Michael B. Jordan's Biggest Fight Is With Himself

Michael B. Jordan's Biggest Fight Is With Himself

class="lrv-u-text-transform-uppercase u-letter-spacing-012">margin-b-2 u-margin-r-262@desktop lrv-u-margin-b-1@mobile-max lrv-u-margin-r-125 u-width-160 u-width-86@mobile-max u-height-160 u-height-86@mobile-max"> font-theme-primary u-font-size-74 u-font-size-46@mobile-max u-line-height-72 u-line-height-48@mobile-max lrv-u-flex lrv-u-justify-content-center lrv-u-align-items-center lrv-u-width-100p lrv-u-height-100p">I T IS A MILD SATURDAY in December, and I am in a nondescript office building in Burbank, California, watching three hand-selected scenes from the upcoming film Creed III. The movie, due out March 3, is very much unfinished. The director, who also happens to be the star, is not in the room, but is on the screen in front of me, dapper in a camel trench and high-end hoodie, on his face the trademark look of his that has made the actor both famous and irresistible: a look that combines mournfulness and defiance in exactly equal measure.

In the scene I am watching, Adonis sits in a diner across from an old friend, Damian, played with an unsteady and lugubrious menace by Jonathan Majors. Like Jordan, Adonis is an A-lister in his field, known the world over, top of his game. He now owns a boxing gym, runs a stable of fighters, retires at night to a sprawling, modernist mansion where his famous music-producer wife and lovely young daughter await him.


Damian has had a different experience. He and Adonis were in group homes together as children, ran the streets as teens, and committed petty crimes. But that lifestyle only caught up with one of them. Damian ended up in prison for more than a decade -- serving time for an incident Adonis escaped -- while he watched his childhood friend become a star.

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The men are having, with spare dialogue and long looks, what amounts to a very silent heavyweight fight. Adonis wants to be available to Damian, who is fresh out of prison, wants to offer him a hand. But he is clearly uncomfortable, perhaps even a little ashamed of his exorbitant success, now that he sees it placed against the rugged, earthy reality of his past, represented by Damian, dressed in wrinkled denim and a dirty beanie, hauling all of his possessions in a single bag.

"Listen, man, if you need anything," Adonis offers, establishing himself as charitable and understanding.

"Naw, man, I'm straight," Damian tersely counters.

Adonis sees that he has made a misstep. He has led with his chin. Guilt has thrown him off balance. He tries to recover.

"Oh, I didn't mean it like that...."

"It's cool...." Damian says, sensing apprehension and getting ready to move in.

In this scene Jordan has picked for me to watch, Creed, who has overcome everything, and quite literally fought his way from being an abandoned child in a youth lockup facility to the people's hero at the very top of his profession, finds himself across the table from the one thing he still fears: someone who has good reason to believe he might not deserve it.


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Apparently, however, a possible cheat day is not justification enough, because even after announcing it, he hesitates, reading the menu options with the concentration of a man completing an admissions exam. Thinking and rethinking. Precisely how much cheating should one even do on a cheat day? He considers in silence some more. He wonders, if he does indeed get the French toast, would I be willing to help him eat it?

"I'm not finna leave you out there alone...." I answer jokingly. "You're my brother...."

He laughs and riffs with me: "What kinda man would I be?"

We extend this joke for a few moments: two Black men uplifting each other by supporting our French-toast habits. We laugh harder than probably makes sense for two people who just met moments ago. Maybe this is because while the French-toast part is for giggles, it still feels good to say the uplifting words.

Jordan, 36, has an infectious energy, a kind of enthusiasm you can feel just by standing next to him. Arriving at the restaurant, he'd bounded out of his metallic-blue sports car and greeted me like a long-lost family member, ready with smiles and apologies for keeping me waiting. He carries his six-foot frame lightly, like someone accustomed to hopping and dancing in sneakers. In our early chatter, his black sweatsuit well-constructed enough to suggest his musculature without bragging about it, he'd told me that eating every three hours and walking for cardio would make my body transformation easy as pie. After hearing him talk about working out for about 45 seconds, I was ready to change my entire life.

It won't be until well into the meal that Jordan finally asks what I thought of the cuts from his movie. And when he does, I will realize he was waiting because he was ever so slightly nervous about my answer. He has described the film as deeply personal -- a reflection of his experiences as a young Black man and "a way for me to share a piece of myself with the world." He is also, above all, a person who wants to do things well.

"I'm always willing to prove myself," Jordan says, leaning eagerly over his crab Benedict. "When you come from where I come from, and everybody doesn't get those opportunities and breaks -- that luck, or whatever -- you start to question why you're getting the things that you get. Why am I successful in life? Or why did I go this way, and everybody went that way? That builds up on you after a while."

So perhaps his eating is not just his eating. Perhaps it is part of his job, his vision, a manifestation of his drive. It is certainly at the center of a body transformation he undertook to originate the role of Adonis back in 2015, that is, to put it mildly, impressive. For a year, he lived and trained like a boxer, subsisting on chicken and broccoli, lifting weights, sparring, running, getting busted in the face. (The internet has the videos to prove it; just search "Michael B. Jordan workout compilation.") Through sheer force of will he molded himself into his best approximation of what Carl Weathers and Sylvester Stallone had to become for their Rocky movies in the Seventies and Eighties -- that is to say a living god, the most in-shape a dude can be, the physical embodiment of "goals."

When you come from where I come from, and everybody doesn't get those breaks, that luck, you start to question, 'Why am I successful in life? Why did I go this way, and everybody went that way?'

But the end goal was never the body. It was the journey to superhero status, to someone who excels at every level, physically, artistically, socially, spiritually. Someone who leaves no stone unturned, no challenge unmet. I can see why one would have to think long and hard about where a plate of French toast on a Saturday afternoon fits into all of that. He is a man determined to keep it together, no matter what.

The waiter arrives, introduces himself, and asks, "What are we celebrating today?"

"Life," we both say immediately and without consulting each other.

IF YOU HAVE TWO EYES and a heart, chances are Michael B. Jordan has played someone that you've found yourself falling in love with, rooting for, or crying over. Maybe that someone is Wallace, the doe-eyed, not-built-for-this teen drug dealer on The Wire, whose demise in the show's first season remains one of the most heartbreaking onscreen deaths of the 21st century; or Oscar Grant of Ryan Coogler's 2013 debut, Fruitvale Station, whose real-life death at the hands of a transit cop still represents a nuclear core of grief for the entire Bay Area; or Killmonger, the tortured villain of Coogler's Marvel masterpiece, Black Panther.

Raised in Newark, New Jersey, to a mother and father who still attend Hollywood events by his side, Jordan was an energetic, rambunctious child.

"He was the kind of kid who took things apart and put them back together again," his older sister, Jamila, an Emmy-winning documentary producer, tells me. "I don't wanna say defiant, although maybe his teachers would put it that way, but it came down to a curiosity. He was that kind who always had to know why."

By all accounts, the Jordans were a good family in what was a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood. Newark in the 1990s was one of the most violent and crime-affected cities in the country. But Donna and Michael A. Jordan were active in the lives of each of their three children (Jordan's younger brother, Khalid, who works in TV development, rounds out the bunch) and ran a household steeped in the arts, literature, and Afrocentrism. They hosted Kwanzaa celebrations where the children put on performances and all their neighbors gathered and talked late into the night about unity and community strength. All three Jordan kids attended the Chad School, a now-defunct private school in Newark focused on Black excellence, and, for high school, Newark Arts High School, where their mother was on staff. Achievement was expected, and Jordan didn't disappoint: Over spaghetti at a Hollywood awards dinner where Michael B. was an honoree, Michael A. made sure to tell me his son was also a standout athlete in high school, who excelled at basketball and track and "coulda gone pro in baseball, too."

Jordan wasn't afraid to enjoy his early success. When he was back in Newark, he joined the drag-racing scene at Avenue P in the BMW he bought with his industry checks, teaching himself how to drift by just watching others do it. But by the time he landed his 26-episode arc on Friday Night Lights -- playing high school quarterback Vince Howard, a, you guessed it, troubled youth with a heart of gold -- he'd been in the business for a decade, and, like most people in their early twenties, needed to figure out if he was really going to do something with his life. A bit of advice from FNL creator Peter Berg stuck with him: "He was like, 'Hey, Mike, there's gonna come a day where you're tired of waiting for an incoming phone call. You're going to want to control your own destiny.'

"It was the moment everything started to click," Jordan tells me over one of his espressos. "So, you know, next couple of nights, I'm like, 'What if I do that?' I'm starting to put it together and manifesting."

Jordan began Googling about IP, talking to showrunners about producing, thinking about the kinds of movies and shows he'd want to see. Nearly 12 years later, he's manifested a production company, Outlier Society, with dozens of projects either off the ground or in the works, including the Netflix series Raising Dion, about a Black boy with superpowers; David Makes Man, an OWN series about a young Black man's evolution from teen to adult, penned by Moonlight screenwriter Tarrell Alvin McCraney; an upcoming adaptation of sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin's The Broken Earth; and a remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, currently in preproduction.

But when it is Jordan's turn, he approaches the mic with a muted gravity. He gazes at the award in his hand for a moment, and thanks us for taking time out of our busy lives to be in this room and share this space. He talks quietly about how he's been locked in an editing bay for the past six months or so, and how it's caused him to lose perspective a little bit, but that being here is reminding him of what's important -- to be present. Here. With us.

Soon he is reading from a crumpled sheet of paper -- some reflections he has jotted down on what a trailblazer is, how he's learned from the best, honoring those who came before, etc., etc. He seems only mildly invested in these platitudes. It's like he wants to say something but cannot find the words for it. This changes when he mentions his parents. He looks longingly at the table in the front of the house, where we are all seated, and he comes off the script.

"I look at this table ... at people who have known me for my entire life, and they are responsible for why I'm here. My mom, my dad, my sister, my brother, my team. This is the reason why I stand before you and why you guys get a chance to see this work. Because of this table right here." His face lights up a little, and it's like he's finally arrived here. I glance over at his mother, who is gazing at her son with a look that reminds me she knows more about what this moment means than I can ever imagine. Later, he will tell me that she was holding his hand for much of the night, squeezing it whenever someone shared something poignant from the stage.

Grant was a 22-year-old who was shot and killed by a cop in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009, on his way home from partying with friends. The film recounts his final 24 hours -- arguing with his girlfriend, trying to get his old job back, going out to see fireworks. It is remarkable in its simplicity. We know that the character we are watching will die at the end of this day. But we are absolutely fascinated with the purity of his lived humanity. Coogler's camera gives us the feeling of a ride-along, mixed with restrained touches of nostalgia. It is as if we, too, are remembering all of the beautiful mundanities of our last day alive.

But it is the depth of Jordan's performance that gives the film its heart. In his hands, Oscar is sympathetic, and beautiful, rough, and annoying. In one moment, kind of a dick. And the next, the embodiment of everything in all of us that just wants to be good, just wants to be loved.

"He's flawed," Jordan tells me of the character. "But that doesn't give anybody a reason to take his life." Here his voice raises a touch, and I can feel the words coming from a deeper place. "So what, he sold dope? So what, he did that? So. Fucking. What? He still had a right to get home to his daughter."

It is the night after the awards show, and we are in a members-only supper club on the west side of L.A. For some reason I find myself thinking at this moment about how we are the only Black patrons here, and I wonder how far either of us is from catching a bullet from an officer who "feared for his life."

"Oscar was the humanity," he continues, unconcerned that some people seem to be taking notice. "'No matter what, I am a human person and I deserve to live.' Like, the disarming nature that we have to have, walking in this world to make other people feel comfortable.... I got a chance to tap into that and a real way to show that. That's what I do every day." And here he paused to look at me. "That's what we do every day. Subconsciously or consciously."

There are other roles that he uses to tap into things that he might not feel safe tapping into in his regular life. I ask him, for example, if playing Killmonger, a Black man so angry about centuries of oppression that he was willing to destroy his entire ancestry out of sheer spite, changed him at all.

Here he pauses for a very long time. Long enough that I want to say something. But I don't. "Killmonger allowed me to access the pain. And the unapologetic frustration that I had," he eventually says. "But then, obviously, there's a sadness that comes along with that. I dove into that for a lot longer than I ever had before. So coming out of that [role] it was hard to want love. Because during shooting I kept myself from family and children, and away from everything that Killmonger never had."

Something in Jordan is cracking. He stops talking. Because he tears up. It is a kind of crying I can't remember ever seeing anyone do before. The tears are leaking as he talks, the way an icicle slowly thaws in the spring.

It makes sense that Killmonger threw Jordan for a loop. In real life he's the most affable, joke-cracking, polite person you can imagine, surrounded by his closest friends and loved ones. He actually lived with his parents until just a few years ago. His sister describes how much he still seems like a kid when he plays with her three-year-old son.

"He comes by to hang out and have fun or whatever," she tells me. "He came over recently, and I put on The Bad Guys, the animated movie, and he immediately locked in and started watching it. I was like [to my husband], 'Yeah, he really likes cartoons, I shouldn't have put this on.'"

The phrase "locked in" is one Jordan uses often. He's "locked in" on career, "locked in" on success, "locked in" on blazing trails. It makes me wonder if he'll ever feel like he can be free of being "locked in."

In his entire time in the public eye, Jordan has dated publicly only once. He was with model and all-around It girl Lori Harvey (stepdaughter of the comedian Steve Harvey) through much of 2021 and some of 2022. They made it Instagram official, and Jordan told The Hollywood Reporter in December 2021 that he'd "finally found what love was." Their breakup six months later was and still is subject to swirls of unsubstantiated rumors (that he was ready for marriage but she wasn't; that she might have cheated). His heartbreak was even the (jokey) subject of his opening monologue when he hosted Saturday Night Live in late January. But both parties have studiously maintained decorum addressing the issue in public.

I did ask if he saw himself making time for a relationship again.

"Of course I think about it, but I definitely want to try to be responsible with that," he says, "knowing how I wanted to be as present as possible. It's gonna happen when it's supposed to happen."

ON THE WAY TO the supper club, I just so happened to be driving down Santa Monica Boulevard behind Jordan's Ferrari. Before I knew it was him, I noticed how the driver was weaving in and out of traffic. Not dangerously, per se, but excitedly. Like someone who had just gotten tremendous news and couldn't wait to tell a friend. Like someone who still had a little bit of drag racing in his blood.

He had just finished with the final final edits for Creed III and was ready to celebrate. He'd greeted me at the maitre d' station with a million-watt smile and an excited hug. He is so damn easy to love.

This time, there was no hemming and hawing about what to order. Steak frites, caviar potatoes, two pieces of sushi, pigs in a blanket, salted caramel ice cream. He was singing the words on the menu out loud. Bring it all was his attitude, for tonight, we feast.

"That is something I have not mastered," he says after a pause. "I meditate when I can. When I'm in the shower or if I'm cooking. Going for a drive. Three o'clock in the morning, go for a drive. Music on. Driving."

He seems to be discovering his answer as he delivers it. "You know, I just don't have a lot of free time. It seems like what I have to do supersedes that so often. And I know it's not good. [I get] sick and rundown, and my body's quitting on me all the time, saying, 'Mike, fucking relax. You can't keep this pace up.' But again, that goes back to making sure I deserve it. Things came easier for me. So I worked twice as hard. I put myself through that torture, that pain, to feel like I deserved the blessings that I have."

I ask him if there's a point at which he could ever see himself feeling like he had accomplished enough.

"I'm scared. I'm scared it'll never happen," he says between mouthfuls of french fries.


He struggles to explain this.

"I don't know if I want to be in a constant state of building. But I don't see myself slowing down. Even when I say I want to slow down -- I do, in theory, [it] sounds good. But then, I'm so curious. I want to leave nothing on the table. Life's short. Like, I don't want to leave any stone unturned. I want to squeeze every fucking drop out of this."

As we work our way through dinner, I begin thinking about fear. Like the fearlessness of drag racing a BMW as a teenager, or moving out to Los Angeles at 19 to pursue a career in acting, or stepping into a ring to get your face bashed in for a movie. But while many people would be afraid to do any of those things, Jordan might not have been. His fears are something different. I mean, he obviously fears relaxing. But what else?

"I think the fear of being forgotten is a big one."

"Everybody," he answers right away. "One of my best friends growing up passed away when I was, like, 23. And a few years later, I was working, shooting a film, crazy shit going on at the time, you know, it was like the most amount of stress. And I forgot his birthday.

"I didn't call his family on that day," he continues. "I didn't take time during that whole day to remember that it was my best friend's fucking birthday. His birthday. To pass away, bro. And I felt like the biggest piece of shit ever. And I felt ... fuck. If I ... like, if somebody I hold so dearly, I can forget when their birthday was ... what the fuck they gonna do about me?"

I feel the need to remind him that we're all gonna be forgotten at some point. And for some people that's not a source of stress, but rather a source of freedom. None of this is going to matter, so don't worry so much. Be free. We both laugh at how opposite these two ways of looking at mortality are.

"I wish I could. There's more to do.

"I have not reached my full potential. That's another fear," he adds, "not reaching my full potential. To go on these solo journeys, to be so fucking locked in, to shut out the world and focus on certain things in order to advance or get better or master your craft, you know, you gotta be a little obsessed and a little off."

I ask him if he's happy.

"In moments," he answers quickly and with certainty. "Last night, second half of the [awards] dinner, happy. Car ride home, happy. This morning, eh.... I was stressed the fuck out this morning. I was happy when I walked in here, saw you, and said I'm fucking locked [on the movie] today. Happy. Looking at the menu? Happy. I have moments. It's such a fleeting thing. It comes and goes."

FOR MUCH OF THE DINNER I find myself thinking about this concept of potential. Why would it be important for a person to reach theirs?

It occurs to me that perhaps one of the reasons (besides straight-up racism) Jordan was so frequently cast as a troubled youth is because growing up, he had many of the qualities of a troubled youth: an overabundance of energy, an electric and sparkling aggression, a mind that moved a mile a minute, reading people and quickly picking up on bullshit, a body that might not have been fully aware of its own power.

In other words, he was like so many other young Black boys who often find themselves labeled as disruptive; the type ostracized by teachers who can only think of one way to deal with them, to treat them like they are inherently bad and kick them out of the room; the type who realizes early on that there is no purpose in being good or kind or respectful, because very few people in positions of power are good or kind or respectful back. This is how entire lives are quietly lost.

This is what I mean by potential. Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Tyre Nichols. We not only lose the people, we lose their potential, the possibility of what they could have become. This is not just for people who are killed but for those who witness violence, experience complex and debilitating trauma, are dumped into the criminal-justice system before they are old enough to drive. All of that potential, untethered from its source, floating around. Where does it all go? What happens to all of that possibility?

In some sense this is what Michael B. Jordan sees himself as, why he pushes himself so hard: the potential of all those millions of Black kids who never got a chance.

As the evening wears down, something odd happens. When I ask him what his favorite role has been, he begins to tell me about taking Fruitvale Station to Cannes. He and Coogler, two Black kids from various hoods, had no idea what to expect when they took their little independent film to France. He had been warned that French audiences are not shy about expressing their displeasure. However, when the film ended, and the credits rolled, they were surprised to see everyone in the theater stand. The ovation continued, longer than he even expected it to.

"Motherfuckers standing up for 10 minutes," he says, his voice growing heavy and serious. "I didn't know what the fuck was going on. I was like, 'Oh, shit. This is uncomfortable. Y'all could stop.' Walking out into the hallway, they still clappin', bro. I get chills thinking about it, it's crazy."

"Literally, from the time [the movie] ended, the applause didn't stop until I got on the fucking ... back on the red carpet outside. Getting into the car, it was starting to rain. And people are still" -- here he taps insistently on the table, shaking my bubbly water -- "on the windows. As I'm calling Oscar's mom on the phone, telling Wanda we just fucking ..."

And he stops talking. Because he tears up.

"Like, it's something like ..." He is without words for a moment. "I never thought a nigga from North Jersey'd be able to have that impact."

It is a kind of crying I can't remember ever seeing anyone do before. The tears are leaking silently as he talks, like the way an icicle slowly thaws in the spring. But he keeps it together, dries his eyes with his hoodie. Not the sleeve. But the actual hood, for some reason.

"So this is what Adonis is the most current iteration of. He is Black in the world. He has to work through the aftereffects of what Killmonger was fighting for, and how Oscar wasn't seen or respected. Adonis is trying to start a family, and dealing with childhood trauma, not knowing how to talk and not knowing how to express himself. Not knowing why he feels less, why doesn't he feel worthy."

Even as he said this, he was still crying. Even after his voice returned to normal, through at least two more topics of conversation, and even as we got up to pay the check and leave. He wasn't sobbing. It's just that the tears, once they started, once he began to let them loose, he couldn't seem to make them stop.


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Production Credits

Produced by <strong>Petty Cash. Creative Direction by Joseph Hutchinson. Photography Direction by Emma Reeves. MBJ Creative Director: Leonardo Volcy. Fashion direction by Alex Badia. Barber: Jove Edmond. Grooming by Tasha Brown at The Wall Group. Body paint, face cast, and chest-cast sculpture by Holly Silius. Market Editor Luis Campuzano. Styling by Jason Bolden. Styling assistance by John Bumblo. Tailor: Erin Castle. Production Design by Wesley Goodrich. Set dressing by Nico Geyer. Lighting direction by Sebastian Johnson. Photography assistance by Lance Williams. Digital technician Stowe Richards.

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