While watching a rerun of Rocky III recently, an intriguing notion struck me. It was a curious and fascinating thought. And the more I dwelled on it, the more compelling it became. It was the classic what-if scenario.
Most sport movie buffs know about Rocky Balboa’s epic wars with the charismatic and Ali-like Apollo Creed. They also would recall Balboa’s brief but fierce bouts with the frightful James “Clubber” Lang. There’s no denying that each and everyone of those encounters produced some memorable moments, not to mention a multitude of head-rattling shots and bone-jarring blows.
But let’s say in the interest of speculation that Rocky, in the aftermath of his devastating beat down at the hands of “Clubber”, had decided to take a sabbatical and temporarily remove himself from the heavyweight equation. What if the “Italian Stallion” and Lang hadn’t followed up with an immediate rematch? What possible fight could have captured the public’s imagination and generated the necessary buzz if such a vacuum had existed?
Anyone that thinks on it hard enough would arrive at only one conclusion. It would have been a no-brainer, a promoter’s dream, a box-office bonanza. It would have been a glamour matchup for the ages. Just the thought of it would have gotten even casual boxing fans juiced and pumped. Even the sound of it has a ring to it. Creed vs. “Clubber.” The right-handed virtuoso against the southpaw brawler. The sublime maven taking on the raging bully. Now, there’s a rumble to get excited about.
These were two supremely determined men, long on ego, and intolerant of defeat. They were driven to be the best and not easily discouraged. Each delighted in imposing his will on those who dared to step inside the ring with them.
But despite these similarities, they stood as stark contrasts as fighters. Apollo was amazingly versatile in that he was adept at dancing, feigning, jabbing, countering, and delivering pinpoint accuracy with deceptively powerful punches. Add to this the fact that Creed was a keen strategist and thinker. He had a body like Adonis but his mind was equally as chiseled. He was that rare blend of showmanship, artistry, precision, and smarts.
Conversely, Lang was all about brute force and intimidation. He knew nothing of subtlety. He was a suffocating bruiser who epitomized menace. He was nasty, merciless, and mean. The aura of fear he created was enough to make many of his opponents pee in their trunks. If you weren’t made of stern stuff, he could sneer you into submission. Lang had other assets working in his favor as well, including a willingness to take a punch in order to give one, a fortified chin, more than adequate athleticism, and a left lead that packed a thunderous wallop.
These different styles would have been more than enough to insure a boffo fight, but upping the ante was the hostility that existed between this pair of prideful men. A previous unpleasant run-in had left them with no love for one another. Prioir to the Balboa/Lang fight, Apollo had been introduced at ringside. In keeping with custom, he was thus expected to visit the respective corners and wish each fighter well. But when Creed went to greet Lang, the young tough slapped his hand away and called him a has-been. Pushing the envelope even futher, “Clubber” told the great Apollo to get a certain look off his face or else Lang would knock it off. Creed was taken aback, offended, and angered by this blatant lack of respect. Apollo was infuriated at being dissed in such a manner before a packed house. Right then and there, a blood fued was born.
For the fight to have come off, Apollo would have had to end what was then a recent retirement. In the aftermath of his second brutal battle with Rocky, Creed decided to step away from boxing. The reasons for his retirement were never fully explained or detailed. You were left to wonder why there hadn’t been a third go-round with Balboa, a fight that would have been in huge demand.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say Creed was still quite capable and hadn’t been diminished significantly by his wicked tussels with Balboa. That being the case, Lang’s in-your-face put down would have been more than enough to coax the proud warrior back into the ring.
What’s more, because he craved the limelight, Creed would have loved being the centerpiece of the sports pages once again. He fed off adoration and being in the public eye. Being the center of attention was like a drug to him. Plus, the chance to redeem himself, reclaim the heavyweight title, and put the dismissive “Clubber” in his place, would have proven to be irresistible. Apollo would have been all in.
As for Lang, the chance to dispatch another marquee name from a generation of fighters he distained, would have been more that ample incentive. So if indeed, this grudge match had come together, how would it have played out? Let’s imagine the bell has rung and the action has commenced.
Always fueled by pent-up aggression, Lang would have made a beeline for Creed, hoping to engage him in an immediate frontal confrontation. But Apollo wouldn’t have obliged, sidestepping before deftly moving out of harm’s way. This would have been the theme for the early rounds. “Clubber” in relentless pursuit, Apollo shooting jabs at his opponent while vacating the immediate vicinity. What Creed was doing wasn’t running, it was the tactical act of avoidance.
But Apollo wouldn’t have been able to completely evade Lang’s wrath. Because he was a streetwise fighter, Lang was an expert at cutting off avenues of escape and trapping his prey. And if that didn’t always work, Lang could resort to some of his infamous roughouse tactics that many intimidated referees were hesitant to call him on.
Sometime within the first three or four rounds, Apollo would have found himself cornered and taking some heavy body blows from Lang. Even a seasoned pro like Creed would have been stunned by “Clubber’s” reverberating power. Apollo had rarely, if ever, felt shots with so much clout. And yet, Creed would have managed to neutralize some of this onslaught with timely tie-ups and periodic counters that surprised Lang with their sting. Though not dissuaded, “Clubber” soon realized that someone he considered to be well past his prime wouldn’t be an easy or quick knockout. Lang sensed he was in for a long night’s work.
Creed’s strategy from the outset was to hold off Lang as best he could and keep extending the fight. Since almost everyone of “Clubber’s” fight had been short affairs, Apollo was convinced that Lang, though well conditioned, would eventually wear down due to the frustration, impatience, and exhaustion from missing more than he connected. “Clubber” knew no other way than to keep throwing and it was Creed’s belief that his foe would ultimately become arm weary and then, vulnerable.
Now into the meat of the bout, both men were experiencing surprise. Creed was perplexed that Lang wasn’t tiring as quickly as he had hoped. Meanwhile, “Clubber” was mystified that after taking so much punishment from Balboa, Apollo was still able to absorb the dynamite carried by his lethal fists.
Rounds five thru nine had the crowd roaring. It was breathtaking give-and-take, startling exchanges that brought many frenzied fans to their feet. Not able to dance as nimbly as earlier in the fight, Creed was forced to repeatedly stand his ground and go toe-to-toe. Though this wasn’t Apollo’s strong suit, he nonetheless proved adroit at it. Creed’s snapping jabs and sharp rights were finding the mark and getting “Clubber’s” attention. Moreover, Apollo was putting together rapid combinations that Lang was having trouble fending off. Lang’s face was getting puffy and blood was trickling from a slight cut under his left eye.
Lang, who had been taunting Apollo with disparaging and crude comments early on, was now mostly silent. With his face noticeably marked, “Clubber’s” demeanor was grim and solemn. He was also seething with a roiling anger. Creed was now his mortal enemy.
But the truth be told, Creed was in no better shape. Though Lang had misfired plenty, to his credit he remained undaunted. And a more than sufficient amount of his punches had landed, with dramatic effect. As the fight progressed, the potency and might of “Clubber’s” blows began taking a tremendous toll. Apollo had been jolted by numerous shots that had him aching in his ribs, shoulders, and head. Twice Creed had noticeably buckled when hit, and three times he saw stars when “Clubber” clocked him upstairs. Though he was more than holding his own, Apollo wondered how much more of Lang he could take.
Both men were greatly winded, though Lang appeared more so, when the bell sounded for round 13. Incredibly, at that moment, all three ringside judges had each fighter winning six rounds. If the fight had gone to the scorecards right then and there, the bout would have been declared a draw. But a draw wasn’t in the cards. Such a conclusion would have been totally unsatisfying for such a compelling and riveting contest. Instead, a memorable and climatic ending was a mere minute or two away.
Though their mind-sets, perspectives, and approaches to fighting were normally diametrically opposed, at that precise moment and stressed to the breaking point, Apollo and “Clubber” were thinking the exact same thing. Their wavelengths were eerily identical. Each, on the brink of exhaustion and fixated on a single thought, had resolved that the fight wouldn’t entend beyond the upcoming round. The punishment and physical price being paid simply had to come to an end.
Both had made up their minds that they would now sell out completely, shoot the works, and put everything into one last flurry. It had reached a point where winning had become almost incidental. They just wanted this titanic contest to be over with. Each yearned for blessed rest and for their battered bodies to no longer be under constant assault.
Rising slowly from his stool, his legs quivering slightly, Creed gazed into Lang’s eyes from across the ring. What he saw confirmed the telepathy they were sharing. This was going to be it. The crucible had been reached. The moment of truth had arrived. Someone would soon fall. The finish to this savage test was near.
Lang, almost paralyzed by an overwhelming fatigue, couldn’t afford to fool around or waste one ounce of precious energy. He had to get to it immediately and without delay. “Clubber” was operating on fumes.
Though wobbly, Lang surged forward and closed in on Creed. Apollo made no attempt to dodge him for that would have required more effort than Creed was willing to expend. What followed was a determined rain of last-ditch punches from Lang. But after the initial three or four blows, the impact was next to nothing. The more “Clubber” threw, the less pop he delivered. After he had pumped out about fifteen nonstop shots, he was utterly spent. Verging on collapse, he had absolutely nothing left. And when he saw that Creed was still upright and wasn’t going down, “Clubber’s” heart sank. His ego and pristine record were about to be pierced. Slightly hunched over and completely punched out, he was all but a sitting duck.
Apollo, ever the clever defender, had masterfully covered up and defused most of Lang’s desperate tries at a knockout. When the force of Lang’s punches faded into oblivion, Apollo knew the cocky and self-assured young tough was running on empty. That knowledge brought him a feeling of gratification and redemption he had never known.
Aware he had to seize the moment and not fritter away this glorious opportunity, Apollo didn’t flinch or hesitate. Lang was clearly out on his feet but until the telling blow was thrown, Creed couldn’t afford to underestimate even a staggering foe.
Summoning everything he had left, Apollo fired a stiff left jab, followed by a smashing overhead right. The latter connected flush on “Clubber’s” chin and Apollo felt him sag. Next came a few crisp body shots that doubled Lang over. “Clubber” was like a mighty tree being systematically chopped down. He was about to topple. One more whack would do it. At this stage, Creed had the luxury of picking his spot and dispatching Lang in any manner he saw fit. Apollo’s first impulse was to crash another heavy right into Lang’s exposed face, thereby delivering the most emphatic and brutal of statements. Creed really did want to put a massive hurt on the youngster who had treated him so disrespectfully.
But Apollo couldn’t help but admire, respect, and believe it or not, be moved by the fight that Lang had waged. He had shown the heart, persistence, and courage of a warrior. A punk he may have been but “Clubber” had earned Creed’s grudging respect. Because of this, Apollo showed what was in his mind, an act of mercy. He intentionally avoided going upstairs where potentially serious damage could have been inflicted and instead, landed a solid uppercut to “Clubber’s” gut. After it landed, Lang instantly pitched forward and hit the canvas on his side, before slowly rolling onto his back. With his body almost limp, Lang made no effort to get up.
When the referee counted him out, the already raucous arena erupted into bedlam. Creed lifted his weary arms in triumph and with his eyes becoming just a tad bit moist, acknowledged the plaudits of the crowd. Now, he knew what it felt like to be Rocky, an underdog that the people had invested in and took to their hearts. As the cascading cheers continued to surround him, Apollo felt this was his signature moment, his finest hour. What’s more, he was once again heavyweight champion of the world.
If “Clubber” and Apollo had rumbled, that’s the ending I would have envisioned.