way.
Creed is portrayed in the series as a preening and showboating court jester whose skill seems to decrease with every film even as Rocky gets older, richer, sometimes showier, and still wallops the competition. It should also be understood that historically, boxing has always engaged in superficial racial politics, so that even many of the most educated fighting pundits and enthusiasts end up voting along color lines. Many of the greatest fights ever have at the very least implicitly advocated for the fight to be drawn along these lines. Rocky Balboa is not based upon his namesake Rocky Marciano, a well-known and skilled fighter. He’s not even based upon Jake LaMotta. For it is not enough for a white man to beat us from a position of equality or even near equality. He has to beat us from a position of mediocrity and ineptitude. The struggle or the paradox for the intelligent Black viewer, from a standpoint of knowledge of our own existence, is to engage in a cognitive dissonance where the signifiers and iconography of the underdog is accepted for a time being, putting aside our own recognition of a truth. It is almost only a white person who could watch another white person defeat in a ring a Black person and believe that they were the underdog. The main reason we hoop, hope, and holler over the victories of a Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, or Muhammad Ali over white men, is because we know in reality it is only there that we are allowed such complete and unchallenged victories (and sometimes just barely). It amplifies Apollo Creed’s loss in the ring and his loss of life that it is in a place where reality has shown us is one of the few places we can win.
In this light one can easily see “Creed” and “Creed II” as a course correction, a signal of the regret Sylvester Stallone himself spoke of when he said that he regretted killing off Apollo creed in the first place. The “Creed” movies can be interesting in the conversation about allyship, a use of one’s considerable cache to push those who may not have privilege forward and a step back from the spotlight in order to allow them to shine. Adonis neither stands in his father Apollo’s shadow nor raises him from the grave. He sets the record straight, especially as it pertains to giving Black folk what we all wanted to see in the first place: a win from the only underdog we can truly understand.