‘Creed III’ Puts Messianic Masculinity in the Ring | Sojourners

‘Creed III’ Puts Messianic Masculinity in the Ring

Photo by Eli Ade / MGM

In my mid-20s, I saw George Foreman speak at a conference. He was a household name to my generation more for his eponymous grill than his boxing prowess. But at that conference, he spoke about his legendary career in the ring, and to this day, his confession changed my regard for the sport of boxing. He spoke about growing up abused and angry, and how boxing became an outlet for him. He won a gold medal at the 1968 Olympics and stunned the world five years later by knocking out (then-undefeated) Joe Frazier in the second round. He was a juggernaut who, by his own admission, won by channeling all his rage into his fists.

But then came 1974’s “Rumble in the Jungle,” when Foreman faced Muhammad Ali — and Ali knocked him out. Foreman confessed that, after that fight, he came to realize that he “fights angry” and, by doing so, “profanes the noble sport of boxing.”

The Rumble in the Jungle is not subtext in Creed III. In a flashback that introduces us to Damian (played as an adult by Jonathan Majors), Adonis Creed (played as an adult by Michael B. Jordan) offers his friend and mentor a piece of memorabilia he’d swiped from his father’s boxing collection: an original ticket to the Rumble in the Jungle. First-time director Jordan has a lot to say about masculinity, particularly Black masculinity. Ultimately, Creed III offers a hopeful vision of a future for Black men that doesn’t live in the shadow of white supremacy. That hope comes from fighting fueled not by anger, but careful, considered, and courageous vulnerability.

Creed III is the ninth film in the Rocky franchise. The first four films focused on Rocky Balboa and his relationship to Apollo Creed. Adonis Creed, the star of the three Creed films, is Apollo’s son (born out of wedlock). Whatever else the first Rocky film is, it embodies a reactionary white supremacist response to the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s. Historian and activist Ibram X. Kendi explains this well in his book Stamped from the Beginning:

Rocky portrayed a poor, kind, slow-talking, slow-punching, humble, hard-working, steel-jawed Italian journeyman boxer in Philadelphia facing off against the unkind, fast-talking, fast-punching, cocky African American World Heavy Champion. Rocky’s opponent, Apollo Creed … symbolized the empowerment movements, the rising Black middle class, and the real-life heavy-weight champion of the world in 1976, the pride of Black Power masculinity, Muhammad Ali. Rocky Balboa … came to symbolize the pride of White supremacist masculinity’s refusal to be knocked out from the avalanche of civil rights and Black Power protests and policies.

The Creed franchise cannot help but participate in this conversation, and in Creed III, Jordan does not shy away. He bobs and weaves among many topics that weigh particularly heavily on Black men in the U.S.: fatherhood, the foster care system, incarceration, and Black excellence. Any one of these issues is complex and multifaceted, so Jordan dodges and weaves, taking pointed shots and moving on, allowing his characters to grapple with these issues without settling for easy answers themselves.

Spoilers follow

Creed III opens in the past, where we see Adonis sneaking out of his Bel-Air mansion to accompany Damian to an amateur boxing match. The two boys met in a group home, before Apollo’s widow discovered Adonis’ existence and adopted him into her home. After Damian’s victory — like Foreman, he’s a young Golden Glove champion — the boys encounter their old foster father, a man who was abusive. The ensuing conflict lands Damian in jail after Adonis flees into the night.

But that is the past. In the present, Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed is the retired unified heavyweight champion of the world. He divides his day between training up the next generation of boxing legends, supporting his multi-gold-record-winning wife, Bianca (Tessa Thompson, whose undeniable charisma makes much of a thin supporting role) and raising their deaf daughter (newcomer Mila Davis-Kent, who is also deaf).

Soon we learn that Damian, just released from prison, is hungry to make up for the years he lost to a prison cell. Donnie feels guilty for having forgotten Damian, but rather than apologize, he offers help, ultimately putting Damian in the ring against Donnie’s current protégé and heavyweight champ, whom Damian nearly kills in a brutal, dirty fight.

But while there’s plenty of boxing in Creed III (all slickly directed), and the requisite montages, the real heart of this film is Adonis’ struggle to find a vision for flourishing that makes room for Damian. Though they came up together, the two men walked radically different paths, and Adonis struggles to imagine a world where those paths converge once more in friendship.

In this journey, Jordan offers a provocative vision of masculinity that’s not formed by nor beholden to violence to thrive. The vision is apparent, first, in Adonis’ home, which has been designed wholly and completely for his daughter. Adonis is a father who is unashamed of his daughter’s deafness; he has reshaped his life to center her.

But Adonis isn’t perfect; he’s on a journey. His marriage to Bianca is good and strong — until Damian’s arrival summons up a lot of trauma and guilt. Despite Bianca begging Adonis to communicate with her, to let her help shoulder this burden, Adonis remains closed off. Jordan displays an agonized Adonis, one who is poisoned by the versions of masculinity he’s learned to emulate. 

There’s a particular sequence in the final fight that worked for me: The crowds, the refs, the noise all fade away; all the focus is on Adonis and Damian in the ring. Damian is Foreman, fueled by anger, convinced he can beat the world into submission, make it pay for the life it stole from him. There’s nothing noble about Damian’s techniques; he embodies the perception of brutality and cruelty that outsiders (like me) have of boxing.

Against him is Adonis, the child of Apollo/Ali. Adonis is a much more technical, controlled fighter. Adonis illustrates why 19th-century journalist Pierce Egan called boxing the “sweet science.” The greatest boxer is controlled, strategic, and careful. Unlike every other film in this franchise, Adonis never wavers. He stands against Damian blow for blow, and the outcome is never in question.

In this way, Adonis becomes a sort of messiah, the one who will allow Damian to exhaust his anger upon his friend. John’s Gospel presents Jesus as wholly in control of his fate. When Pilate confronts Jesus, he informs the Roman governor that, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (19:11). When he dies, John tells us “he gave up his spirit.” As N. T. Wright writes in Evil and the Justice of God, “Jesus suffers the full consequences of evil … he does so precisely as the act of redemption, of taking that downward fall and exhausting it, so that there may be new creation, new covenant, forgiveness, freedom and hope.” Jesus models the same gentle, strategic deployment of power we see in Adonis’ fight with Damian. Adonis doesn’t box from anger, but for his friend. He boxes to save Damian.

It’s only after Damian has exhausted his anger that he can hear Adonis’ apology. It’s only after Damian has exhausted his rage that he can imagine a new future where he and Adonis are friends once more. He is finally able to look at Adonis, see the boys they both were, and say, “It wasn’t on you, Donnie.”

I found it remarkable that Creed III ends with the two men as friends. But I couldn’t help but think back to Foreman, confessing his own rage and anger, believing it profaned the noble sport of boxing. Foreman couldn’t be a true champion until he learned to fight with skill and patience, not unchecked rage. So, too, perhaps our resistance to the evils of the world must be fueled not by righteous rage, but channeled into considered, thoughtful, and pointed resistance.

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