I Did a Whole Exercise Class Just to Talk to Ivan Drago, But in the End I Was Simply Too Scared
The scariest Rocky villain returns for 'Creed II'. What's happened in the 33 years since he killed Apollo Creed?
(Photo via Warner Bros.)
(If you have not yet seen the 1985 film Rocky IV, but you have seen the 1976, 1979 and 1982 films Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky III and you’re wondering what happens to Apollo Creed – the antagonist-turned-wise-elder-statesmen, a film analogue for Muhammad Ali, who last time we saw him was happy and healthy and retired and sprinting brilliantly down an ultra-bright Miami beach before putting in a mouthguard and challenging Rocky for one last rematch, ding ding – and you just have not found the time yet to watch Rocky IV, but you remain hopeful nonetheless for Apollo’s fortunes going into this film – which, again, was realised 33 entire years ago – then I suggest you stop reading here, and also I have some bad news for you)
Ivan Drago killed Apollo Creed and I still fucking hate him for it. Ivan Drago – who Hollywood tries to tell us is just goliathic blonde actor Dolph Lundgren; but no, he's not, he’s Ivan Drago living under a false name after he murdered Apollo Creed – does not deserve a single second of rest for what remains of his putrid life.
In 1985's Rocky IV, a documentary about American-Russian relations in the midst of the Cold War, Drago just straight up murders Apollo Creed during an exhibition fight (*1), and nobody does anything about this. He does not face any consequences for his actions. In fact, he is given another shot at murder, when Rocky travels to Russia to fight him on Christmas Day (Rocky IV is a Christmas movie, change my mind), but somehow overwhelms a man six inches taller than him and on steroids by just getting punched in the head for 15 straight rounds, and at the end Rocky, wrapped in an American flag and beat all to shit, howls "IF I CAN CHANGE, YOUSE CAN CHANGE" into a feedbacked mic, and the whole of Russia rises to its feet and applauds.
As you can tell, I have some feelings about the films Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa, Creed and this week’s new release, Creed II. The overriding feeling is: they are the most important films ever made. Rocky was a sweet Oscar-winner where a goldhearted down-on-his-luck goofball with an iron left goes toe-to-toe with the reigning champion of the world while simultaneously taking the glasses off a pet shop worker and falling in love with her. Rocky II sees him go to the depths before dragging to the highs: after an eye injury rules him out of a further boxing career, he gets a job in a factory and starts a family, and then – and I still can’t really figure out how, because I’ve seen the movie about 15 times and it’s never made especially clear – he just fucking ignores his eye injury and fights anyway. Rocky III: death, racism, horniness. Rocky IV: as discussed. Rocky V: didn’t happen, never existed. Rocky Balboa: the descent of a champion into the sad musty role of an underwhelming dad. Creed: Soundcloud remix of the first film that somehow manages to be as good as the original. Creed II: Creed II is if Rocky II and Rocky IV had a baby but actually cared about that baby instead of just calling it "Robert" a lot and never teaching it boxing. In it, Ivan Drago is back, disgraced and training his monstrously hench boy to fight the son of the man he killed, and I am still scared of him.
To confront this fear, I have taken an exercise class in the basement of London’s fanciest hotel. This is because, as part of the endless Creed II junket, Ivan Drago is going to turn up for the last five minutes – while I am dying out of my arse because I’ve been trying to keep up with fitness influencers in a "fun and punchy" ten-round HIIT session that I genuinely fear might make me puke – and just… I don’t really know. I don’t know what the plan is because I can’t currently breathe. I am completely, and not even alluringly, soaked in sweat. If Ivan Drago turns up now and does a tough Russian chuckle at me – "He is weak," Ivan Drago will say, pointing me out to the rest of the class, who are all lads with 200k Instagram followers who can barely mangle their arms into shape to take a graceful selfie because they are so overwhelmingly ripped, "he does not have the coördination to do mountain climbers. Kill him—" he says, and then he beckons his on-screen son, 6’4” Romanian murdering machine Florian Munteanu, who just runs up to me like a horse primed for battle and kills me dead with one punch, me jolting on the floor Apollo-style, and I— listen, I lost my train of thought because Ivan Drago is too late to berate me, so instead we finish up doing some yoga stretches (even they hurt! It is definitely time I got in the gym again!) and go next door for a Q&A.
If you've never seen a Hollywood person up close, an insight from someone who has: it’s quite curious seeing a human being who can look like that: bright teeth, perfect skin, more hair follicles than you can imagine, clad head-to-toe in luxuriously branded clothing you’ve never even heard of, let alone could own. Florian comes to the table with a shave and shape-up so fresh I assume there's someone waiting behind the door to razor his beard edges. Drago has forearms knotted with firm veins like the roots of a perfect tree: dozens of veins, hundreds of veins, veins made hard and robust through years of lifting iron bars high over his head. I genuinely feel like one of Ivan Drago’s arm veins is stronger than, like, my entire fucking body. I am in awe.
And I want to say: Rocky and the adjacent Rocky films, not V obviously, were my favourite movies growing up. Rocky I through IV are the VHS tapes that warped and spun and defined my childhood entirely. V not so much. Then Balboa came out when I was an adult and it was OK, I guess; it was good to know Rocky was still out there, alive, and then there was a gap and Creed came out and you fell in love with it all again: the boxing, the training, the quiet flutter of til-you-die romance, the perfect physical specimens having cute dates at low-down Philadelphia dives, the busted father-son dynamics, the men giving stiff thumbs up to each other through distant windows, the children sprinting behind the Champion! Of! The! World!, the villains, the boxing scenes, the breathless moments when Rocky gets knocked down and you don’t know whether he’s going to get up – surely he’ll get up, he has to, that blood-rush sound as the camera tilts and he spins woozy on the canvas – and then the crowd rushes back and yes, yes, single glove on the top rope, beat the count, Rocky has made it, Rocky has won. That Drago was the scariest villain in movie history, to me, scarier than Vader, scarier than the melted faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark, scarier than Hook. Sample line of Drago dialogue from Rocky IV: [just a monstrous dinosaur sound of pain and exertion]. Sample line of Drago dialogue from Rocky IV: [sneering so hard you can hear the muscles in his neck crack like horrid knuckles].
And then, in this room, surrounded by influencers asking Dolph Lundgren what workouts he likes to do, I'm suddenly not too bothered about asking my question – "THERE HAVE BEEN EIGHT ROCKY MOVIES WITH IV AS THE BEST AND V AS THE WORST, WHERE DO THE OTHER SIX ROCKY MOVIES INCLUDING CREED II, IN YOUR OPINION RANK?" – because it sort of doesn't matter. Asking what Rocky means in a wider sense is entirely moot. If you love the Rocky movies – a bafflingly long franchise about a blue-collar Italian-American, who for exactly one movie is Bang Into God, who keeps getting punched in the face and is completely un-mean unless he’s in the ring, where he’s the baddest motherfucker alive, which somehow is widely relatable, even to pathetic British soft-lads like me – it sort of doesn’t matter where Ivan Drago thinks Creed II ranks in the all-time list (it's sixth). Rocky is personal to you. He is what you make of him.
Anyway, we all line up for photos. Most people opt for the face-off or the boxing glove growl, but I have something more specific in mind. Sample line of Drago dialogue when I ask the actor who played him, Dolph Lundgren, whether we can pose for a photo like the glove-touch in Rocky IV, where Drago – iron, immoveable – holds his monstrous hands for Creed to ding, the first moment of fear creeping up on Creed’s face as he knows he might be in for a fight, me trying to recreate that moment by contorting my face into a sort of cartoon of shock: "Is this acting? Is that your acting?"
Here's the photo. I took a whole exercise class for this. I confronted the man who comprised all my childhood fears. I looked like a large warm mess. Creed II is out in cinemas today.
(*1) Which, by the way, the referee of the fight was entirely culpable for – Drago slammed an unguarded Creed three times after the first round bell, an instant D/Q – and the fact that Rocky didn't throw the towel in to stop the fight (as if a towel would stop that monster anyway! He threw the referee off him and continued to punch Apollo in the face, what would a towel do?) has haunted Rocky in the intervening years since – see the remainder of Rocky IV, moments in V and every time he’s talked to a gravestone about it (Balboa, Creed, Creed II). Like, Rocky is fundamentally haunted by the fact that his indecisive act of towel-unthrowing led to the direct death of his best friend (Paulie is not Rocky’s best friend: Paulie is a horrible man), and his life has unspooled ever since, and I think it’s high time we have a Rocky movie – maybe in Creed III, which Warner Bros. would do well to let me write entirely – where the referee seeks Rocky out and tells him that it wasn’t his fault, and holds him tenderly in that way men hold each other in masculine-smelling films – they sort of lean on each other and grasp lightly at their biceps – and slowly Rocky stops saying "no" and "ahh, no y—" and then he realises actually, yes, the referee was right, he was responsible, and he starts blubbing, Rocky just full on crying against the heaving chest of this ancient referee, it wasn’t your fault Rock, it wasn’t your fault—