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From Ring to Screen and Back: How Rocky's Real-Life Boxers Fared

Fightland Blog

By Thomas Golianopoulos

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

The marriage between boxing and the movies can be traced to 1894, when Thomas A. Edison shot the first filmed sporting event, a boxing match between Jack Cushing and Mike Leonard. Boxing Kangaroo (Das Boxende Kanguruh), a German short documentary about, yes, a boxing kangaroo, premiered the following year. Since then, boxing movies have won Academy Awards for Best Picture (Rocky, Million Dollar Baby), and actors have won Academy Awards for portraying boxers (Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, Christian Bale in The Fighter, and Wallace Beery for 1931's The Champ). Alfred Hitchcock directed a boxing movie (The Ring). Laurel and Hardy appeared in two (The Battle of the Century and Any Old Port!). Most of all, Sylvester Stallone has made seven Rocky movies, the latest of which, Creed, opened in theaters this week.

As in the previous two Rocky films, Creed utilizes real boxers in supporting roles. Stallone had cast actors with athletic backgrounds (Carl Weathers, Mr. T, and Dolph Lundgren) as his lead antagonists, but for Rocky V he sought an active professional fighter for the role of Tommy Gunn, Rocky's protégé turned rival. He eventually found Tommy Morrison, an impressionable 20-year-old slugger from Oklahoma.

Rocky V is widely considered the worst film in the series, but Morrison brought legitimacy to the fight scenes. Fifteen years later, then-light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver traded blows with Stallone in the sixth Rocky film, Rocky Balboa. Morrison and Tarver had mixed results, however, upon returning to the ring. Acting has its perks, like fame and wealth, but the ring rust and, perhaps more important, the ego trip that comes with the job have made Hollywood a risky venture for some.

Morrison wasn't the first boxer to halt his career for an acting gig; Max Baer and Primo Carnera, the World Heavyweight Champion at the time, starred in the 1933 romantic drama The Prizefighter and the Lady. Baer and Carnera were already veterans at the time of their sojourn into Hollywood, Morrison had just turned pro. As an amateur, he won a regional Golden Gloves title and lost the finals of the 1988 Olympic Trials to future Gold medalist Ray Mercer. A former Toughman competitor, Morrison was still raw; his crushing left hook masked deficiencies in skill and conditioning. The plan Morrison's co-managers John Brown and Bill Cayton planned for him to learn on the job by fighting often, every few weeks.

It worked. Morrison went 19-0 with 15 KO's in 1989 before landing the opportunity of a lifetime. There were snags to becoming a movie star, however. If he accepted the part, Morrison wouldn't fight for six months, potentially jeopardizing the roll he was on. But the financial upside was alluring.

"The value of him would jump up significantly," says Tom Virgets, Morrison's trainer at the time. "It was calculated, I guess you'd say. Obviously we would have liked him doing more training during that time period, but it wasn't available."

Morrison was limited to road work while filming, mostly late night jogs around Philadelphia with Virgets, but his earning potential skyrocketed upon his return to the ring in June 1990. Here was a Great White Hope who could punch — that in it of itself was valuable. His newfound celebrity only made him that much more marketable. He became some the casual sports fan could recognize. Morrison cashed in following Rocky V's November 1990 release: he earned $80,000, approximately double the industry standard for a boxer at his level, to face Pinklon Thomas in February 1991 on ESPN. "How much of that was because he was a white heavyweight with power or because of his celebrity status would be hard to figure out," Virgets says. "It would require both to get that $80,000 marker." Morrison annihilated Thomas via first round KO.

A setback against Olympic nemesis Ray Mercer followed in October, but Morrison rebounded and won nine consecutive fights, punctuated by a June 1993 unanimous decision over George Foreman to capture the vacant WBO World heavyweight title. Morrison boxed wisely, using his superior movement and conditioning to stick Foreman with sharp jabs before circling away from his power. It was the greatest moment of his career.

As Morrison's fame and success grew, so did the size of his entourage; Virgets remembers a barhopping motley crew of about a dozen. "His downfall was women and booze," Virgets says. "His fame made access to both easier." Between fights, Morrison destroyed his body to the point where Virgets could smell the alcohol emanating from the boxer during his workouts.

Morrison's debauched lifestyle caught up with him. He lost his title to the unheralded Michael Bentt four months later in a first round knockout, and he suffered a savage beating from Lennox Lewis in 1995. Morrison tested positive for HIV in 1996 and spent his final years denying his diagnosis as a "false positive." He died in September 2013.

After the Foreman fight, Virgets warned his fighter about the trappings of fame.

"I sat him down and said, 'Tommy, you have validated yourself tonight. Recognize what you've done. You are going to have opportunities come your way that will be out of this world. You don't need to go out and hang with those assholes. You got to be smart.' He looked me in the eyes and said, 'I get it.' He was sincere as can be. He was like a little kid," Virgets says. "Somehow or another, a couple of guys talk him into going to the Hard Rock Café. The next day he doesn't make the plane. He goes on a two-week binge — no one knows where he's at or what he's doing. We find out that he's hanging out with 8 or 10 assholes, partying constantly. When he left me he was 100 percent committed to training, but Tommy lived in the moment like no one else."

Stallone has handled fame relatively well. Photo by Arnold Jerocki/EPA

Like many professional boxers, Antonio Tarver, a five-time world champion, was a huge Rocky fan. When he entered the sport as a teen, Tarver even emulated The Italian Stallion's training methods. He ran stairs. He drank raw eggs. He did one-arm pushups. So when Sylvester Stallone approached Tarver and offered him a starring role in Rocky Balboa, the choice was easy.

Stallone had one caveat for the boxer, who was weeks away from a highly anticipated third fight with Roy Jones, Jr., on October 1, 2005. "I had to keep the whole thing under wraps until after the fight," Tarver says today. "That was very hard to do."

Tarver didn't appear distracted against Jones on the day of the fight. He initiated the action, stalking Jones and landing power punches. Jones, meanwhile, was in survival mode, hovering on the outside, wary of trading punches, a reasonable tactic considering that Tarver had knocked Jones out in the second round of their previous fight. A right hook wobbled Jones in the 11th round, but Tarver settled for a unanimous decision. It was a decisive performance from the fighter nicknamed "The Magic Man." He hadn't gone Hollywood — not yet anyway.

Shortly thereafter, Tarver arrived in California to train with Stallone and celebrity fitness guru Gunnar Peterson. The goal was to bulk up to portray Mason "The Line" Dixon, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. Tarver, a light heavyweight who fought at 175 pounds, walked around at 200 pounds in between fights. He reached 218 pounds after two months of working out with Stallone, and eventually ballooned up to 233 pounds. His body, he says, took on a different shape.

Movie boxing was challenging for Tarver. He wasn't accustomed to letting his opponents hit him. He'd slip punches from Stallone that were scripted to connect. He also didn't pull back all his punches. When that happened, Sly would thump him back. Both wanted to make the fight look as realistic as possible—as realistic as a fight between a sexagenarian and a 37-year-old world champ could be.

Portraying the character outside the ring was easier. In many ways, Mason Dixon mirrored Tarver: both were respected, yet unloved, champions in need of the public's adoration. In the movies, Dixon found redemption in Balboa. Tarver thought he seized it following his dominant victories over Roy Jones, Jr. He was wrong. "I beat a great champion, but that doesn't mean you automatically gain their fans," Tarver says. "I'm still beating the door down for that love and affection from my peers and boxing fans."

Tarver in the corner during his 2005 fight against Jones, Jr. Photo by Eliot J Schechter/EPA

Other aspects of the movie industry proved trickier. Years after the film's release, in an interview with Howard Stern, Stallone said that Tarver held up filming the scene and demanded extra payment.

"That is not true," Tarver says now. "Sly asked me to take a sign-on bonus and if I would gamble with him—as he was gambling and everyone else was gambling—on the success of the film, that he would negotiate a back end and if the film did well, everyone did well. I took that gamble with Sly. I went out there on the initial signing bonus that he gave me with every intent that before we started filming that we would have time to sit down and hash out our business, but that day never came." (In 2009, Tarver sued the film's producers alleging he was owed $1.5 million plus interest. "I'm not privy to talk about that," Tarver says. "It was settled.")

Tarver wrapped filming for Rocky Balboa in early January 2006. He planned to remain at heavyweight after the movie, but when a proposed Mike Tyson fight fell through, the only big money match available was with Bernard Hopkins at light heavyweight. (Unlike Morrison, acting didn't impact Tarver's purse rate one way or the other. He earned $3.5 million against Hopkins, equal to his payday for the third Jones fight.) Though he had to lose 45 pounds in four months to make weight, Tarver accepted the fight. "I think I felt untouchable. I felt unbeatable," Tarver says. "Definitely making the movie contributed to me being distracted or not being 100 percent focused."

Buddy McGirt, Tarver's trainer at the time, has another theory. "Antonio partied his ass off on the set," he says. "He partied every night. Sylvester Stallone told me that himself."

Tarver spent most of training camp shedding weight. He was weak on most days.

Twenty minutes before the fight, Tarver was in a deep sleep in his dressing room, and once inside the ring he seemed unable to trade or dodge punches. His body wouldn't respond. He still thinks he might have been poisoned that night. ("He took a piss test after the fight," McGirt says. "If he was poisoned, it would have come out in his piss.") "That night—shit, I didn't look like a champion," Tarver says. "I'm still trying to rebuild from that loss."

Tarver would later capture the IBO World light heavyweight title and IBO World cruiserweight title, but he was never the same fighter who knocked out Roy Jones. His career spiraled. He lost two lopsided decisions to Chad Dawson, and his pre-fight urine samples tested positive for banned substances before bouts in 2012 and August 2015.

While perhaps a Hollywood hangover played some role in Tarver's decline, he doesn't regret his decision to take the role. "When I look back at it, I can truly say that maybe I got a little bit full of myself. Did it really partake in my loss to Bernard Hopkins? I can say yeah, it did," he says. "But I would not change a thing because right now today most people recognize me from the role in Rocky rather than me winning five world titles. Even today, when I walk through the airport, people recognize me as Mason Dixon. Man, I have no regrets other than losing to Hopkins the way I did."

Tarver remains optimistic, however. At 47 years old, he plans to fight either Wladimir Klitschko or Deontay Wilder for the World heavyweight title in 2016.

"Thank God I had resilience where I was able to bounce back from that Hopkins loss," he says. "I am in position today to make life imitate art and become the real heavyweight champ. That's going to be the real Rocky story."

Prior to filming Creed, director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and his star Michael B. Jordan visited the gym of undefeated former super middleweight champion Andre Ward for a crash course on boxing minutiae. "Authenticity," Ward says, "was big with [Ryan]." Coogler's approach extended to his crew — the A-camera operator took boxing lessons to anticipate the movements in the ring. Coogler also cast active professional boxers in supporting roles, including Ward, middleweight Gabriel Rosado and Tony Bellew, as Creed's rival, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan.

Nicknamed "Bomber" for his punching prowess, Bellew is a Liverpool-born cruiserweight best known for his brave performance in a loss to light heavyweight juggernaut Adonis Stevenson. Bellew told Toffee TV, the Everton FC fan channel, that he almost didn't accept the role, refusing to sign the contract until after defeating Nathan Cleverly in their rematch last November.

The actor Graham McTavish, who plays Conlan's trainer, was apprehensive about working with a boxer. "There is a history of sporting athletes trying to turn their hand at acting and not necessarily doing a great job at it," he says. "In this case Tony did a great job." Bellew knew when to observe. He listened and learned, and was never too proud to ask for help or direction. He also brought "something very powerful" to the set, McTavish says. "Real fighters, their whole vibe is different. When a professional fighter walks into a room, you feel that."

Tony Bellew in a scene from Creed. Courtesy Warner Brothers

According to TMZ, Bellew got a little too real one day on set, igniting a brawl that had to be broken up by Sylvester Stallone; a studio rep told TMZ that the incident did not got physical. "Someone — and this is not anyone in the principal cast — made the mistake of confusing Tony with somebody pretending to be a fighter," McTavish says. "No blows were struck. Nothing terrible happened. But he was left with no doubt that he was dealing with the real thing." (Through his manager, Bellew declined an interview request.)

It's too soon to say whether the time away from the ring impacted Bellew —McTavish says that Bellew trained every night during filming. Since his return to the real ring, Bellew scored two easy knockout victories over inferior opponents. He next fights Mateusz Masternak on December 12 at the O2 Arena in London.

Based off the evidence — training every night during filming; keeping a low profile; taking tune-up fights following his hiatus — Bellew seems to have learned from Morrison and Tarver's mistakes. And with Creed opening to a uniformly warm reception, an eighth Rocky movie seems inevitable. Soon, other professional boxers might have to start thinking about whether they should interrupt their careers for a shot at Hollywood glory.

Ward, for example, has aspirations beyond the boxing ring — he is a part-time commentator for HBO, and also signed to Roc Sports. Yet despite his small role in Creed, he's tabling his acting career for now. HBO just announced a three-fight deal with Ward that should culminate with a superfight against unified light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev in late 2016. "Right now, it's all about boxing," Ward says.

Already, though, Ward is feeling the effects of Creed. Could a starring role be in his future? "I have so many people coming up to me just from the trailer. I have a decent [role], but I'm not a main character. I can only imagine being the focal point of a movie," he says. "That would be a really tough decision to make. A great opportunity, but it comes at a price. Would I be willing to pay that price to get that opportunity? It's a tough call."

 

Check out these related stories:

Looking Back at "Rocky V," The Movie That Nearly Knocked Out a Beloved Franchise

Tiger Eyes and Burning Hearts: The Fight Anthems of Survivor

A Brutally Honest Look at Mike Tyson versus Muhammad Ali

 

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