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Michael B Jordan on how to take on Rocky

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Michael B Jordan talks about exhaustive fight scenes, his new boxer’s physique and letting his co-star repeatedly punch him in the face

Michael B Jordan’s career has so far seen him in streetwear, sports gear and even Spandex, but 2016 finds the 28-year-old with big shoes – or rather shorts – to fill; big, star-spangled shorts.

That’s because Jordan, in his new film Creed, is taking the (probably sweaty) Rocky baton from the meaty fist of Sly Stallone. He plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who seeks out his dad’s arch-nemesis-turned-best-buddy, Rocky Balboa, to help turn him from white collar boxer-by-night into world heavyweight champion – preferably inside 133 minutes.

Jordan’s preparation for the role took a little longer, spending over a year getting his physique into the kind of shape that wouldn’t be bent beyond recognition once punched – as it is in the film – by two former world champions: Andre Ward and Britain’s own Tony Bellew (as reigning heavyweight king, ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan). Au revoir canapés and champagne; a big, bland hello to egg whites, brown rice, chicken and broccoli. 

“I didn’t eat for taste for a long time,” he says. “I ate for nutrition and to work out. You’re eating every two and a half hours to keep your metabolism going. I can’t lie, you do get tired of it. When you start dreaming of food you can’t have, you know you’ve committed.”

A New Hope

Jordan’s commitment was so fierce that he was working on his physique while he was still on set for another movie.

“I became pretty antisocial for a while,” he says. “I had the luxury of time on this project – we were talking about doing this before I started shooting Fruitvale Station. So I was secretly getting in shape for about a year. I completely changed my diet, and I did a lot of road work – I wanted to train just like a fighter, so I could have a boxer’s physique and have the mass to be able to compete at the physical size of Apollo Creed. When you’re working in that tradition, you’ve got to bring it.”

Still, even the heir to the Rocky series gets a cheat day. 

“It started on a Saturday night at 7pm,” he says. “For the next 24 hours, I ate everything I could – pizza, pasta, ice cream, cheeseburgers. Anything and everything. I ate myself sick. I was in Philly a lot, so I had a lot of cheese steaks. I mean it – a lot.

“There’s a little place called Gennaro’s. It’s not one of the famous ones, it’s this little hole-in-the-wall place. It’s top-notch. You should check it out.”

As all this time spent in Philadelphia suggests, Creed isn’t just some lazy reboot, content to churn out the familiar beats from a Vancouver soundstage. The Rocky series may conjure up memories of Hulk Hogan fighting dirty, James Brown screeching about living in America and robots serving Paulie beer, but Creed dials in on the series’ real virtues – the good old triumph of the underdog, and an authentic story of hardscrabble East Coast life rarely depicted in crowd-pleasing Hollywood offerings.

This authenticity stretches to the boxing, too. If you follow the sport, you’ll know that outside De Niro, boxing in films tends to look phonier than Jar Jar Binks’s tongue – but not so in Creed. In addition to getting ripped, Jordan had to transform his character’s screen presence to someone who could conceivably punch through any wall he’s presented with – something that required both brains and brawn.

“I put the time in down the gym – there’s really no other way to do it. I did some karate when I was younger, but I never really had any boxing training. When I started, I wasn’t any good at all, but you spend a lot of time on it and you make it work. Luckily, I’m a pretty quick student. I watched a lot of tapes, and hung out with a lot of real fighters. I can’t just magic a lifetime of experience out of nowhere, so the important thing was to train smart. My trainer used to call it ‘putting the mind to the muscle’.”

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Balboa Is Back

Much of the praise for Creed has centred around a bravura one-take fight sequence that acts as the centrepiece for the film. There’s been expressionist boxing in films before, and films that favour recreating the bouts on television, but this is the first time the difference has been split and the focus is on both a realistic boxing experience and showing just how knackering a full match can be for the fighters.

“We got ready for that [sequence] for months and months,” says Jordan. “Our fight choreographer put us through our paces, and we worked with some actual boxers to really push things as close to reality as we could. We would plan every round out in detail, so we knew it all like a dance routine. Then we spent a long, long time going through [the fights] in the gym at different speeds, doing it backwards, picking it up at various points. After that, we were locked into it so well it felt like second nature – you want to get it to the point where you’re not just going through the motions, but it just comes to you without needing to think about it. Then you can stay loose, and make it look natural."

Any discussion of a Rocky reboot brings with it a pretty hefty elephant in the room – or, if you will, an Italian Stallion in the ring. 

“I love Sly,” says Jordan of his co-star Stallone, who, as you may have heard, returns as Rocky to coach Donnie to glory. “Ryan [Coogler, the film’s director] and I called Sly and asked if he wouldn’t mind us collaborating with his legacy,” says Jordan, “and it worked out that way. The whole process was cool – he’s such a collaborator. The most important thing for us was to not make it Rocky VII, but to make it Creed I. They are some big shoes to step into, but doing it this way seemed to us the most respectful – of the series and of the fans.”

And so Stallone is in there, donning the Rocky hat and all, and giving his best performance in years. Particularly, his scene where he visits Adrian’s grave and reads her the news (and leaves a bottle of whiskey for Paulie) is both a masterclass in understated softness, and also very likely to be bandied around various awards ceremonies come this spring.

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Method Acting

Off-screen, though, he doesn’t seem to have softened too much. 

“He told me I had to take a real punch. He said it was my initiation into the world of Rocky,” Jordan says.

You heard that right. Stallone’s fondness for method acting even stretches to boxing films, which was crucial in capturing a shot where Donnie’s opponent lands a punch, causing Jordan’s face to crumble in super-slow motion as sweat flies off his skin.

“Sly was in my corner, and he just took me aside with a smirk on his face and said, ‘Look, kid, you gotta take the hit.’ He was so happy about it, and I wasn’t going to back down after he’d challenged me like that,” Jordan says.

“You don’t want to let people down, so I took the hit a couple of times straight in the face. But God, I was feeling it for four days afterward – my neck was sore, and it went all the way down my back. The guy was a real fighter and he didn’t hold back at all. Sly thought it was hilarious.”

And after all the training and all the punches, most people in Jordan’s position would probably relish the chance to wallow in front of Netflix and maybe go in search of a bag of frozen peas once filming had finished. But he’s not ready to give up his Creed physique just yet. “I like the size, man. I’m a bit smaller than when we stopped filming, but I’m keeping it up on the level. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it: I’m in the best shape of my life, and if you put that work in, you want to keep it up for as long as you can.

“When I get old and I get all saggy, I want to make a nice highlight reel to look back on. Anyway, hopefully I’ll have Creed 2 to think about.”

Creed is at cinemas nationwide from 15 January

[Images: MGM, Warner Bros]

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