creedpostersmallerI’ve always loved fight movies, even though the fight genre is usually formulaic and predictable, e.g. an underdog will enter some sort of fight game, come good, and – more often than not – win.

This is where the recent Southpaw (2015) – starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rachel McAdams, and Forest Whitaker – didn’t work. Gyllenhaal played Billy Hope, an undefeated champion sitting on a 44–0 record. When a personal tragedy derails his career, he enlists trainer Tick Wills (Whitaker) to help him train, regain his title, and get his life back on track and rescue his daughter from welfare.

This story is the antithesis of the fight movie formula. Hope sits 44–0. He’s not an underdog. He shouldn’t even need to seek out anybody to train him. All he has to do is get back in the ring and apply the skills that got him to 44–0. It’s the other guy – regardless how well-credentialled – who should be the underdog.

This is something Stallone understood through his Rocky series. Through every movie, he cast himself as the underdog. In Rocky he is a bum versus the great Apollo Creed. In Rocky II, Apollo claimed he went easy in the first fight (somewhat validated by his behaviour in Rocky) and is determined to make amends, and Rocky struggles with the vision in his right eye, forcing him to fight right-handed. In Rocky III, Rocky is deemed too old and too domesticated to face the younger, hungrier, and more powerful Clubber Lang. In Rocky IV, we have a freak of genetic engineering in a seven-foot-tall Russian, Ivan Drago. In Rocky Balboa, Rocky is now retired, old, and facing an undefeatable champion. Only in Rocky V is he pitched as the favourite, yet Stallone handicaps Rocky with brain damage, retirement, and sneak attacks (whenever Tommy Gunn gets the advantage, it’s because Rocky’s walking away and Gunn ambushes him).

Something else that’s needed in the fight genre are stakes. Again, Stallone always has stakes on the line – usually self-respect and the pursuit of survival. In The Karate Kid, Daniel fights to earn respect from the crew who bully him. In Warrior, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) fights to provide for his family (mortgage is outstanding, and his daughter needs open heart surgery). Southpaw got this right, with Hope needing to get his life back on track so he can rescue his daughter from welfare.

Stakes are the reason we believe that our hero is taking the action they’re taking, why we root for them to succeed, and why we worry about them failing. In real life, it might be enough that somebody wants to be the best. In a story, we need a more tangible form of motivation.

That’s where Creed fails.

What Works
Stallone. Stallone is brilliant in Creed, trying to carry on now that his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire) and best friend Paulie (Burt Young) are gone. He also has a battle with cancer – an engagement with his own mortality. Probably the best thing about Rocky in this movie is the tactical advice he offers as a trainer to Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) following each round during Adonis’s fights. One of my queries on the Rocky series is Rocky’s sole strategy seems to be to stand there and have his head punched in until his opponent exhausts himself, and then Rocky knocks him out. It’s good to see Rocky strategise.

What Doesn’t Work
Nothing else really works. Some of it (e.g. some of the training sequences) border on laughable.

Adonis is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed and, for reasons never truly explored, wants to become a fighter. Mostly, it’s because it’s what he’s meant to be, I guess. The weight of carrying the Creed name should threaten to asphyxiate Adonis, but it plays no real part other than to be a novelty, and to later get Adonis a title fight. Apollo’s death in the ring should cast a shadow, but only exists as background. So the stuff that could’ve been interesting isn’t.

Living with Apollo’s former wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis works in a securities firm, seeming – from all appearances – to have a cushy life. I guess you could make an argument that the story is about finding yourself, about chasing your true calling, but it’s hard to empathise with Adonis, or invest in his dreams, because he has no stakes. The pursuit of his dream is nothing more than an indulgence. If he’s not a rich brat, he’s a well-off brat. If he fails, he has a wealthy guardian to fall back on.

Although he’s embarrassed in an early sparring session, you also never get the feeling that Adonis is troubled in his bouts. He’s brash, cocky, and sure of himself. Compare that to the original Rocky, where Rocky has a heated exchange with Mickey, who tells Rocky he had the talent to become a good fighter and instead he became a leg-breaker. Had. Just in that exchange, we learn so much about Rocky and his relationship with Mickey. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that layered in Creed. From the moment Adonis decides to box professionally, you just know he’ll fight the champ.

How I Would’ve Done It
I would’ve ditched the illegitimate angle. Adonis could’ve been the legitimate son of Apollo, perhaps born six or seven months following Apollo’s death. Adonis pursued a career in boxing, showing a wealth of talent, and climbed as high as tenth or so in the world. But he never fully realised his abilities, and lost a string of important fights. He became a journeyman (as a boxer) and got involved with the wrong crowd, getting arrested several times. Finally, when his friends – headed by a minor gangster, Eight-ball – commit an armed robbery, Adonis is looking at possible hard time. Mary Anne Creed appeals to Rocky to help straighten out Adonis – Rocky owes her, after all, because he didn’t stop the fight in which Apollo was killed.

Rocky and Adonis form a begrudging friendship, where Rocky learns that fear – because of what happened to Apollo – has always undermined Adonis. In big fights, Adonis has been afraid to commit . Rocky trains and nurtures him and Adonis begins a climb up the ranks, until Rocky gets him a shot against the champion. Unfortunately, Adonis’s friends continue to have a hold on him, and try to leech from him, and Eight-ball tries to get Adonis to sign a contract. Feeling that debt to Apollo, Rocky intercedes and, later, is ambushed and beaten. Adonis goes to see Eight-ball. They argue, fight – Adonis runs amok – until Eight-ball draws a gun. Adonis surrenders himself but says he’ll never sign, and he’s done with the crew. Eight-ball realizes he no longer has a hold on Adonis, and lets him go.

Adonis learns that there’s some things worth dying for (family, loved ones, pursuit of dreams) and goes on to fight the champ.

Finding Truths

If I knew it’d be like a light going out, that one moment there’s everything and next there’s nothing and darkness, I think I’d do it, I really think I would.  But since I don’t know that, since stories of damnation and shit have fuelled my upbringing, I just lay in bed, knowing I should get up, but instead stare at the ceiling, thinking about everything I have to do today and how I don’t want to do it.
     The light seeping through the blinds covering my bungalow windows, as well as the sounds of neighbours, suggests it’s about nine.  Maybe later.  My body’s in agreement, my head cloggy from sleeping in, like somebody flipped it open and poured sand into it. 
     I roll onto my side and look at the clock radio on my bedside drawer.
     I try to summon the will to get up, like the day’s a freezing pool I have to build the courage to leap into.  Once I do, there’s no getting out, not until I go back to sleep, although that’ll be late tonight since I’m meeting Ash and Dylan at The Back Room for drinks.  Dylan says he’s got an announcement.  Ash has joked that Dylan’s announcing he’s going inside for having a seventeen-year-old girlfriend.
     I push myself out of the cosiness of my bed and undergo my morning routine: pull on my sweats and socks, turn on the computer, open the blinds, put on the electric kettle, drop a chamomile tea bag into a cup, and dart into the bathroom.
     My antidepressants wait for me in the medicine cabinet, an unwanted neighbour there’s no getting away from.  I pop one into my palm and dry swallow it.  There was a time I’d get side-effects: dizziness, stomach cramps, thumping heartbeat – emergency room stuff.  Not that I went.  It was bearing through the meds or facing the shit.  I bore through.  Since, the symptoms have faded to a bit of morning dizziness.
     I leave the bathroom, open the door of my bungalow, and stare across the yard at the house.  I should go inside and make myself breakfast – some toast maybe.  You’re meant to eat something with antidepressants because they’re so rough on your stomach.  But it’s too early to deal with my parents and their everyday recriminations about being thirty, not married, and living in a damn bungalow.
     At the foot of my door I spot a clothes peg.  It’s split in two – one of my mum’s victims when she’s in a hurry to pull down the clothes.  It saddens me looking at it.  It has one purpose, and now it’s done.
     I go outside, pick up the halves, and hunt around for its hinge, even as I hear my kettle whistling.  I’m just about to give up (at least for now) when I see the hinge resting by the garden.  I pick it up, reassemble the peg, and clip it back on the line.  There.  All better. 
     I return to the bungalow as the kettle shuts itself off, so I fill my tea cup, sit at my computer, and open my emails.  There’s a pile already there, including the one which came yesterday from Samantha.

    Hey! It’s been a long time.  Hope you don’t mind me emailing you.  Got your address from Facebook.  It’d be great to catch-up.  Get back to me, huh?

Samantha’s a girl who chased me all through high school, but depression and life (like there’s a separation between the two) got in the way.  She got married to some dick, which might be unfair, but I remember hearing at the time that he was a dick.  Suburbia swallowed them into domesticity, and I’d heard they had a couple of kids.  Her email is a surprise.  I don’t know how to answer it, other than to say something noncommittal, which isn’t answering it at all.
     I have other emails, which I don’t read, but I can guess what’s in them depending on where they came from.  There’s the usual circulars people send when they’re killing time at work; some from Advanced Business Solutions, as well as Healthy Plus, for whom I copywrite on a freelance basis; as well as a couple from fiction anthologies to which I’ve submitted.
     I stare at the emails from the anthologies – Collected Works, and The Bold Writer.  They’re two of the country’s premier journals.  You get published in them, you’re making a name for yourself, which is something I’d like to do – especially after ten years of trying.
     I nurture a quiet expectation that when I read these emails, they’ll be acceptances.  No, it’s not even an expectation.  I know they’ll be acceptances.  I don’t mean to build myself up.  I always tell myself not to, because it makes the fall further.
     Of course, over the years, I’ve submitted my work hundreds of places, if not bordering on a thousand, and I’ve had this feeling a lot, with little return.  The handful of stuff which has been accepted was stuff I didn’t give a chance, and had even forgotten sending out.  Journals are notoriously slow.  Publishers are little better.  I just sent my book out and am sure it’ll be months before I hear anything about it
     My mobile rings.  It’s Ash.  I answer it.
     ‘Hey, filth,’ he says.
     We don’t mean anything by ‘Filth.’ It’s like ‘buddy’ for us.
     ‘What time tonight?’ Ash asks.  ‘Nine?’
     ‘Yeah.’ I go through the emails from Advanced Business Solutions and Healthy Plus.  They’ve got a shitload of notes there and want brochures – usual stuff.
     ‘Okay.  I might be a bit late.  Stuff happening with Cindy.’
     ‘Okay.’ I don’t bother asking about Cindy, Ash’s wife.  Cindy’s great.  She would’ve made somebody an awesome wife.  Just not Ash.  Over the years, he’s mentioned her less and less, and we’ve seen her less and less.  It’s like Ash is making her invisible, or at least erasing her from his social circle, although that’s probably not surprising given the way Ash behaves.  It’s amazing their marriage is still going.  And strong, too.
     ‘I’ll see’ya later, filth.’
     He hangs up and I go through the circulars, working out what I’m going to recirculate and what I’m going to delete, but I’m really just holding onto the anticipation before I check the responses from the journals, because while I hold onto the anticipation, the unopened emails remain possible acceptances, and my dreams could still be going somewhere.  Life could still be going somewhere.
     Finally, I look.
     I delete the fucking things.

The Back Room is a third-storey bar which sits on top of an Italian restaurant (Agostini’s – overpriced, but awesome pizza), and a floor that’s been vacant for as long as I remember.  I think now Agostini’s use it for storage.  You get to The Back Room through a stairwell so narrow it must violate fire-safety regulations.
     The bar itself is split into quarters: there’s a lounge with couches and little tables, like you might see in a coffee shop; there’s a dance floor, where some nights they’ll have a band – usually Incandescent X, this awesome three-piece acoustic ensemble headed by a woman with the most amazing blue eyes; a hall with rows of pool tables; and one corner out in the open with tables and chairs, like an overblown terrace overlooking the street, although you’d freeze going out there tonight.  A circular bar sits right in the middle, like an axis, accessible to every quarter.
     We’re in the lounge, draped over the couches – me, Ash, Dylan – and drinking Coronas.  Since it’s a Monday night, there’s not a lot happening in The Back Room.  The place started as a nothing bar years ago, and had its regulars every night.  But then it developed a nouveau trendiness, the way places do.  Now, it grows busier the deeper the week goes, and overflows Fridays and Saturdays.
     ‘So what’s happening, filth?’ Ash asks Dylan, but Ash has his eyes on a blonde at the bar who’s wearing tight, faded jeans which shape her butt like a pear. 
     Dylan sits on the couch opposite us, rocking, Corona between his hands.  The way his shock of already-receding hair stands up defying gravity makes his contemplation almost comical.  He takes a drink, gazes up at us, then shrugs.
     ‘Come on,’ Ash says.  ‘Otherwise, I’ve got something to say.’
     Everybody’s got something to say.  I wish I had something.  I think of the rejections from the anthologies.  An acceptance would’ve been something to talk about.  Maybe I could tell them about Samantha, although it’s hardly newsworthy.  That’s something you’d mention as a throwaway.
     ‘It about Lauren?’ I ask, as Ash’s attention drifts back to the blonde, who’s ordering drinks.  One of her friends – a brunette in a tight skirt – has joined her to help her carry.  It’s not going to be much longer before Ash’s dick becomes his rudder.
     ‘It’s not Lauren,’ Dylan says.
     ‘Why didn’t you invite her?’ Ash says.  ‘Oh, that’s right, she’s underage.’
     ‘Ha ha.’
     ‘You idiot,’ I tell Ash.  ‘It’s obviously past her bedtime.’
     ‘How brave,’ Dylan says, which is our way of wry condemnation.  It’s all mocking, in its own way – and Lauren’s great mocking material given her age.  It’s weird, because Dylan isn’t much to look at – not like Ash, who’s rugged and sporty – but he’s never had trouble with women.  Lauren’s his first relationship which has become serious.
     ‘Okay, if you don’t tell us your announcement,’ Ash says, ‘then I’m going with mine.’
     ‘I’m getting transferred for work,’ Dylan says.  ‘Interstate.’
     We’re quiet.  It’s not like Dylan’s told us he has cancer or something like that, and we should be happy for him, but we’ve been friends a long time – Ash and me twenty years; Ash, me, and Dylan ten years.  The dynamic between us meshed from the start.  It’s the way friends work.  It’s not about interests and shit.  That stuff comes later.  You click or you don’t.  But that’s relationships in general.  Life in general.
     ‘They do that in construction?’ I ask, because Dylan’s a roofer for BusyBuilt Construction.  Surely it’s not like needing a neurosurgeon, no disrespect intended.
     ‘Transfer-promotion,’ Dylan says.  ‘Boss likes my work, and recommended me to head office, so they offered me a foreman’s position on-site for some townhouses they’re putting up.’
     ‘Are you shitting us?’ Ash asks.
     ‘This is for real.’
     ‘You take it?’ I ask.
     ‘Had to for the money they’re offering.  It’s like twice what I’m getting, and they’re setting me up with a place to live and everything.’
     ‘Six months.  First thing in the new year.  That’s when this townhouse project starts.’
     Again, quiet.  Maybe it is like cancer – the killing of a friendship.  You take them for granted.  You really do, thinking they’ll be around forever.
     ‘What about Lauren?’ I ask.
     Dylan shrugs, and it’s like he wants to be blasé about it, but it must be on his mind because he doesn’t laugh it off the way he usually would.  ‘It’s six months away,’ he says without conviction.  He takes a drink from his Corona, then lazes back on the couch, trying to relax.  ‘What about you?’ he asks Ash.  ‘What’s—?’
     ‘Cindy’s pregnant,’ Ash says.
     ‘Really?’ I say.
     ‘No shit?’ Dylan asks.
     ‘No shit.’
     ‘Who’s the father?’
     Ash laughs.  ‘How brave.’
     ‘You’re going to be a father?’ I ask.
     ‘What?  I’ll be a good father,’ Ash says, but his eyes rove the lounge until they target the blonde on a couch in the corner.  I walked into the toilets once and Ash was banging a redhead in a cubicle while a crowd of onlookers watched.  Whatever loyalty he’d had to his vows, debauchery and drinking have beaten senseless.  Not that Cindy knows, or even suspects.  She’s the model wife living her model suburban life.  Ash, though, cheats, gets in fights, and goes on drinking and gambling benders.  He can be a prick, which is an awful thing to say, but you still couldn’t find a better friend.  Most of the time.
     ‘Well,’ Dylan said, leaning forward on the couch and offering his Corona, ‘congrats.  To your baby.’
     ‘To your job,’ Ash said, thrusting his Corona forward.
     I thrust my Corona forward and can think of nothing to add.

I stand on the terrace, looking at the street three-storeys below.  Traffic whizzes by, people moving obliviously on with their lives.  I sip on my Corona.  The night’s freezing, and the barrel of the bottle threatens to stick to my lips.  The beer’s not going down well, and it’s not a night for big drinking, but that’s exactly what I want to do.
     Taking a swig, I look back into The Back Room.
     In the lounge, Ash sits on the couch with the blonde.  She throws her head back and laughs at everything he says.  Give it an hour, and Ash will be fucking her.  His magnetism is inexplicable.  I wish I had it.  An ounce of it.  It makes you wonder why he got married.  I think he was hoping to find somebody to save him, and Cindy did, for a little bit at least.
     Dylan’s playing pool with Lauren, who showed up about half an hour ago.  Sometimes they card her, but most times they don’t.  Bars are always stricter on guys than girls.  Girls are good décor, while guys are a hazard.  It’s obvious which you’d prefer given the choice, and Lauren’s gorgeous with her blonde hair and dimpled smile.
     I turn away from them, gaze back down at the street, wishing I had a Cindy, or even a Lauren, not that Ash knows how good he’s got it, and maybe Dylan’s just finding out.  I wish for anything, but realise I have nothing.
     I know now what I want.
     And what I don’t want.
     I don’t want this life.

Credit and Genesis
This story appeared in issue twenty-three (2012) of fourW, the anthology of the Booranga Writers’ Centre.

This story is actually a prequel to a screenplay I wrote back in 2004, which one day I’d like to turn into a book.