My buddy Shawn*: “Have I talked to you about the idea the Apollo Creed was probably the best boxer of all time? And would you watch a prequel about him?”
No you have not, and yes I would.
Creed was 33 when he fought against Rocky Balboa in 1976. The 6’2” undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion had been in 46 professional bouts, winning each by knockout.
These are incredible numbers, of course. Creed was a masterful fighter, an incredible showman, and an accomplished businessman. He had few weaknesses and many strengths. Clearly he was a once-in-a-generation fighter. But he wasn’t perfect.
He must have been a prodigy and accomplished amateur. Let’s assume he fought in the 1960 Olympics in Rome (Aug. 25-Sep. 11), just days after turning 17. He lost** and began fighting as a professional later that year. He then averaged three fights/wins/KO’s per year for the next 15 years.
He had millions of fans and was probably the most famous athlete in the world. He was cocky, outspoken and wealthy. But he was humble, he never dodged a fight, he knew where he came from and gave young fighters a chance. He had a great career and was a great man; but was he the greatest?
Part of determining if he was the greatest boxer of all-time is deciding which boxers don’t exist*** in the Rockiverse. Obviously, Ali**** (That [sort of] rhymes). Based on his performance against Balboa, when the Dancing Destroyer should have been in the prime of his career, he would have had no chance against Frazier OR Foreman.
Frazier was relentless. The only thing that could keep him at bay was length and Creed had none of that. The King of Sting had power, but Frazier had granite chin. No contest. Frazier by knockout, so Frazier never existed.
If there’s one thing we know about Creed, it’s that he can’t handle southpaws. If there are two things, the second is that when he gets hit in the mouth, his game plan goes out the window, he flips into survival mode, he drops his hands, and he throws punches like a hummingbird. “Master of Disaster” was not a nickname he earned. If Foreman landed one shot, he would land his next 10. Then Creed would drop dead. Foreman did not exist.
Leaving all other fighters and their records untouched, and pretending those three fought in a parallel universe, we can begin to make comparisons.
His record ranks near the top, with his KO totals pushing him into elite company. But how would he really be remembered? What is his legacy?
When Joe Frazier died a few months ago, 4,000 people went to his funeral. When Creed died, there were only a few dozen in attendance. In less than a decade since his first defeat, his legend and legions had disappeared. If he was truly such a great fighter, as his record seemed to show, why was he forgotten so quickly?
In Rocky III, Creed brings the Stallion to train at the Tough Gym in LA. Though Apollo is welcomed, he is mostly ignored by his African-American peers. They respect him, but they keep him at a distance.
I’ll go a step further: Creed was disliked by the African-American community and treasured by white America.
In the first Rocky film, Creed is clearly a national figure. He is cheered everywhere he goes, welcomed to appear on TV whenever he pleases and sets the boxing schedule. But is this just white America? His manager is white. The fight promoters are all white. Most of the crowd is white. When he’s given a chance to pick his underdog, unknown opponent, he chooses “the Italian Stallion” instead of using the opportunity to promote a new black fighter. Before the first fight, he dresses as George Washington instead of Abraham Lincoln or a historically prominent African-American.
During Rocky’s training, he is cheered and showered with praise. Chants of “you can do it, Rock” rain down upon him from all races. The African Americans in his neighborhood wanted a white guy to beat Creed.
Ali is regarded as the finest boxer of all time because he was a phenomenal fighter, and because he had such a complete and diverse fan base. He appealed to everyone, and everyone loved him. Creed does not have this appeal. White America loved him, until he lost, and black America tolerated him.
Surely he’d had an impressive rise to the top, but who did he step on to get there? In an era just after the civil rights movement, why were all of his handlers white?
He had a great career, but he was far from the best. And I would totally pay to find out why not.
*Henceforth known as MBS.
**Probably before the medal round, as his amateur accomplishments are never mentioned as part of his resume.
***For comparison sake, their careers exist, but the concept of fighting Creed was unimaginable.
****This would have been a solid fight, but I think Ali would get the win. He has a significant reach advantage, even if he was only an inch taller. The fighters were similarly quick, and Creed must have had fairly good power if he was able to knock out 46 professional fighters, so we’ll call that a push as well. Ali was known for his ability to win the fight before he entered the ring, but Creed was an impressive showman himself, so to me there’s no clear advantage there either. The difference would be Ali’s defensive skills. Creed managed to avoid some of Balboa’s wild haymakers, but struggled for much of the fight, particularly when he began to tire. Young Ali was untouchable, and Old Ali had a knack for wearing his opponents down without absorbing catastrophic damage. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, but it would end with Ali on top.