MICHAEL B. JORDAN and Jonathan Majors stride onto a soundstage in Hollywood, bantering and bouncing on their toes to a Kendrick Lamar accompaniment, looking every bit The King of Hollywood and the Ascendant Star.

As these two actors joined forces to do battle in the boxing drama “Creed III” — the ninth film in the extended franchise that dates all the way back to Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” in 1976 — they were bonded by a shared desire to take on a major challenge.

For Jordan, it was his decision to direct along with returning as Adonis Creed: “I threw myself into the deep end on this one,” he says.

For Majors, seeking out what he calls “the difficult factor” in the parts he plays has driven his rise; Creed III had all that and then some. “I think the first thing Mike said, in our first meeting at his house, was ‘When we enter into the ring, it should feel and look like two gladiators,” Majors recalls. “At the time I was 32 years old. And though I’m in shape, I was … not a gladiator. To get myself in that mindset and into that type of conditioning was gonna be difficult.”

And like so much of Majors’ work, that process would take on a deeper meaning. As important as the themes Jordan was eager to explore and the truths Majors wanted to bring to light, these two had to look credible in the ring, like the prizefighters they were portraying.

“No disrespect to any of the actors I’ve worked with in the past,” Jordan says, “but it was the first time I had somebody willing to work just as much, if not more than me, in the gym.”

“My coach said to me, and I really believe it, ‘You fight the way you live,'” Majors says. “What are you made out of? I learned a great deal about myself.”

Was there ever a rivalry about who, um … looked better?

“A subtle one,” Jordan says. “I gotta pass on this one because I was directing. He had time to work out a lot more than I did — that’s my disclaimer! We give each other s– about that all the time.”

One is so competitive that when ESPN’s ’90s era Chicago Bulls documentary, “The Last Dance,” came out, his friends flipped his initials and started referring to him as MJ; the other is named … well, you know … and says that his father’s gift to him (the B stands for Bakari), ‘Put a chip on my shoulder — I had to be competitive.'”

Making “Creed III,” which releases in theaters Friday, saw each man seize the rare chance their talent and industry success provided, to do something important for their careers and for themselves: to forge characters and tell a story onscreen that resonated deeply with their real lives, and by doing so, make this remarkable film franchise very much their own. On the soundstage, it’s clear their hypercompetitive natures had other manifestations.

“We did shoot around and play ball,” Jordan says, “did some shooting drills, just because we wanted to switch it up a little bit …”

Sure, but what happens when you win?

“Win and a loss is the same,” Majors says. “After you win, you go to the gym, OK? After you lose, you go to the gym.”

“Just don’t leave the gym on a miss,” Jordan says.

“[Me], I am already calculating on how to win,” Majors says with a smile. “I’m already thinking about how I’m gonna get you back. The real answer is neither of us loses. Ever.”

Jordan agrees, with a shout: “Always winning!”

“LOOK, MICHAEL’S A MOVIE star, right?” says Brian Robbins, Paramount Pictures’ president and CEO. “There’s not a lot of ’em, but he’s one of them. And I think he’s gonna be around for a really long time.”

At 36, Michael B. Jordan has been “People’s Sexiest Man Alive” and one of the most memorable characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring in movies that have grossed more than a billion dollars; from the miraculous 85-minute indie film “Fruitvale Station” (2013) to the monumentally significant “Black Panther” (2018), he has a multipicture working relationship with acclaimed director Ryan Coogler akin to the Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro screen partnership of an earlier generation.

“I think Mike’s great at what he does,” says Coogler, the man who has guided Jordan from Oscar Grant and Erik Killmonger to Adonis. “There’s the God-given thing that’s at play, a certain charisma … but the other piece is the work ethic and the intelligence. Mike has all of those things. He’s been working as an actor for a long time, since he was a baby, essentially, and he has the desire to constantly want to get better. We’ve developed a friendship and a shorthand.”

Jordan’s acting-directing double duty comes with the blessing and support of Coogler, a producer of “Creed III,” who also has a story credit. He’s got the backing of those he’s acted alongside, too.

“He did very, very well,” says Tessa Thompson, who has played Adonis’ love interest, Bianca, opposite Jordan since the first Creed in 2015, and in that time, has seen her acting career soar. “It’s a challenging thing to direct when you have to also be inside of the frame. To be able to step outside and look at the architecture of the whole thing — it’s a tremendous responsibility, particularly on these films that are so physical. I felt just so proud of him every day.”

In Hollywood, when you reach a level of bankability sufficiently unassailable that you can do pretty much anything you want, what you choose to do says a lot about you. “I was tired of kind of being directed,” Jordan explains. “As an actor, you get used to expressing yourself one type of way. All roads of my life and my career led up to this one moment to direct. I just kind of jumped at the opportunity.”

If Jordan is a king of Hollywood, 33-year-old Jonathan Majors is officially having a moment. Previously hailed for his impassioned turn in 2019’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” the Texas native and Yale University School of Drama graduate has been lighting it up as the new MCU villain Kang the Conqueror (Disney is the parent company for both ESPN and Marvel).

Majors’ work alongside Paul Rudd in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” had Marvel fans buzzing as the film earned $105 million during its opening weekend in early February … all of it happening just days after his performance in the independent movie “Magazine Dreams” made him the talk of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. He’s currently on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue, alongside other rising stars such as Austin Butler and Florence Pugh.

Long before he signed on to the franchise to play challenger Damian Anderson, the Creed films were transformational for him. “Creed set me on a certain trajectory,” Majors says.

“When I watched that film — and I knew that there was a young Black director directing it and I was looking at Mike — I was so inspired to grow my spirit and my body … to be worthy, you know? To say, ‘That’s right, we can do that.'”

Three years later, its sequel made Majors want to inspire others as well. “Then ‘Creed II’ comes: another young Black director [Steven Caple Jr.] and again, Mike. I grabbed my entire mentee team at the Yale school of drama — maybe seven or eight, nine young Black boys — and we all sit into our local theater in New Haven and watch. So the impact of Creed II is the community, all of us holding each other responsible. … I can do this. It clearly can be done.”

Majors has done it, with his central position as Kang in the MCU’s “Phase Five” captivating audiences, just as he captivated Jordan. “He dissolves into the characters that he plays,” Jordan says. “He lives it, man. He walks onstage and he’s still carrying a piece of Damian. He’s so dedicated to the character. He’s an actor looking for the truth.”

In truth, what Michael B. is doing isn’t unprecedented: on Rocky II through IV as well as 2006’s lion-in-winter outlier “Rocky Balboa,” Stallone himself directed and starred. Oh, yeah, about that: This new one is the first film in the series not to feature any appearance by Rocky Balboa nor (despite a producer credit) any input from Stallone.

“Rocky’s always gonna be a part of this franchise,” Jordan says. “These characters are all built off of that energy and that momentum. But we felt like it was the perfect time to have Adonis step out on his own two feet, as a man making his [own] decisions. He needed to find that wisdom within his family and look inward.”

For Jordan, looking inward is what’s sparked his desire to direct. “I had something I wanted to say. I wanted to share a personal part of me that I’d never had a chance to before, things that I was going through personally.”

What are those personal things — what this King of Hollywood broods about and explores in his first film — come out of Jordan’s mouth as a tumble of questions, animated by a single feeling: guilt.

“Why am I getting all the success that I’m having?” he asks. “I’m from Newark, New Jersey. I’m from the ‘hood, people that were right next to me in a lot of different situations, friends that I had growing up — why don’t they have those same opportunities?

“For me, sometimes that guilt, coming from where I’m coming from … a lot of people don’t make it out of their environment. … Why me?”

Yet, what Jordan might not have suspected early on is that he would not be the only figure in the movie to bring a vital part of his own past, and his relationship to it, onto the big screen. To probe what Coogler calls “survivor’s remorse.”

THIS MOVIE TELLS the story of a successful man: Adonis Creed — the heavyweight champ retiring to a behind-the-scenes life — leaves his gym and finds someone he thinks is a stranger leaning against his late-model luxury ride. The man is Majors’ Damian Anderson, a childhood friend of Adonis’ released from 18 years in prison. Creed invites Anderson to a getting reacquainted meal to determine what the long-lost Damian wants. That scene would be the first to feature Majors and Jordan on the shooting schedule.

“I wanted it to be the first so we can play on that natural awkwardness,” Jordan says, “to feel like they were picking up right where they left off 20 years ago, but then right in the same breath, have a moment of, ‘I don’t know this man.'”

“In that moment, I’m just trying to reconnect, right?” Majors says, “and I’m searching for the tools: Is my little brother still in front of me? Is he going to see me the way I need to be seen in order to get busy in this mission of mental liberation?”

Jordan jokes that he got to the set so early that morning he was helping the crew set up lights. It was the first scene he’d ever directed, and ‘I wanted to set the tone,'” he says, “showing how they’re fragmented in a lot of ways, but then also seeing the bond: ‘Oh, I see how close they were. I get it, but something’s not right.'”

By the middle of their early-in-the-movie conversation, those familiar with these films will already glean that in Majors’ insistent Dame, we’re seeing a future ring nemesis sizing up his old pal Adonis.

“He antagonizes, certainly, without a doubt,” Majors says. “To be the disruptor is fun. In the Creed world, it is ripe for f—ery. I don’t know if I can say that, but it’s ripe to get in there and to disrupt it.”

“I wanted to be an origin story and a sequel all in one,” Jordan says. “We wanted to tell the story of Adonis and what made him be the man that he is today. The relationship between him and Damian — where it all started.”

The in-and-outs of that relationship would be forged from Jordan and Majors talking it through.

“Mike and I, we were kind of schoolboys together,” Majors says. “At some point, he was talking to me and he was being directorial: OK, that’s just what it is now. And some days I’m talking to him like his scene partner, and I’m like, ‘Don’t do that!’

“Then, some days we’re sitting in the trailer with our hoodies on, hunched over, looking at the script, like, I don’t know how to fix this. It was an incredible collaboration in that way: Something about our relationship, between Jonathan and Michael, transcended any labels. Which is why I think I really believe this film is special.”

As Thompson explains, belief in that sort of process has been a core value of the Creed franchise, instilled from the beginning by Coogler.

“Yes, they’re athletic movies, set in the sports world, but they’re really about dynamics between people,” Thompson says. “Something that has always been inspiring to me about Ryan is he really believes that the feeling when you make a thing is important, not just the thing that you make. That’s not always an easy thing to do when you’re making these big movies! I was really proud to see Mike continue that approach to filmmaking.”

Once the titular star awaiting a summons to the set, Jordan was now the besieged decision-maker on all aspects of the movie, in constant demand by his department heads.

“It’s like you learn how to speak everybody’s love language 24/7,” he says with a smile.

“Time management is a big thing,” Coogler says. “The overwhelming feeling of not having all the answers when everybody’s looking to you for answers — you have to embrace not knowing and realize that it’s a collaborative team sport. I knew it was gonna be difficult; I knew that he would be in places that I had never been.”

“When I show up to set, nobody’s photographing me. But he had to worry about his diet, he had to worry about his choreography, he had to worry about his lines. That’s a lot more than I had to deal with.”

Coogler encouraged Jordan’s conversations with other actor-directors, from Denzel Washington and Ben Affleck to Forest Whitaker and Bradley Cooper.

“I’d say, ‘Go talk to these guys’ cause they can tell you about things I can’t,” Coogler says.

Thompson looked for signs of stress.

“I know him so well at this point,” she says. “It feels like we’ve almost grown up together. I knew he was stressed, as his good friend and longtime collaborator — but he was calm under fire, really and truly.”

“It was a challenge, man,” Jordan says, acknowledging he’d occasionally be found “taking a step away, walking outside for a second.”

Yet he understood his leadership role for cast and crew.

“Is he tripping? I try to keep an even keel but also have fun with what we’re doing. You want to lead by example,” Jordan says.

In the diner scene, Damian wordlessly refuses Adonis’ offer of money because he’s after something else: an opportunity to fight for a title shot. Once Adonis invites him into the gym as a sparring partner, Dame’s ambition and truth-telling messes with what matters most, and the drive that’s burned in him for so many years takes hold.

“Everything’s been taken away from him,” Majors says. “The world has pushed him back into the corner his whole life. But his mentality is forward, forward, forward.”

All of it happens because of the secret history that Dame and Adonis share, history that has Adonis questioning what he owes the people from his past. They are the same issues that Michael B. is confronting from his mountaintop perch.

“It starts to play on your head as you get successful,” he says. “When people that you used to have close relationships with come back around sometimes. I’ve had those awkward moments where we’re not as close. You want to be, but we’re not really still on the same page sometimes.

“I wanted to show what that felt like, what I feel like in those moments of making choices, making decisions: Do you reconnect? Do you re-embrace? You know, I have reconnected, I have re-embraced … hasn’t worked out for me in those moments, but sometimes it has. And that’s life. It’s a lot of gray areas. How you respond and react in those moments is what I wanted to show in this movie.”

“FRESHMAN YEAR WE met in English class,” 35-year-old Daquan Raymond says over the phone from New Jersey, “and the fact that we lived right around the corner from each other, we just went from there.”

In the box scores for Newark Arts High School boys’ basketball games during the 2004-05 season, their names are side-by-side, Daquan Raymond and Michael B. Jordan often carrying the scoring load for the Jaguars.

“Best friends off the court,” Raymond says. Their basketball prowess was honed at the backyard hoop outside Mike’s grandmother’s house, in the Weequahic section of Newark. Raymond recalls Jordan having a rudimentary offensive game — “He could get to the lane and finish at the rim; he had some hops; he had developed a decent jump shot” — but he was more accomplished at the other end of the floor.

“He was more of a defensive player. He anticipated a lot of passes,” Raymond says.

By his early teens, Jordan was picking up small parts as a professional child actor; now Paramount head Robbins cast him in 2001’s “Hardball” with Keanu Reeves.

“Michael had a little bit of acting experience and he was a pretty good athlete,” says Robbins, who directed the film about a Little League team. “I remember I had to get a lot of emotion out of him.”

Jordan remembers Robbins asking him to imagine something he desperately wanted and couldn’t have anymore. “I remember just talking very soft and quietly to Michael … and he did it, and he was great,” Robbins says. “Incredible focus for a kid his age.”

Jordan began to get emotional for the scene — and could not stop.

“I remember him crying and then feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so bad, I gotta give him a hug! You were great, but now you can leave that alone. Let that go,'” Robbins says.

Ever after, Jordan remembered shooting that scene as one of life’s turning points — the sheer thrill of feeling something that deeply setting him on a path to an acting career. His role as Wallace on HBO’s definitive how-the-sausage-gets-made inner city drama “The Wire” came one year afterward. But back home, basketball remained a focus of Mike’s as well.

“I grew up with a chip on my shoulder,” he says. “I had to be competitive. I mean, my dad named me Michael Jordan! You know how many jokes I heard?”

Raymond remembers. “I felt like, because his name was that, he kind of wanted to live up to the hype.”

By the time he and Raymond were hooping it up at Arts senior year, Jordan had a steady gig on the ABC soap opera “All My Children.” After graduation, the two stayed in touch for a bit; Jordan moved out west to pursue his dream.

He was cast as quarterback Vince Howard on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” in 2009. Around that time in Hollywood, Robbins was playing in an NBA Entertainment League, “And all of a sudden he was this man, flying around the gym, playing basketball,” Robbins recalls. “I hadn’t seen him in years and I was like, ‘Oh my God, he grew up into a real athlete!’ And that was before he became a big star.”

In fact, Jordan thought about hanging it up and heading back east before getting a part in 2012’s WWII drama “Red Tails” convinced him to stay.

Raymond remembers calling Jordan after seeing him in Creed.

“I told him congratulations on the movie,” Raymond says.

When the Creed III trailer was released, Raymond says, “My stepbrother was telling me the storyline reminds him of what happened between us. But we never fought or got into any arguments like that.”

“WHEN I WAS doing Rocky,” Sylvester Stallone explained to me in 2021 during a press run for “The Suicide Squad,” “there was no hat. And there was a store and … it’s a three-dollar hat made out of cardboard. As soon as I put it on, it changed the whole character.”

Stallone knew that hat would help transform his Rocky character from a street tough to a chatty, shambling underdog that audiences would root for. “The director [John G. Avildsen] goes, ‘You can’t wear that.’ I go, ‘Why?’ He goes, ‘Gene Hackman wore that in The French Connection (1971).’ I said, ‘So it’s no more hats in the universe because Gene Hackman wore one?’ I said, ‘This lid is staying on.’ And it stayed on for 40 years.”

A pretty good 40 years they were, too.

“You’re talking about American mythology,” Coogler says. “For me, when somebody says Rocky, I just think about my dad and my brothers and my mom sitting on the couch watching the movies — and my dad crying at some of the scenes. My dad was a hard man, but for whatever reason these movies would bring water out of his eyes, you know?”

Majors, too, would express admiration for the Rocky movies and their creator.

“What Mr. Stallone did completely revolutionized the athletic sports film,” he says. Upon its 1976 debut, Rocky was greeted as both an inspiring up-from-nothing saga, and for its first 45 minutes or so, a sublime romantic comedy. One year before “Star Wars” would reinvent the space epic for a new audience, Rocky’s embrace of the fight picture as a crucible for what Majors calls “intestinal fortitude” was a throwback to ’50s biopics like “The Joe Louis Story” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me.”

Though Stallone would deny it, a Rocky creation myth had him cracking the screenplay’s first page just days after Muhammad Ali’s bout in March 1975 with Chuck Wepner. A fight in which Wepner scored a sham knockdown by stepping on Ali’s instep and lost via TKO with just seconds to go in the 15th and final round.

As screenwriter of the Rocky movies, Stallone would always be grappling with the anxiety of Ali’s influence, especially in the creation of Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. The 1977 Academy Awards featured Ali “surprising” Stallone at the podium and saying the quiet part aloud: “I’m the real Apollo Creed! You stole my script!” The two traded shadow punches, and then embraced.

“It’s a privilege to be standing next to a living legend,” Stallone would say. Rocky won three Oscars on the night — Editing, Best Director and Best Picture — with none of the statues going to Stallone personally.

For the rest of the 20th century, no boxing movie — not even Martin Scorsese’s 1980 masterpiece “Raging Bull” — would rival the crowd-pleasing success of the Rocky films. Bolstered in part by 1996’s acclaimed documentary “When We Were Kings,” Ali’s influence throughout society and culture would endure into the next, from 2001’s biopic “Ali” with Will Smith … all the way to the 2018 commencement address at Howard University, given by an alumnus who began his remarks by recalling a time he spotted Ali on the HU campus.

“His eyes locked on mine and opened wide,” the speaker recalled. “He raised his fist … I was game to play along with him, to act as if I was a worthy opponent. What an honor to be challenged by the GOAT! … I walked away light and ready to take on the world.” So spoke the late Chadwick Boseman, Class of 2000, who took on the world and won as the star of “Black Panther.”

Dropping in early 2018, the superhero drama would be Coogler’s greatest triumph. (Its impact on Jordan’s career would be so far-reaching that when 9-year-old Mila Davis-Kent auditioned last year for the role of the Creeds’ daughter, Amara, the mere sight of Jordan on Zoom led her to give him the cross-armed Wakanda Forever salute.) Just three years earlier, with only Fruitvale Station on his résumé, Coogler would be an underdog given a shot at the title by Team Rocky: the chance to direct Creed: “It was never lost on me: a kid in his 20s, got the blessing. Hey, here’s your shot, first studio movie.'”

Stallone would earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but even given his work and Coogler’s use of the Bill Conti “Gonna Fly Now” music, Creed didn’t require deep knowledge of or loyalty to the Rocky films.

As a teenager, Thompson had appeared in a 1999 production of “Annie” in Los Angeles. Later, at Santa Monica High School, she’d be Hermia in a production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The impact of the Rocky films, she says, in her own career didn’t hit her until the film’s London premiere early in 2016.

“We were making the first Creed: This was a new idea,” she says. “Until we were out in the world and engaging with fans, Mike and I weren’t really thinking about the legacy of it, frankly … what we were borrowing from. There’s just cross-generational love for the Rocky franchise, and to step into that, where there’s a built-in fandom already, I was like, ‘Oh God, this!’ It was very exhilarating and continues to be.”

Through their performances, Coogler made a wildly entertaining movie that created a Black film franchise, even before he helped to give Marvel one — a movie about a hero who didn’t need to wear a hat to be seen as an underdog.

“MY PHYSICALITY,” Majors says, “is a certain way: I’m long like Thomas Hearns, my shoulders round out like Tyson.” While there are elements of well-known boxers in Dame, “It took discipline not to say, ‘I’ll just fight like Floyd [Mayweather, Jr.], I’ll just fight like [Joe] Frazier.’ I was trying to add Damian to the canon of these great fighters.”

“We took styles from like Bernard Hopkins, from Tyson,” Jordan says, “fighters that had a tenacity and a viciousness to them, but also their environment had an impact on how they actually fought inside the ring.”

That tenacity — and a capacity to exert a laser-like focus on acting, its processes and ways of seeing the world — would be characteristic of Majors once he embraced his life’s mission toward the end of high school in Cedar Hill, Texas.

“I’d been playing sports and living active and healthy since I was a boy,” he says, “but Majors would recall his day-to-day disintegrating when he turned 10 or so, after the union of his church-minister mother and choir-leader father came to an end. He’d recount an adolescence of conflict and occasional misadventure in and outside his home.

“I come from a certain neighborhood,” he says, “and had my run-in with being put away.”

Literature and performance would liberate his creativity. He would head to Winston-Salem University’s North Carolina for the Arts and do Shakespeare just as Thompson did. Then after a stint in New York City, Majors made his way to New Haven for grad school, booking a key role in an ABC TV movie even before he’d earned his MFA.

Once he was cast by Jordan, he says, “Jon’s objective to Mike was ‘I’m not gonna let you down — promise.'”

But even as he fulfilled his pledge to build his body into ring-ready condition, Majors critiqued the training itself, the bulking up of action movie leads. “It’s a privilege to go to a gym and work out and build a body,” Majors says. “Look, I’ll just talk straight. In my industry, you see these bodies [that would have] been superficially built. That tells a story I’m not interested in.”

For Majors, the body he labored to bring into being for Damian would tell a different story: It would be a vivid indication of the pain that his character had endured during his imprisonment. “It’s not a matter of how ripped somebody is,” Majors says.

“My goal was for people to see 18 years of determination, of fear, of rage, of loss. You should understand that those abs were made from incarceration. This is a man who had big dreams, and those dreams were deferred; those muscles are tight and strong because they’ve not been used to their full potential.”

He pauses for a moment. “He’s so full of hope and joy. But that’s the backend of it. It was built through the trauma.”

And Dame in Creed III — the character just released from a lengthy sentence — would let Majors take a long-hidden page out of his own past. “I was raised by a man who had been incarcerated for 15 years,” he says. “My stepfather, my main paternal figure in my life. I learned so much from him. And so in my love for him … you have to love someone in the totality. And a big part of his life was the fact that he was incarcerated. So I began to be interested in the psychology of that, as an actor and just as his son.”

That those were often difficult years for Majors adds to the power of his tribute to 55-year-old Joe L. Young. “The freedom offered, even in exoneration, is just that of the body,” he says.

“With Damian and with my stepfather, it’s the brain and the spirit that has to be free. The thing about the way we incarcerate folks here in America, it’s not just a body that is caged. The amount of fortitude, the amount of strength, the amount of spiritual might necessary to free that … is something that I hope people see in Damian.”

How much of his stepdad will audiences see onscreen? “I’d say a lot, yeah. I mean, it breaks my heart, because these men, their emotions get taken for granted. They’ve got ambitions and dreams. Damian is a love letter to those fellas, to keep swinging. If that means doing therapy or if that means getting your body right, if that means reconnecting with your family and friends…”

He takes a moment to wipe his eyes. “Whatever that means, it can be achieved. You are not who your past says you are. Hopefully, mighty Joe Young, my stepdad, can receive that.”

MICHAEL B. JORDAN has been giving his body to the Creed films since 2015. “I got broken metacarpals, I got torn labrums and abductors and surgeries.”

Now, as the director, Jordan is giving this series something fresh and new.

“What I tried to tell him more than anything,” Coogler says, “was to remember why he wanted to tell this story in the first place.”

“I had a lot of anxiety going into it,” Jordan says. “Like, ‘How am I gonna shoot this different? How am I gonna make this knockout look special? OK, we already did that, we did that injury — what new things can we do?’ Being limited forced me to be more creative and think outside the box. Through that struggle, I think we found some beautiful surprises.”

“There’s a scene where Mike is using purely cinematic language,” Coogler says, “to show … shared trauma — two characters that know each other like the back of their hands, working it out the best way they know how. I’m very proud of that scene, because I think Mike was the only guy who could have directed it the way it’s been done.”

So, what’s it really like to be at the top of the Hollywood mountain?

“I just now have the ability to do what I want to,” Jordan says, “and everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, you can chill for a minute.’ I said, ‘Chill? Why? How can I chill? I just got here!’

“It’d be crazy to sit down and relax. I think the last 12 months for me is knowing I could direct … no, knowing I could handle it.”

In Creed III, Adonis doesn’t compete by sheer force or punching power, he survives in the ring by perceiving opportunities and taking lightning-quick advantage of them. Off the set, putting in the work gives him the opportunity to put a bit of himself into the final product. Just as Majors is doing, and Thompson as well.

“I really like the idea that this life we have is a gift, even if it’s different than what we thought it would be,” Thompson says. “That’s something that Bianca reminds me of, which is a nice thing to be reminded of.”

For Jordan, real-life challenges bring results.

“If I’m not working hard in the gym, if I don’t have calluses, if my knuckles aren’t bleeding … I live that life because that’s what fighters go through,” he says. “When I step into the ring, I have to believe it, Jonathan had to believe it, we had to believe it ourselves. Nobody could tell me any different.”

Michael B. Jordan styled by Jason Bolden; Jonathan Majors styled by himself; Additional wardrobe styling by Manny Jay/Celestine Agency; Set styling by Wooden Ladder.

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Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors triumph in ‘Creed 3’