Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Apollo Creed For Losing To Rocky Balboa

ESPN Classic viewers enjoy regular installments of the Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame… series, hosted by Brian Kenny. Each episode focuses on a player or organization that has been widely blamed for a notable sports failure. Examples include Mike Tyson for losing to Buster Douglas, Bill Buckner for the Red Sox’ 1986 World Series defeat, and numerous others. The show examines other factors contributing to the failure and counts down the top five reasons you cannot blame the subject for the unsatisfactory outcome.

Today I will expand this approach to an athlete from the big screen. In the mid-1970s, Apollo Creed towered over the sports world as the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion. Creed knocked out one foe after another while displaying an unparalleled sense of showmanship. This dominance was disrupted in stunning fashion as Creed needed a split decision to escape against an obscure Philadelphia club fighter named Rocky Balboa. An even bigger shock came in the rematch, when Balboa scored a knockout to claim the championship belt. Fans and the sports media derided Creed for losing his title - and his aura of invincibility - against a seemingly inferior opponent.

However, a closer examination reveals numerous other factors contributing to the upset. I may not change your mind about Creed’s role in his defeat, but at least I hope to provide you with something to think about. Before I get to the top five reasons you can’t blame Creed, here are reasons that did not make the list – the “Best of the Rest”:

He Didn’t Want a Rematch: As the final bell sounded during their first bout, Creed told Balboa, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” To which Balboa replied, “Don’t want one.” If the rematch indeed had never happened, Rocky never would have won the belt from Apollo.

The Art Museum: Before the first fight, Balboa took solitary runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The second time around, Rocky was joined on the run by a mob of children, who jumped up and down with him at the top of the steps. So when Balboa entered the ring, it was as if he had all those kids at his side. There’s no way Creed could pummel all of them at once.

And now, the top five reasons you can’t blame Apollo Creed for losing to Rocky Balboa.

Reason #5: Mickey. It’s common knowledge that a boxer’s ideal trainer is a tough-love curmudgeon with his last chance at being part of something special. Creed did not have the luxury of a crazy old geezer ordering him to chase a chicken while barking, “If you catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning!” Rocky’s relationship with his trainer provided the inspiration for Toni Basil’s smash hit Mickey, whose original lyrics began, “Yo Mickey I’m in need, help me beat Apollo Creed, Yo Mickey (clap-clap-clap-clap), Yo Mickey (clap-clap-clap-clap).”

Reason #4: The Ghost of Marciano. Rocky Marciano was the only heavyweight champion to retire with an unblemished record, finishing his career at 49-0. Whenever someone comes close to matching his record, that fighter loses. Larry Holmes was 48-0 when he suffered an upset loss to Michael Spinks in 1985. Similarly, Apollo Creed entered his rematch with Balboa at 47-0. Marciano may have died in 1969, but his spirit made sure that he would not be surpassed. Somehow Balboa had just enough energy to rise from the canvas while Creed was counted out. Even from beyond the grave, one Rocky was able to help another.

Reason #3: Philly Sports Jinx Not Yet in Effect. The Creed-Balboa rematch hit the big screen in 1979. The Flyers had captured the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975, the Phillies would win their only World Series in 1980, and Moses Malone would lead the Sixers to the promised land in 1983. However, the city’s major professional sports teams have been shut out since then, and no Big 5 program has even reached the Final Four since Villanova’s 1985 national title. So today the Italian Stallion would be pounded into submission shortly after the opening bell. But back then, he enjoyed a home ring advantage at the Spectrum. The crowd was against Creed as if he were wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, and in between rounds Apollo’s corner was disrupted by the antics of the Phillie Phanatic.

Reason #2: Adrian’s Coma. Any fighter is destined to triumph when his wife emerges from a coma and tells him to win. Adrian entered the coma after giving premature birth to the couple’s baby boy. Rocky was completely despondent over her condition and lost all interest in the fight. However, when Adrian emerged and told him to win for her, Rocky embraced his training regimen with unprecedented passion. Creed lacked a similar source of inspiration. His wife should have entered a coma so that her husband could experience such a spark when she emerged. Apollo suffered dearly due to Mrs. Creed’s selfish non-coma policy.

Reason #1: Academy Voters. Rocky won the 1976 Best Picture Oscar over such enduring classics as Network and Taxi Driver. The award ensured that film audiences would be treated to another Creed-Balboa matchup. With high box office prospects looming for this fight and others in the future, Rocky’s ascension to the heavyweight throne was inevitable. Afterwards Apollo saw the writing on the wall, realizing that the Italian Stallion’s reign would endure as long as the box office remained strong. So Creed decided to act as an inspiration to his former foe. He helped Balboa regain the “eye of the tiger” and defeat the fearsome Clubber Lang. Later he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, dying at the hands of Soviet hitting machine Ivan Drago. In honor of his fallen friend, Rocky subsequently defeated Drago and touched the Soviet crowd’s emotions with his “Everybody can change” post-fight speech. Not coincidentally, the Cold War soon ended. For his part, Apollo Creed was remembered not only as the “Master of Disaster,” but as the “Sensation of International Relations.”

Maybe I’ve changed your mind about Apollo Creed’s loss to Rocky Balboa, and maybe I haven’t. But I hope I’ve at least given you some new perspectives to consider.