As soon as the Rocky movie franchise branched out to tell the story of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, it made sense to wonder about the thoughts and feelings Donnie would have towards Ivan Drago, Apollo’s killer. It would only be natural for Donnie to harbor some ill will towards Drago, and from a narrative perspective, there’s fertile emotional territory to explore. Based on the recent news that Ivan Drago’s son has been cast for Creed 2, that’s a story Rocky fans will be introduced to soon.
Which is great and all, it’s just that… it’s not the right time yet. There’s another story that should be told first.
Ryan Coogler, the writer and director of Creed, did more than just breathe new life into the Rocky franchise; Coogler very subtly laid the foundation for a compelling sequel to Creed that set the stage for conflicts entirely unique to Donnie Johnson.
The setup begins very early in Creed, when Donnie visits the Delphi Boxing Academy, touted as the home of Apollo Creed. After “Little Duke” refuses to take Donnie on as a fighter and train him, Donnie hops into the practice ring and puts his car up as the prize for a boxer that can land a clean shot to his head. Donnie makes short work of the first challenger, and the next boxer to step up to his challenge is Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler.
The introduction to Wheeler is a deliberate choice made by Coogler for two reasons. First, take note of the detail on Wheeler’s bio that he is rated the #2 pound for pound boxer in the world. That becomes important later. Second, it doesn’t take long for Wheeler to humble Donnie in the ring.
Later we learn that Wheeler is set to fight “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, the best pound for pound boxer in the world. Donnie watches a sports profile on Conlan and learns that before Conlan is imprisoned for felony gun possession in England (that part of the story is pretty weird, yeah), he will have one last professional bout against Wheeler. Noting that Conlan will lose his prime fighting years to imprisonment, Wheeler is pronounced as “the future of boxing” and states in the profile that it is his turn to be recognized as the world’s best fighter.
Over the course of Donnie’s establishment as a legitimate professional boxer we discover that Conlan and Wheeler got a head start on their fight, duking it out at a press conference promoting the match up, resulting in a broken jaw for Wheeler and the cancellation of their fight. Conlan’s manager hears of the emergence of Apollo Creed’s son on the boxing circuit, and proposes to Conlan that between Donnie’s heritage and his management by Rocky that Donnie may represent an opponent compelling enough to raise a strong purse for Conlan before he heads to prison.
Donnie and Conlan do fight, and Donnie proves to be more competitive than Conlan first thought, even knocking Conlan down for the first time in Conlan’s career. At the conclusion of the match, Conlan leans over to Donnie and says, just loud enough for the microphones to catch, that Donnie is the future of the division.
The set up for Donnie’s next challenge couldn’t be better. Donnie inadvertently stole Wheeler’s career and glory. The recurrence of the phrase “pound for pound” and the word “future” in Creed isn’t by accident and are clues to Coogler’s vision for the next chapter of Donnie’s story.
From Wheeler’s perspective, he already proved at the Delphi Boxing Academy that Donnie is his inferior. Wheeler’s hard work throughout his career was set to culminate in his match up against Conlan, and Conlan’s foolishness robbed Wheeler of his chance to prove himself against the only man in the world rated as his better. To cap it all off, Wheeler watches as Conlan declares Donnie, not Wheeler, to be the future of their sport.
Donnie has taken something from Wheeler, and Wheeler is coming after Donnie to take it back.
That’s one heckuva story line! Not only would Donnie evolve from being the hunter to being the hunted, Wheeler becomes a fascinating character because he isn’t wrong to be motivated to defeat Donnie. Wheeler was trampled under the foot of Donnie’s will to prove himself as Apollo Creed’s son. Wheeler is a sympathetic villain, if he can be considered a villain at all. Following this type of narrative, Wheeler stands unique as an opponent to Rocky and Donnie because he isn’t an obviously morally flawed foil. Coogler truly prepared to introduce Rocky fans to something new, and something deep, when laying the bread crumbs for this sequel.
Alas, it isn’t to be. Creed 2 will be about the conflict between Donnie and the son of his father’s killer. There’s a great story to be told there, but it just isn’t the right time yet. The time is right for Wheeler. I fear we’re about to witness a tragedy in narrative; not only was Wheeler robbed of the mantle as the future of boxing, Rocky fans are about to be robbed of the richness of Wheeler and Donnie’s future conflict.
On the plus side, we may not be getting that story because Coogler’s genius has been focused on Black Panther, and that looks awesome.