There are a few elements you can expect when watching a movie within the Rocky franchise: soul-searching fighters, comeback wins, and epic training montages. Sylvester Stallone could be credited with creating beats that are now commonplace in most boxing pictures with the first Rocky.
So when the team behind Creed II was brainstorming ideas for the final training montage where Adonis Creed prepares for his rematch with Viktor Drago the goal was to go bigger than ever before. “Sly and I would just sit in his living room and watch every Rocky movie,” says director Steven Caple Jr. during a chat with Mens Journal. “The idea of doing a training montage in the desert was his idea, as a counterpoint to Rocky 4 where he had traveled into the snow and mountains.”
Originally the sequence going to be shot in Death Valley, but the sky didn’t look quite right in the frame, so Caple moved production to New Mexico, to the small city of Deming. Since there was no gym in the world that matched what they had in their minds, the only option was to build everything on their own, which they gave the ominous name of Purgatoria El Box.
“Everything from the water tower to the ring we brought in and built out ourselves,” says Caple. Once constructed the set became a playground of pain where they researched and tested out the most intense yet still practical training imaginable. Helping spearhead that effort along with Stallone, Caple, and Michael B. Jordan was trainer Corey Calliet, who is also an experienced boxer.
“I wanted the movements to be brutal but still realistic to what a boxer would actually do under those circumstances,” says Calliet. For example, taking a med ball to the stomach repeatedly is something that the trainer himself has actually experienced. “It isn’t necessarily fun, but you need a strong core to be able to take those hits, especially if you are going up against a monster like Viktor.”
Other exercises captured included pulling a car hood stacked with weights along the sand, flipping tires, punching a tire-made heavy bag, and pounding a sledgehammer into the sand. “People are used to seeing the hammer against the tires,” says Calliet. “But we didn’t want that kind of forgiveness, we wanted to have him have to pull it out of the sand every time. That sand was flying into his face. Not to mention, it looks awesome.”
The research also paid off, Caple stumbled across video of boxing coach DJ Walton using a tire as a way to improve the inside game of his fighters. “I knew immediately that it is something that I wanted in the sequence,” says Caple. “It just so happened to work out that DJ himself is a beast, and a pretty scary looking dude, so we brought him out to play the role of Creed’s sparring partner.”
Other moments were added as homage to past training montage from the franchise, like the sprinting scene. “I remembered that iconic shot that Sly had done in the first Rocky movie and I wanted to do my version of that,” says Caple. They upped the stakes by having Creed being chased down by his Mustang, finally breaking away in an epic moment.
What viewers may not know is that Jordan was dealing with a swollen knee on the day they shot that according to Calliet. “He didn’t let that stop him though,” he says. “He cranked it out regardless.”
That wasn’t the only adversity that Jordan came up against, frequent sandstorms would kick up during filming and the heat was beyond brutal, even for those who weren’t flipping tires. “There were guys on the crew that were close to passing out,” says Caple. “So I could only imagine how rough it was for Michael. He gritted through it all though.”
For Calliet the goal was for Jordan to end the desert training montage bigger than he had ever been in the franchise, and Caple allowed extra time between filming so that they could make it a reality. “The audience can see his body change as the movie goes,” says Calliet. “That is pretty special, that by the end of the movie you see a completely different fighter than you saw in the beginning.”
Creed II is now in theaters.