One night in 1976 I saw a sneak preview of Rocky at a theater on the Upper East Side.
I was a sophomore at Hunter College, which was 10 blocks away, and I’ll never forget how the crowd went berserk when Rocky Balboa knocked down Apollo Creed after being smacked around the ring for most of the first round.
It was one of my favorite movie moments of all time.
Yes, Rocky was a simple underdog story, but it was so well done and the characters were so memorable that the familiar plot didn’t bother me at all.
Forty freaking years later—I keep doing the math hoping I’m wrong--I sat down to watch Creed, which tells the story of Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis Jackson, who gets Rocky, now long retired, to train him.
I was so psyched to see this movie I couldn’t wait to order it from Netflix. It had gotten excellent reviews and there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good boxing movie. Or at least that’s how I used to feel.
But a lot has changed in the last four decades. As I watched this intelligent, likeable young man climb into the ring, all I could think about was the brain damage he was receiving every time he took a punch.
What the hell is wrong with you, I thought, sounding a lot like my mother, you’re going to get killed!
From what I could tell, Adonis is hardly living in poverty, and the idea of following in his father’s footsteps is disturbing given how his father ended up in Rocky IV.
His mother warns him against a career in boxing, telling him that she had to help Adonis’ father up the stairs in his home when he was too battered to do it on his own. But the kid still wants to be a fighter.
Let me just say right here that I think boxers are fantastic athletes and I have tremendous respect for what they do. It takes an incredible amount of courage, dedication and skill to climb into the ring.
The Long Count
However, I can no longer see boxers as heroes; I see them as victims, men and woman who suffer irreparable damage to please a bunch of tough guy wannabes who live vicariously through the athletes' real pain.
I’m older now and I know how fragile the human body really is. Despite how strong or tough you think you are, your brain can’t take constant battering. Look at the growing number of retired football players who have been diagnosed with dementia.
When the fight is over, the crowd will leave the arena, the folks at home will pick up the remote, and the fighter will be left to suffer alone.
“Bullshit!” my father would snap. “Ten years from now he’ll be cutting out paper dolls!”
And yet we continued to watch and I still watch boxing, kick-boxing, and mixed martial arts bouts to this day, even though I know these people are destroying themselves.
Like everyone else watching these bouts, I conveniently ignore that ugly little fact.
On Tuesday I switched on one of the sport channels and started watching a repeat of a fight between John Duddy and Luis Ramon Campas, which took place on September 28, 2008.
The fight was a classic and I hate to say this, but it was like something out of movie. Duddy was the hot young prospect, Campas was the relentless veteran and these two went at it for 12 serious rounds of amazing action.
But, of course, it wasn’t a movie with actors throwing fake punches at each other. These were real people and they are likely to pay a terrible price for their career choice.
At the end of Creed, Adonis Jackson is told that he has a future in the light-heavyweight division.
It’s supposed to be a compliment, but all I could think about were all the other fighters who had received similar praise during their careers who ended up cutting out paper dolls.