An homage to Apollo Creed and the actor who played him, Carl Weathers

Sadness hits how it hits, when it hits, and there’s no telling why or when things impact you so.

Hearing that Carl Weathers, the former Oakland Raiders linebacker turned actor, known best for playing Apollo Creed in the “Rocky” movies, died in his sleep at 76 Friday … it hit hard. It recalled a time and place where seeing Weathers on a big screen, hair perfectly coifed, playing the role of Creed, who barely held on to his title against the prohibitive underdog Rocky Balboa, made the movies come alive.

And it forced me to choose.

But first, have there been many cinematic foils to the purported hero better than Apollo Creed in recent memory? I mean, was there a groundswell of people in theaters rooting for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, James Bond’s nemesis of the last half-century? Denzel Washington’s Detective Alonzo Harris is (sort of) the villain in “Training Day,” but even Ethan Hawke wouldn’t argue that his Jake Hoyt character lives in the collective American mind as vividly as Rocky.

There have been better films than the original “Rocky” and, to be sure, much better sequels. But the original was pretty damned good. It was, clearly, Sylvester Stallone’s opus, the thing for which he will be remembered above all else. And it’s a righteous work. It is impossible not to like Rocky Balboa, who only wants to prove he’s worthy in a world that thinks him worthless. And out of the blue, he receives an opportunity to stand up and be seen on his merits. Thinking it too much, he initially says no. But then, well, you know how things turned out.

But there is no “Rocky” without Apollo Creed and all that he stood for through four “Rocky” films until he was killed by Ivan Drago during an exhibition fight in “Rocky IV.” And there would be no series of successful “Creed” films with Michael B. Jordan starring as Apollo’s son, Adonis, without the powerful memory of the father anchoring the plot.

Weathers made liking Apollo easy.


Carl Weathers, Apollo Creed in ‘Rocky,’ dies at 76

His on-screen persona always was amiable — even when characters like in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film “Predator” weren’t. He was in “Semi-Tough” and  “Happy Gilmore” and “Toy Story” and “The Mandalorian” and “Arrested Development” — a working actor throughout his career — and was most recently in the Rob Gronkowski FanDuel commercials leading up to Gronk’s “Kick of Destiny II” bit that will conclude during the Super Bowl. Weathers never got into X (formerly Twitter) fights and always signed off with those who disagreed with him, “#BePeace.”

Apollo Creed was a Muhammad Ali knockoff. We all got it. The braggadocio, the preening in the ring, the verbal banter outside of it. Ali, a born showman, could hype a fight better than any man who ever lived, and he was profound about much more important things in imperfect English. In the time we saw him on-screen, Creed was a savvy businessman as well as a legendary undefeated fighter.

Weathers was so convincing. At the time, I didn’t know he’d played parts of two seasons with the Raiders after coming out of San Diego State, where he played for Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell.

Weathers was one of several Black former NFL players who turned to acting during that time: Jim Brown, of course, but also Bernie Casey, Fred Williamson, Rosey Grier and others. That athletic background gave them all a grace on the screen, whether in film or on TV, at a time when Black actors were trying desperately to be seen in films that truly represented our condition in America. This was barely a decade out from the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. There was nothing certain about how Black people were going to be treated in this country. Seeing strong men in non-“Blaxploitation” films still was not common.

Here, then, was Apollo Creed. The champ. One of the best to ever put on a pair of gloves. (Asked to say something derogatory about Creed by a reporter in “Rocky II,” Rocky pauses for a moment. “Derogatory? Yeah. He’s great.”)

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Carl Weathers and Sylvester Stallone together during the “Creed” movie premiere in 2015. (Eric Charbonneau / Getty Images for Warner Bros)

Smart, handsome and the self-proclaimed “Master of Disaster,” Creed doesn’t take Rocky seriously until he is almost knocked cold in the first round by a leaping left hand from the underdog southpaw. The next 14-plus rounds then become a test. Can Apollo “finish this bum,” as his trainer exhorts, or will Rocky be able to go the distance, which no one had done with Creed? (The notion of Rocky actually winning the fight is dismissed almost the second Creed beats the 10-count after being knocked down.)

And this is where it got complicated.

Stallone came up with the idea of Rocky after watching Chuck Wepner, the “Bayonne Bleeder,” fight Ali in Cleveland in 1975. Wepner had limited ability, but he was in the top 10 when he took the fight. Nonetheless, he was a 10-1 underdog. Ali controlled the fight, though Wepner scored a ninth-round knockdown of the champ; Ali says, with some justification, that Wepner stepped on his foot when he punched him, and Ali lost his balance and fell. At any rate, Wepner made it into the final round before being stopped by TKO.

Wepner also was the latest in a line of “great White hopes” who were occasionally propped up to fight Black champions. It is a cynical thing, the great White hope; it diminishes the man who willingly wears or is given the sobriquet. But to deny its presence in heavyweight fights — from Wepner-Ali to Peter McNeely-Mike Tyson to Gerry Cooney-Larry Holmes — is to ignore American history. There are segments of the populace who root for the White man to win the fight because he is White … and who root for the Black man to beat the White man because he is Black.

And here came Rocky and Apollo.

Round after round, pummeling one another, Rocky battering Creed’s ribs, Creed snapping jab after jab into Rocky’s face. Deep into the fight — the “championship rounds,” as Jim Lampley used to call the last three rounds of fights — and, in those days, that meant the 13th, 14th and 15th rounds.

Clearly, though, as the movie was called “Rocky” and not “Apollo,” we followed the former’s arc for two hours. We saw his gentle courtship of Adrian, the otherwise forgettable employee at a pet store. We saw him try to move beyond his life as a leg breaker for Tony Gazzo, the loan shark. We saw him make amends with Mick, the hard-boiled trainer who belittles him and his dreams for the first half of the film, then comes, hat in hand, to ask to be his manager after he gets the title shot. We saw him, famously, finally get into tiptop shape.

You’re supposed to root for Rocky.

Unless you’re an 11-year-old Black kid sitting in the theater.

That kid was conflicted.

Of course I liked Rocky. He was eminently likable. And almost everyone in the theater was pulling for him. But Apollo was the guy who looked like me. For whom was I supposed to root? Or, to cry for if he lost? So, as the last round began, I wasn’t sure what to do.

I just watched.

In the end, of course, Rocky wins by simply surviving. He becomes the best version of himself, to be celebrated, because he did what no one else had done with Creed — go the distance. He yells at a reporter afterward, “There ain’t gonna be no rematch!” as he searches for Adrian. He has won the love of a good woman, and that is all he needs.

Apollo Creed, at least that night, left with the belt. And that made me happy.

But it made me have to choose. And, as I knew I had to choose, that made me sad.

You learn things in the strangest places, and you don’t forget them, even years later, after Rocky and Apollo became good and close friends.

Be peace, Mr. Weathers. Be peace.

(Top photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

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