Neil Loughran: Loss of legendary Creed shows Rocky films still pack a punch all these years on

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Carl Weathers, who played the bragodoccious Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, passed away last week
Carl Weathers, who played the bragodoccious Apollo Creed in the Rocky films, passed away last week

IT was a Friday night around a decade ago, and the Queen’s Film Theatre was jam-packed.

This was a place packed full of happy memories, much like the late, great Curzon on the Ormeau Road. There, as teenagers, we congregated when the notion took.

Before underage drinking and house parties, this was our escape. Our place to go. Cinematic classics such as Pulp Fiction, The Big Lebowski and Hot Shots: Part Deux, probably the greatest of all, were enjoyed on lazy Saturday afternoons.

Then there were the films so long they required a smoke break, as if some kind of human rights violation had been inflicted on those no longer able to puff away throughout.

So the likes of Braveheat and Titanic were split in two – Leonardo Di Caprio just about to paint Kate Winslet like one of his French girls when, boom, the lights would go up, the crammed hallway soon filled with cigarette smoke and the sweet, sweet sound of charred lungs being coughed up.

Mostly, though, the film itself would be incidental to the craic, the conversations before and after. There was a glorious innocence to the easy way in which friendships were forged, many fizzling out in time, with young love coming and going amid a blur of exotic over-salted cashew nuts in shiny pink packets and curmudgeonly cries to get your elbows off the shop counter.

The QFT took itself a bit more seriously.

By virtue of the cinema’s position in the centre of Belfast’s student heartland, it catered for a different kind of clientele. Thus there was a steady stream of obscure foreign language films with subtitles, music documentaries and indie flicks. Hot Shots: Part Deux wouldn’t have got a look in.

During second year at university, desperately fumbling around for a module to alleviate the boredom brought about by a daily diet of history and politics, film studies ticked plenty of boxes, though mostly the opportunity to recline on those plush purple seats.

And so Wednesday afternoons would be spent scrutinising a series of films about the Vietnam War – Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Green Berets (may have slept through this) – before a tutorial in one of the nearby university houses.

There, we would embrace our inner Mark Kermode, stroking chins and nodding solemnly while discussing the underlying meaning behind them all. The conclusion was almost always the same too – American propaganda. Case closed.

Looking back, it feels like the height of pretension. Maybe that’s just the jock in me talking.

Yet the power of the silver screen should never be underestimated – even when it comes to sport. The recent passing of Carl Weathers, best known for his role as Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films, is a reminder of just that.

It was Rocky that got the QFT treatment that Friday night around a decade ago. Local film buff Ralph McLean hosted a question and answer session at the end but, because sponsors Jameson were dishing out free samples beforehand, memories of that part of the evening are fuzzy at best.

Yet, watching Rocky for the first time in probably 20 odd years, all the old feelings came back. Sure, some of the dialogue is clunky, the acting occasionally wooden, with fight scenes more akin to a bar room brawl than a boxing match. Yet none of that stops it, or any of the three that followed (Rocky V and the subsequent spin-offs can do one, Adrian) being absolutely class.

From humble beginnings, the Rocky film franchise became a huge success - and its legacy can still be felt today
From humble beginnings, the Rocky film franchise became a huge success - and its legacy can still be felt today (PA)

The sporting underdog story may be par for the course now, but Sylvester Stallone spotted a gap in the market and took his brainchild – inspired by a New Jersey brawler called Chuck Wepner - from a scrap piece of paper to a global phenomenon.

All these years on, it retains its power and its pull, the central themes of overcoming the odds and anything being possible still striking at the core of childhood dreams. I defy anyone to watch Rocky and not feel uplifted in some shape or form.

In terms of its impact on boxing, that is still felt today. A friend of mine who, up until a few years ago, was involved with an amateur club told me that, any time one of the Rocky films was shown on TV, a few new faces would creep around the door ready to start necking raw eggs and chasing chickens.

Take former world champion Eamon Loughran too. When he was coming towards the end of the New York marathon, he wanted to give up. His legs had nothing left.

Turning into Central Park, the last three miles promised to be brutal – until a familiar rhythm drifted through the crowd, somehow penetrating the fog.

‘…don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past

You must fight just to keep them alive

It’s the eye of the tiger

It’s the thrill of the fight…'

“Honest to God,” smiled the Ballymena man, “it was like somebody had beat me with a baseball bat by then; I’d hardly anything left. This was some boy singing away over to the side, as soon as I heard that I was thinking ‘come on Eamon, this is meant to be’.”

And the Rocky films were enhanced greatly by the magnetism of his finest dance partner.

A 6ft 2in former NFL linebacker, Weathers carried charisma and hard-edged kindness in equal measure, bringing some of Muhammad Ali’s playful brilliance from the squared circle to the big screen.

From a fearsome rivalry with the ‘Count of Monte Fisto’, the two main protagonists became friends, Creed eventually dying in Rocky’s arms after a merciless pummeling at the hands of Soviet powerhouse Ivan Drago.

The legacy of those films lives on, and may always do so, its connection so strong that, when word spread of Weathers’ passing at the age of 76, it felt a bit like Apollo had died again – Creed’s immortal line at the end of Rocky III never more appropriate.

“You know Stallion? It’s too bad we’ve got to get old…”