Steven Caple Jr.’s sequel, Creed II, which extends the story arc of Coogler’s resurrection of the Rocky series, was released last week to box-office success, as my colleague David Sims writes. Like its predecessor, the movie mines the material of the original Rocky films for its story line. But it is Coogler’s original reimagining that made such a sequel possible.
Read: ‘Creed’ lands every punch
Creed profoundly altered the character of Apollo Creed, a barely concealed stand-in for Muhammad Ali, whose hubris was too comic for pathos until his legacy was passed on to Coogler. In the first Rocky, Apollo seeks a “snow white” challenger to beat in the ring; he ends up fighting for his life against Rocky and prevailing only by decision. In the second film, Apollo is drawn back into the ring with Rocky to prove that the first fight was a fluke—an act of pride that loses him his title. Apollo is there, in all his bombast and glory (“The Master of Disaster! The King of Sting!”), to give a resentful white audience the catharsis of seeing a white boxer humble Ali. As the critic Alison Willmore wrote, Apollo’s American-flag pageantry shows him daring to “lay claim to the identity of the all-American hero,” and subsequently being “schooled for his assurance that the world belongs to him.”
But of course, Ali himself said it best. “For the black man to come out superior,” Ali once told Roger Ebert, “would be against America’s teachings. I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring. America has to have its white images, no matter where it gets them. Jesus, Wonder Woman, Tarzan, and Rocky.”
Particularly when it comes to boxing, Ali’s analysis is hard to dismiss—films about working-class, white-ethnic boxers beating the odds have been reliable Oscar bait for decades. Boxing’s stature in American public consciousness has declined significantly since the era when Rocky was first made, but at one point, its symbolic importance to white American masculinity was unparalleled. In 1908, when Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, defeated the reigning champion, the Canadian Tommy Burns, the celebrated novelist Jack London wrote that Jim Jeffries, a retired American champion, “must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you. The white man must be rescued.” London described Jeffries as “a Germanic tribesman and warrior of two thousand years ago,” echoing the prevailing race pseudo-science of the era that true Americans were descended from “teutons,” while the “Ethiopian” Johnson was “happy-go-lucky.”
Johnson easily humiliated Jeffries during their bout in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, toying with him for 15 rounds—as a writer for the New York Daily Tribune wrote, “There was only one side to it.” In their wounded pride, white Americans responded with pogroms against black Americans in a dozen cities, North and South, that killed more than a dozen people. Although Philadelphia produced a genuine boxing champion in Joe Frazier, the city has a statue in the likeness of Rocky Balboa, an Italian-American fighter who never actually existed.