Ranking Rocky’s and Creed’s toughest opponents
From viewing the “Creed II” trailer alone, Ivan Drago’s son, Viktor Drago, played by Florian Munteanu, looks to be one of the toughest opponents in the “Rocky/Creed” series. That being said, he’s just the next in line of a long history of formidable foes that have challenged Rocky Balboa and now, Adonis Creed. With “Creed II” hitting theaters nationwide Wednesday, Sporting News decided to rank the opponents that Balboa and Creed have faced through the years. After watching “Creed II,” we’ll circle back and see where Drago’s kid lands.
If you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Who the hell is Spider Rico?’ chances are you don’t really know the “Rocky” series as good as you thought you did. Early into the original “Rocky,” back in 1976, we see Rocky Balboa fighting Spider Rico in something out of a dingy, sticky bingo hall. Mickey might have called “Rico” a bum — sort of a Brooklyn Brawler out of WWE type of gatekeeper — unimpressed with Rocky knocking him out, but Spider Rico was scrappy. That we could give him.
Working his way up the ranks, young Adonis Creed gets a game test against Leo “The Lion” Sporino, who’s played by real-life boxer Gabriel Rosado, in “Creed” (2015). Although Sporino provides worthy competition, he was no match for the real young lion, Creed, who’s equipped with a healthy chip on his shoulder to prove he’s cut from the same champion lineage of his father. Taking heed from Rocky yelling “Now! Now!” in his corner, Creed landed a vicious uppercut and followed it up with a right hook to end the night for Sporino and notch his first win. “We got one, Rock!”
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Unable to maintain the lavish lifestyle that came with being a world champion, Rocky finds himself back in the neighborhood in “Rocky V.” There, he befriends an up-and-coming talent, Tommy “Machine” Gunn. But when Gunn, played by the late Tommy Morrison, rolls with Don King-like promoter George Washington Duke, he becomes envious and obsessed with the idea of fighting his former mentor Balboa. Gunn wound up having a street fight with Rocky, who used his grown-man strength and experience to put Gunn down.
Young Adonis had just stepped into his uncle’s gym and didn’t waste time laying down a challenge. “Here are the keys to my ’Stang right here,” Creed said. “All you got to do is land one clean head shot.” Just like that, Kevin “The Bank” Grier stepped right up and answered the call. Seconds later, though, he was looking up at the gym’s lights, as the recipient from a left-right combination from Creed. “Which one of your killers in here next? You pick who’s next,” Creed barked to his uncle. That’s when Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler confidently said, “I’m next,” forgoing any warmup routine and declining to tap gloves with Creed before their sparring session began. This time, Adonis bit off more leather than he could chew, as the savvy, more experienced Wheeler took him apart surgically, ducking under a left hook and landing a right cross to finish the round in seconds. Wheeler wound up leaving the gym with a new Mustang, courtesy of Creed. About as cool, calm and collected as the man who played him — retired pound-for-pound boxing king, Andre Ward. Undefeated even in the movies.
It had been 16 years since the last “Rocky” movie, “Rocky V,” came out before the series returned to add yet another installment. “Rocky Balboa,” in 2006, had a simple, yet intriguing plot: Reigning boxing champion Mason “The Line” Dixon, played by former lightweight and cruiserweight champ Antonio Tarver, watches footage of a retired Balboa defeating him in an ESPN simulation and decides to challenge the legend. Billed as Rock’s final fight, he comes out of retirement and takes a beating — but dishes one out, too. At the end, Dixon’s hand is raised via split-decision, but Rock, much older now, once again won some respect.
Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki had punished Muhammad Ali in an exhibition match with kicks, sending the heavyweight boxing champion to the hospital for treatment over blood clots that had developed in his legs as a result of the unexpected abuse. That was back in 1976. Six years later in 1982, “Rocky III” had art imitating life, pitting Balboa against Thunderlips, who was played by Hulk Hogan. The colossal pro wrestler, who declared himself as “The Ultimate Male,” towered over Balboa. It didn’t take long for spectators to realize that this was going to be anything, but a charity match, as Thunderlips pummeled his smaller opponent, even giving him Hogan’s signature finishing moves in the form of a big boot and leg drop. It took Rocky peeling off his gloves, locking Thunderlips in a chokehold and bodyslamming him out of the ring for the match to be declared a draw. The larger-than-life figures then posed for a photo. “Sometimes charity really hurts,” Rocky said to Thunderlips, ending the memorable scene.
The icy, stone-cold stare that Ivan Drago shot Balboa after literally beating Apollo Creed to death in what was supposed to be a charity match paved the way for this bout between Rocky and the Russian in “Rocky IV.” Rocky had to avenge his late opponent, friend and mentor’s death by any means necessary — even if it meant holding a training camp in Russia during the middle of an unforgiving winter. While training, we learn that Drago got to be the unstoppable force he is by using performance-enhancing drugs. That made the staredown, while the ref read the fighters the rules, all the more chilling when Drago tells Rocky, “I must break you,” pounding down on Balboa’s gloves. Rocky manages to endure punishment to dish out his own heavy dosage, enough to win over the Moscow crowd on Christmas Day in the process. Still, Drago was one intimidating dude — perhaps the most intimidating that the “Rocky/Creed” series has ever seen.
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Ricky Conlan went by the moniker “Pretty” in Creed. But what he really brought to the table was guile — and plenty of it. Too much experience for Creed. Although Creed lost the fight via split decision, he won all the respect from the veteran and the boxing world, paving the way for the sequel. This fight was arguably the best looking the “Rocky/Creed” series ever featured.
It was supposed to be a retirement press conference, highlighted by the unveiling of Rocky Balboa’s own statue in Philadelphia. But boy, oh boy, did Clubber Lang crash the party and change all that, telling Rocky’s fans that the “Italian Stallion” had been ducking him, the No. 1 contender. What put Rock over the edge was Clubber telling Rocky’s wife, Adrian: “Hey, woman — listen here, since your old man ain’t got no heart, maybe you’d like to see a real man. I bet you stay up late every night dreaming you had a real man, don’t you? I tell you what: Bring your pretty lil’ self over to my apartment tonight and I’ll show you a real man.” Just like that, Clubber Lang had invaded the psyche of Rocky, renting out real estate in his mind in “Rocky III.” And that was only confounded by a pre-fight scuffle, which led to Rocky’s trainer, Mickey, falling and suffering a heart attack, eventually leading to his death. Clearly not in a good head space, Rock goes into the fight preoccupied, and it cost him the world championship, as Clubber hit him with everything he had, before crumpling the champ with a crushing left hook. And Lang added insult to injury, talking to Rocky the entire way through — something Mr. T was brilliant in doing. Just like Mick had warned Rocky about, Lang was a “wrecking machine” with his power shots. Without Mick by his side, Rocky’s first major opponent, Apollo Creed, trains Balboa, helping him to exact sweet revenge on Clubber by letting his larger opponent wear himself out and taking advantage. Though the rope-a-dope strategy worked and Rocky let Lang know “you ain’t so bad” while doing it, Clubber was one bad man.
Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, had it all: The speed, agility and ability to dance light on his feet in the ring, the high boxing IQ to pick his shots with that long jab and the power to do damage. Plus, he looked good doing it all. The original “Rocky” had Apollo sitting on top of the world and looking for a challenge, thumbing through a fighters’ directory and stopping at the name “The Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa. That paved the way for the heavy favorite, Creed, giving the huge underdog, Rocky, a shot of a lifetime. Both of their bouts, in “Rocky” and “Rocky II,” stand as arguably the best fights of the entire series. And that’s a tip of the cap to the one and only Apollo Creed. That’s why he’s No. 1 on our list as the best opponent in the “Rocky/Creed” series. After all, if it wasn’t for Apollo, there’d be no Adonis.
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