By Kate Aguilar
In the 2014 documentary Champs, director Bert Marcus interviews boxing legends Evander Holyfield, Bernard Hopkins, and Mike Tyson, providing an intimate look at how race, class, gender, and place converge in the making of a boxing superstar. The film begins with a voiceover from Philadelphia native Bernard Hopkins’ trainer, Naazim Richardson. Hopkins successfully defended his title twenty times in the 1990s and early 2000s as the middleweight champion of the world. (In October of 2014, he was the oldest champion in the history of the sport at 49.) And, yet, Richardson proclaims, “The ultimate opponent is actually truth…” The film then explores how these three Black men redefined their historical “truths,” overcoming extreme poverty and personal and professional adversity to become champs. Chairman of the Nevada Athletic Commission Francisco Aguilar adds, “If you look at the history of boxing over time, you’ll see some of the cultures and ethnicities that have suffered the most have always produced the greatest champions.”
To fully appreciate the film Creed (2015), the seventh installment in the widely-popular Rocky series, it is important to acknowledge the significance of Black culture and Black boxers like Holyfield, Hopkins, and Tyson to the sport and their glaring absence in films on boxing. In ESPN’s “50 Greatest Boxers of All-Time,” for example, four of the top five boxers are Black. An analysis of Philadelphia’s boxing history, the setting of the Rocky franchise, revealed seven of the top ten boxers as Black. It is somewhat curious then that of the top boxing films White men have most often dominated the storyline. In an article on “The Top 25 Boxing Movies of All Time,” for instance, only six of the films had Black male boxers as leads.
This is not to say, of course, that White leads did not spar with Black opponents, but such storylines were most often used to highlight White masculine anxieties and underscore and uphold White male dominance. Scholar Brett Conway argues, “Rocky, in every one of the five films, does battle against an Other: the black boxers Apollo Creed (twice) and Clubber Lang, the Soviet Ivan Drago, and the black promoter, George Washington Duke. For America to regain its glory, to overcome its traumas, the Rocky series argues, the Other must be destroyed.” In the sixth installment, Rocky Balboa (2006), Rocky faces Black boxer Mason “the Line” Dixon, more memorable for his braggadocio than his skill. The fact that the Rocky franchise almost always takes on a certain archetype of the Black athlete may not be surprising considering the first film premiered in 1976 during a decade when disparate groups of White ethnics, Democrats, and working-class and middle-class men and women coalesced against a “long” Civil Rights Movement to form a New Right. It is impossible to separate Rocky’s battles with Black men and the Soviets from a national desire in the late twentieth-century to position White physically fit men as those most qualified to lead America, especially during and out of a Cold War.
Unlike such limited cinematic representations, boxing history has long recognized Black boxers as more than a side note but significant to the sport. The history of the sport is no stranger to the study of race, gender, class, and region through this lens in large part due to Elliott Gorn’s groundbreaking monograph The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (1986). Gorn was one of the first to “attempt to understand sport in a larger historical context.” Through his eclectic approach to prize fighting, including the disciplinary approaches of folklore, anthropology, sociology, and labor history, Gorn was able to explore what it meant to be a man in nineteenth century America. As historian Amy Bass contends, “Sports serve as a field – symbolic, historical, cultural, social, political – that transcends the game itself.”
Scholars of boxing have continued to grapple with how race, gender, class, and region have informed who enters the ring and what this tells us about the larger society. Kasia Boddy’s more recent cultural history of the sport, for example, explores how a 1988 Time magazine cover story identified Mike Tyson as a “jewel-encrusted King Kong” to play upon the anxieties and interests of White crowds. Jeffrey Sammons’ work, Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (1990), in contrast, looks at why Black boxers like Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali served as sources of pride for Black communities. The interplay of race, gender, and class has even led cultural critics like American author Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote On Boxing in 1987, to observe, “[The]history of boxing – of fighting – in America is very much one with the history of the black man in America.”
It is from this historical and cultural political context that Ryan Coogler’s Creed takes center stage. (Coogler is the acclaimed director of Fruitvale Station (2013); he pitched the idea for Creed to Sylvester Stallone in 2011.) The first Rocky film hit the big screen in 1976; it centered on the life of working-class Italian-American Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphian whose options were limited and yet because of his sheer determination gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship. He is noticed by reigning champ Apollo Creed, a Black boxer modeled after Muhammad Ali as made evident through his bombastic style. While the two later become friends, Rocky represents the American dream, the popular culture’s response to Black radicalism and the one most fit to lead in a Cold War as made clear by Creed’s death in a later installment while fighting Soviet Olympic boxer Ivan Drago. Apollo Creed thus serves as a cautionary tale.
Creed picks up with Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis “Donny” Johnson. The first scene occurs in a juvenile detention center where Donny is introduced as desperate to fight, even if it means living in literal and often emotional isolation. Creed resonates because it employs the Rocky-isms of the past. (To date, it has grossed 103.5 million dollars against a 35 million dollar budget.) There is a predictable yet commanding scene, for example, when Donny is training with Rocky where Rocky makes him face himself in the mirror and states, “You see this guy here? That’s the toughest opponent you’re ever going to have to face. I believe that’s true in the ring, and I think that’s true in life. Now show me something.” While he speaks, the director focuses on two men in the scene: the real-life Donny and the image staring back at him. The reflected self is a powerful reminder of how we all must spar with our own “truths,” fears and failures that often get distorted and become larger-than-life in our minds.
It is here that Creed also does something far more daring than many of its counterparts, perhaps even more so because it breaks from the example of its own father figure the Rocky franchise. Creed employs the Rocky-isms of the past enveloped in the systemic failures of the present. Donny does not live in a vacuum. The image of himself is not just staring back at him but also at Rocky standing behind him, an important reminder of the dialogic nature of social construction and cultural identities in America. If the ultimate opponent is truth, the film recognizes that the fighter never battles himself alone, for his historical “truths” are intimately and intricately interwoven with society’s view of him. His image is interwoven with histories and, at times, historical inaccuracies that inform and distort racial, gendered, and sexual identities.
In this vein, Creed does far more than most critics recognize. In a review of the film, Yohana Desta explains, “But Coogler also brings something incredibly novel to the franchise, unapologetically creating a work that’s filtered through the lens of modern Black life in Philadelphia… In the same way that Rocky created a time capsule of Philadelphia in the late ‘70s, Coogler captures the city for the modern era….” What Desta fails to mention is that Black men were important to the city and the sport in the 1970s, as Hopkins points out in the documentary Champs. Creed is so impactful for the genre because it reminds America of how vital Black men are and have been to the world of boxing by connecting Donny to Apollo and both to the American landscape. Black men don’t choose boxing because they are necessarily inclined to box. As Chairman Francisco Aguilar mentioned, Black men often choose the sport because of their vulnerable position in society. America currently has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth and the largest incarceration rates in the developed world, both of which unevenly impact Black communities especially Black men.
And, yet, the film also dares to show Donny as more than Apollo’s son. He is the offspring of his mother and all Black men and women who enter the ring in search of personal and social acceptance. In perhaps one of the most emotional exchanges of the movie, Rocky asks Donny what he is trying to prove. To which he responds, “That I’m not an accident.” Donny’s parents are dead, but because of a rich benefactor he is raised in wealth in Los Angeles. Rocky reminds him of this almost immediately, the fact that he doesn’t have to fight, a commentary on social class and the sport. What Creed does so subtly and thus so deftly is remind an American audience that every Black man has to fight; whether rich or poor, straight or gay, alone or a part of a community, on some level each struggles for social acceptance and to redefine himself in a society that has defined its fears through him. Each Black man spars with the paternalistic and racial language of the nation-state.
Place also takes on a new meaning in the film. Roger Ebert observed that the first Rocky “inhabits a curiously deserted Philadelphia,” identifying his world as a “small one.” Cooger, on the other hand, grounds the boxer in place, reminding the audience of how important the physical and cultural space of “the ghetto” has been to the making of boxing champions. Holyfield, Hopkins, and Tyson all talk of how extreme poverty and place colored their worldview and decision to box. He then showcases Black life in North Philly, a racially and socially segregated section of the city that birthed Hopkins. While Donny trains, he is surrounded by Black youths on bikes, homage to Black culture through the Philly street scene. In doing so, Coogler does more than take on the Hollywood establishment, long criticized for its lack of diversity on screen; he also takes on Rocky’s America. He shows Black men and women, embodied by Donny’s love interest Bianca, as more than bombastic personalities, side notes to White sporting history and cultural and political advancement. He shows them as critical to the cultural richness of the city of Philadelphia, the sport, and thereby the nation-state.
The documentary Champs concludes with another trainer’s perspective, in which he contends, “This was the sport of kings. This sport changed history, man. This sport had more to do with the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement than any other sport, from Jack Johnson to Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali. This was the sport that was ingrained in the fabric of this country….” People of all races and creeds have undoubtedly contributed to boxing. But as Naazim Richardson proclaimed, “The ultimate opponent for a fighter is truth, if he can be truthful with himself, if he can look at his limitations and then work on them, if he can understand what he does well and then enhance it. But he has to deal in truth” (emphasis mine). Creed is an important film for fans and historians alike because while all races and creeds have participated in the sport it does not shy away from dealing with the truths behind why Black men fight, or how critical their fight has been to the development of boxing. It challenges those who document boxing on screen and in print to explore their stories, to recognize their vulnerabilities, and to celebrate their successes. In doing so, perhaps we all have a fighting chance at improving the nation that births such champions.
Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Connecticut where she studies racial formation, gender, sport, and political culture in the post-1945 U.S. Taking as a lens the University of Miami’s football team, the Hurricanes, her dissertation analyzes the central place of the sport and the city to the 1980s development of the New Right; a focus that makes evident the significance of the Global South and the diverse racial, national, and transnational histories of South Florida and the Caribbean to Ronald Reagan’s particular brand of conservatism and the masculine national identity it fostered. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.