[Editor’s Note: In case it’s not clear based on simple implications drawn from the headline, the below article contains spoilers for “Creed.” Please see the film before reading.]
The General Structure
– For as fresh as “Creed” feels, the structure of the film is right in line with “Rocky.” A fighter determined to move past the “nothing” bouts gets his big shot, falls in love, trains hard and goes the distance. It’s a classic underdog tale inspired and birthed from the ultimate underdog movie. So much more came from this structure, but that’s where it all began. Now, let’s get to the rest.
The “Third Fight”
– “Rocky” fans know they are in for a treat as soon as Adonis and Rocky first meet on-screen. The two have an immediate rapport and immediately started discussing key elements of their connective history. First and foremost was the third fight held in private between Rocky and Apollo at the end of “Rocky III.” Fans have been debating who won that battle since it happened, and we got our answer in “Creed.” Apollo won, besting the man he just trained by busting out a few tricks he didn’t teach Rock.
Rocky is the New Mickey
– An elderly trainer is reluctant to help out a young fighter, but gives in, invests heavily and takes him to the top of the boxing world. Sound familiar? It should, considering it can describe both Mickey from “Rocky” and Rocky from “Creed.” Rock learned everything he knows from Mickey, so it made sense for him to apply those same lessons to young Adonis. But there’s more to the comparison than both being an aging, former boxer. Remember when Mickey came crawling back after Rocky got his shot at the title, making a sincere offer to train him that was misinterpreted by the still hurt fighter who wanted help long before he got to take on the champ? Then the two apologized in silence and got to work. Adonis and Rocky go through a similar emotional battle when the trainer tells his protege that’s all they were — a fighter and his trainer — hurting the father-craving boxer and driving him to jail. There, he lashes out at Rocky — just as Rocky did to Mick — driving him away before he goes back to his house, where the two find forgiveness in a shared silence.
The Training Montages
– Without getting into specifics — don’t worry, we will in a minute — the training montages in “Creed” are just like “Rocky”; not literally, but in the sense that they are all, individually, highlights. Many viewers will undoubtedly be working out to the soundtrack for years to come, just like “Rocky” fans have been doing since 1976. They share the same DNA as their predecessors, all while Coogler sets a smoother pace to his three separate montages. Still, there are direct references, like…
Chasing the Chicken
– One of Mickey’s favorite drills was making his fighters move side to side, exhausting themselves in pursuit of a flightless bird. Was it humbling? You bet. Humiliating? A little. Worth it? Damn straight. Adonis may have tried to outsmart the chicken more than chase it, but — based on the results — this training method remains key to finding success in the ring.
Gray Training Sweatsuit
– Michael B. Jordan certainly filled out the sweatsuit better than a young Stallone did back in ’76, but both boxers trained in similar garb. Like all of these well-integrated references, this is a nice, easy nod with no higher implication, but also no distracting subtext.
“Women Weaken Legs”
– Rocky busted out Mickey’s wise words twice in “Creed,” first reminding his young fighter about the ill effects of a good woman when he met Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and again after “helping” with her surprise trip to London.
Apollo Creed’s Boxing Trunks
– Even with a trailer and a few photos ruining Mary Anne’s pre-fight surprise for Adonis, the gift is a moving moment between mother and son. And her sewing skills are no joke — those trunks have never looked better, which is saying something considering they appeared in three other “Rocky” films. (Apollo did not wear them in the second film, when he was all business in red and white trunks.)
Adonis’ Speech in the Ring
– All “Rocky” movies end with or at least feature a heartfelt speech in the ring. Whether Rock was praising his opponent, saying hello to his kid or ending the Cold War, his speechmaking was at its best after suffering repeated blows to the brain. Adonis keeps the tradition alive, choking up when asked what he’d say to his father if he were here tonight. He may not shed a tear, but there won’t be a dry eye in the theater.
– You don’t have to win on the scorecard to win. That was one of the many lovely lessons imparted by the first “Rocky,” reiterated in “Rocky Balboa” and again emphasized in “Creed.” Adonis doesn’t have a pre-fight moment with Bianca, laying in a cold, Philadelphia apartment, telling her how all he wanted to do was go the distance. But he does have something to prove — that he wasn’t “a mistake,” most importantly, and also that he wasn’t a “false Creed.” He proves them both and then some, making his mentor, mother, girlfriend and father quite proud in the process.
– Cinematographer Maryse Alberti doesn’t go as far as to recreate the iconic jog up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum via Steadicam, but instead matches the tone of the film by carefully injecting a couple of key shots from Rocky’s legendary run into his challenging ramble this time ’round. We saw an abbreviated clip of the tracking shot from the side before “Creed” ended on the two fighters overlooking Philadelphia, just as Rocky did nearly four decades ago. The steps themselves are a landmark, but the presentation is equally significant. “Creed” pays tribute to both.
The Less Obvious
A Shot at the Champ
– Yes, both Rocky and Adonis come out of nowhere to get an improbable title shot, but it’s important to note the similarity in how it happened for each of them. In the original “Rocky,” Apollo Creed flicks through a book of professional fighters, looking for a new opponent after his scheduled opponent broke his hand. He tosses a few possible contenders aside because he “doesn’t feel any heat from that name,” and then he lands on The Italian Stallion. Rocky was picked from dozens, maybe hundreds of fighters because he had the right name.
Moving forward to “Creed,” Adonis lands his shot after “Pretty” Ricky Conlon’s opponent breaks his jaw, and Conlon’s manager finds out there’s an heir of Apollo Creed out there fighting. The name has heat — enough that Conlon can score a big payday before he goes to prison. Money was a big motivation for Apollo, too, but it’s the name that matters in “Creed” — and in “Rocky.”
Cuff (or Link?) the Turtle
– As things get hot ‘n heavy between Adonis and Bianca — on Rocky’s couch, no less — the camera slowly pans away to…a turtle? Yes, a turtle! But not just any turtle — that’s either Cuff or Link, Rocky’s longtime reptilian friend who we last saw in “Rocky Balboa.” Diehard fans will know Rocky bought himself a number of pets in order to flirt with Adrian, who worked at the pet store across from Mighty Mick’s gym.
– As Rocky walks Adonis up the stairs to the Front Street Gym, the young fighter asks his trainer if he’s ever owned a motorcycle (a conversation spurred on by the young Philadelphians showing off their rides in the shop next door). Rocky says he used to have one, but he wrecked it and has hence decided to avoid the two-wheeled ego trips.
Paulie’s Porn & Bourbon
– Paulie loved porn, and Paulie loved bourbon. As sad as it was to see a “Rocky” film without the brilliant Burt Young, these tributes to his simple pleasures — Adonis discovers the porn in Paulie’s old room and Rocky brings a bottle of Four Roses to his grave — makes it feel like he is still there.
Rocky’s Last Words to Mrs. Creed
– Adonis called Rocky out for not being able to speak to his adopted mother after their father’s funeral, citing the above speech as Rock’s de facto last words to Mary Anne. It’s a brief, largely inconsequential moment in the film (outside of helping Rocky believe Adonis is Creed’s legitimate son), but it speaks to the specificity which Coogler (and co-writer Aaron Covington) bring to the project, harkening back to the franchise’s storied past for dramatic weight as well as nostalgic payoffs for fans with good memories.
– One of the more stylized moments of “Creed” comes when Adonis takes a brutal shot from “Pretty” Ricky Conlon in their final fight. Knocked briefly unconscious, Baby Creed’s body falls to the canvas like a stiff, lifeless board, sparking memories of his father’s final fall after Ivan Drago delivered a deadly blow. They’re not exactly the same, but given all the talk at the beginning of the film about the risks involved with boxing — namely, that you can die in the ring — the new scene seems too similar not to be linked to the old. Of course, Adonis’ flashbacks to his mother, Bianca, Rocky and his father are classic pre-comeback “Rocky” moments, appearing in many of the previous films.
Adonis’ Final Run
– While it’s certainly obvious that Adonis’ slow-motion, adrenaline-fueled run through the streets of Philadelphia is meant to harken back to Rocky’s own lengthy run through the streets of brotherly love, the addition of the young cyclists following and then surrounding him makes it more specifically relevant to “Rocky II,” when Rock led an army of children up the steps of the art museum before being surrounded by them while jumping and punching at the top. Coogler makes the scene its own experience in “Creed,” so much so you kind of have to want to see it to make the connection to other films.
Adonis’ Cut Man
– “Stich,” the corner man Rocky introduces to Adonis before his first real fight, is played by Jacob “Stitch” Duran, who has a number of screen credits but only one that really matters. Duran plays the same character in “Creed” as he did in “Rocky Balboa,” only in the 2006 film he was on the other side of things. That’s right. He helped train Mason “The Line” Dixon to beat up an aging Rocky. It’s a good thing he was there for Mason, though, as Rock dropped a number of “hurtin’ bombs” that needed some quick, healing hands.
– We already went over the relevance of the third fight between Apollo and Rocky and how it connects to “Creed,” but Rocky asking Baby Creed for a favor the night before the title bout was reminiscent of when Papa Creed asked Rocky for the same before his second showdown with Clubber Lang (Mr. T). That favor? The third fight. This one? Walking the steps.
Rocky’s Graveyard Chair, Hat Restaurant, Glasses, etc.
– There are a number of commonalities between “Creed” and past “Rocky” films that come down to continuity of character. They aren’t really references, unless you count the Iron Man suit in “Iron Man 2” as a reference to “Iron Man.” So the fact that Rocky wears the same hat he’s always worn or his glasses are the same old lady frames we got a chuckle out of during “Rocky Balboa” wouldn’t “count” toward this list. Nor would the restaurant he owns, Adrian’s, that was also first established in the sixth film. But our favorite of what we’re only mentioning for fun — and the most quintessentially Rocky of them all — is the chair he keeps at Adrian’s grave. Perhaps this is more common of a practice than we’re aware of, but Rocky stuffing a folding chair in the branches of a tree for his daily visits to Adrian (and Paulie) is so trusting, so sweet and so practical it simply screams “Rocky!” And it should be noted that these little touches make us want to come back for more just as much as the rest.
HBO & Digital Integration
– One of the biggest shifts in tone between “Rocky IV” (or “Rocky V,” if you want to count that disaster) and “Rocky Balboa” was Stallone’s emphasis on realism. Keeping in mind how hard it was for many to believe a 60-year-old man could fight professionally, let alone the reigning heavyweight champion, Stallone made sure to ground the film in an emotional and physical truth. If you watch the final fight closely, you’ll notice all the punches land. If you watch casually, you can see the difference between this and every other “Rocky” fight. Gone are the wild (and plentiful) haymakers. You won’t see any over-stylized punches, as “Rocky Balboa” was all about authenticity — or, as much as they could get away with.
To wit, Stallone also changed film stock for the majority of the film’s finale. Rather than shoot it like all the others, he made it look like an HBO broadcast, complete with digital presentation, announcers, logos, et al. Graphics popped up on the screen when fighters entered the arena; not to the same extent as in “Creed,” where Coogler throws in a fighter’s record, class and more even during non-televised fights. Still, the final bout feels both familiar and distinct (like a lot of “Creed”), in part because of the integration of HBO Sports (which also popped up when Adonis watched a video of Conlon on his iPad, nicely narrated by Liev Schreiber) and general presentation. Is it a nod to “Rocky Balboa”; a smooth transition in style from the latest entry in the franchise before “Creed”? Maybe, maybe not. Coogler could have done it for the same reasons Stallone did. Either way, it works.
Adonis’ Punch Combination vs. Leo “The Lion” Sporino
– Perhaps it was Alberti’s stunning tracking shot, or the general intensity of Adonis’ first authorized boxing match, but we’re not positive which punch combination from “Rocky” or “Rocky II” matches the lethal combination that won Baby Creed his first fight. We do know, though, that Papa Creed unleashed something similar on Rocky with great effect because the Italian Stallion said as much when telling Adonis how to win his fight in “Creed.” We’ll be going back to the theater soon for more research, so stay tuned. Until then, feel free to tell us below.
Adonis’ Fighting Style vs. “Pretty” Ricky Conlon
– “The body, the body, the body!” Mickey’s screams during “Superfight” and “Superfight II” were echoing in our minds as Adonis used the strategy of his father’s adversary to chop down his own opponent. Forced into taking a beating to work his way inside against the faster, long-armed Conlon, Adonis keeps tapping his torso until Rocky yells, “Timber!” (Okay, not really, but if Rock took boxing as lightly as he does everyday life, couldn’t you hear him saying that?) Rocky did the same thing in his day — which does beg the question: Was this the only strategy Adonis could use, or merely the only one the thick-headed southpaw knows how to teach?
What references did we miss? Tell us your favorites in the comments below.