Across eight films, the protagonists of the Rocky franchise have fought a number of rival boxers with varying levels of antagonism and animosity. Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed have both earned their respective boxing legacies by defeating a whole host of fighters but Creed II establishes Ivan Drago as the ultimate Rocky villain, looming larger than any other antagonist across the 42-year old film series.
Drago, when he's first introduced in 1985's Rocky IV, is the coldest, most humorless boxer the franchise had ever seen. Apollo Creed, the antagonist of 1976's Rocky and 1979's Rocky II, was a showman that pursued fights with Rocky Balboa initially as a glorified publicity stunt before seeking to definitively defeat Rocky in the sequel to regain face after their close fight in the original film. By 1982's Rocky III, the two men had overcome their differences with Apollo serving as a trainer to the Italian Stallion and the two pugilists becoming close friends.
Clubber Lang, the villain of Rocky III, was an angry Chicago-based southpaw that fought with volatility of an exposed raw nerve, seeking to win the heavyweight champion and absolutely punish anyone who dared face him in the ring. Tommy Gunn, the antagonist of 1990's Rocky V, was a young fighter that sought out Rocky for advice before ditching him for a new manager leading to the two men coming to blows in the streets of Philadelphia. Mason "The Line" Dixon and Ricky Conlan, the opponents of 2006's Rocky Balboa and 2015's Creed, just happen to be the heavyweight champions of their respective films with no real personal connection to the protagonists or heightened motivation behind their individual involvement in their fights.
Ivan Drago is a different beast. Created by screenwriter and director Sylvester Stallone, the Rocky IV villain was meant to represent the Soviet Union at the height of renewed Cold War tensions in the mid-1980s. The character comes to the United States under the guise of challenging its top boxers in a friendly exhibition match but really to show absolute Soviet superiority in the ring. To this end, Drago kills Apollo when he faces the veteran boxer in Las Vegas, visibly without remorse over beating his opponent to the death before a shocked audience. Rocky had certainly faced intense rivals before but Rocky IV gave the franchise its first and only true killer. Additionally, Drago also has the dubious distinction of being the only underhanded cheater in the franchise receiving performance-enhancing drugs prior to his fight with Rocky.
Creed II expands on Drago's villainous legacy by having the now disgraced boxer training his son Viktor with the sole purpose of creating a pure fighting machine filled with raw power and unbridled fury. And whereas the elder Drago was introduced as an inversion to Rocky's working class roots and work ethic with a whole team of Soviet trainers and specialists maximizing his athletic performance by any means necessary, Viktor has a working class sensibility himself, supporting himself shipping construction supplies in Ukraine while Adonis Creed uses high-end facilities in his native Los Angeles.
While Rocky and Apollo were able to eventually mend fences and become firm friends, it is clear when Rocky faces Ivan once again that there is absolutely no love lost between the two men. In addition to killing Apollo, an act he still expresses no remorse over in Creed II, Ivan's fight with Rocky left the Italian Stallion with severe cranial trauma, driving the Philly Slugger into a premature retirement. After Drago resurfaces decades later in Creed II, Rocky is still visibly unsettled, perhaps even scared, by his old foe causing him to drop out from training Adonis for his impending fight with Viktor.
With a villainous legacy that spans decades across two families and two generations of boxers, Ivan Drago is both a fan-favorite antagonist and the most logical way for a sequel to Creed to go; the entire reason Adonis never knew his father is because of Drago's murderous bout with Apollo in 1985. Both protagonists of the longrunning franchise were both broken in a way by Ivan Drago. Drago's own son is a victim of his father's single-minded obsession to recapture his lost legacy, raised in hate and rage with the singular purpose for his father to relive his glorious days vicariously through him. The Rocky franchise has had many challengers and rivals but, really, only one true, unapologetic villain. A propaganda tool turned remorseless killer, Ivan and Viktor serve as a dark mirror to Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed in many ways; fighting from a place of anger rather than love, bred to destroy rather than triumph.
Creed II is directed by Stephen Caple Jr. (The Land) from a script written by Sylvester Stallone and Juel Taylor. The film stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, and Phylicia Rashad. The film is out in theaters everywhere now.