Marquise Noel, leading the dirt bike crew behind Michael B. Jordan in 'Creed,' and posing in his Kingsessing boxing gym Credit: New Line Cinema / Danya Henninger

Southwest Philly native Marquise Noel will never forget his 18th birthday. He spent the cold February day on his favorite bike, speeding up and down the streets of Kensington with a crew of riders he’d known and admired since childhood. Unlike on other days, there wasn’t any threat of cops chasing them away. Instead, the whole thing was being staged and captured by a Hollywood film crew.

In Creed, the seventh entry in the storied Rocky franchise, Noel plays the lead dirt bike rider. He’s the frontman of the group that coalesces around and cheers on Michael B. Jordan as his character, Adonis Johnson (aka Adonis Creed, aka “Donnie”), jogs through the city as he starts to train. Later in the movie, Noel is the one who rides up to Donnie when he’s sitting outside the gym, head in hands, worrying about his upcoming title fight.

“I heard you’re Apollo Creed’s son?” he asks. “Yea,” says Donnie. “That’s wassup,” says Noel’s character, before riding off with a wheelie.

In the film’s final pre-fight montage, Donnie sucks an extra dose of grit from the streets of Philadelphia when Noel and his dirt bike/ATV crew show up and ride in a circle around the shadowboxing underdog. Donnie goes on to (spoiler!) put on an impressive show at the championship match, even though he doesn’t win.

In real life, Noel does a lot of riding. He’s been practicing wheelies like the one in the movie since he was six years old. But Marquise — or ‘Quise, as his friends call him — has another connection with the film: He’s a boxer, and a good one. Last year, at age 18, he was the Pennsylvania Golden Gloves champion in the 123-pound novice division.

Why does he box? “I’ve always liked fighting,” Noel said. And in boxing, he explains, “you get to hit people back and not get in trouble.”

Life imitates art

Marquise Noel at the Kingsessing Rec Center’s boxing gym
Marquise Noel at the Kingsessing Rec Center’s boxing gym Credit: Danya Henninger

Noel has several things in common with Donnie, although mostly it’s the parts involving practicing fight form in front of mirrors.

Creed opens with a scene showing a young Adonis in a juvenile correctional facility, having landed there because he’s unable to restrain himself when someone talks bad about his mom. Eventually, Donnie learns to channel his urge to punch into wins in the ring. Growing up in Southwest Philly, Noel went through a similar evolution, with an important distinction: he never landed in a JD facility. In fact, he was a straight-A student. That’s despite another thing he had in common with Adonis — he grew up without a dad. It wasn’t that he died, like Apollo Creed, but that he’s been in and out of jail ever since his son was born. In for two years here, three years there, out for a bit but never long enough for parental bonding.

“He’s incarcerated right now, he’s locked up,” said Noel. “I’ve met him. But there hasn’t been a steady relationship.”

That Noel stayed in school, got good grades, played sports and was able to control his frustration at his dad’s situation was mostly due to his mother, Dywanna Broadnax, whose first name is tattooed on Marquise’s left shoulder. When she got pregnant as a junior in high school at age 17, she made the decision that if she was going to keep her baby, she was going to give it her all.

“It was that high school kind of love thing you think is going to last forever,” she said. “And then when I got pregnant… Well, it just turned out differently.”

But Dywanna remembered two female figures from her own childhood in Southwest Philly. One was a woman who had a kid at a young age, but always managed to make sure both her and her son looked good, and never hung her head or tried to hide her motherhood. Another was a woman who wore scrubs as she got off the bus for work at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).

After high school, Broadnax put herself through school to become a medical assistant, and got her own job wearing scrubs, working in HUP’s labor and delivery room.

“I just got molded into being a young professional by the people I worked with,” she said. “They also would give me tips on how to raise Marquise. Register him for this, look into signing him up for that.”

She was able to get Noel into a summer camp that afforded him trips to the woods and a lake, giving him regular breaks from the urban landscape and a chance to see the world outside of Philadelphia. A female technician she worked with helped her process the forms to get him into a Mastery Charter School in seventh grade, and “that helped shape him,” she said. “The education was so much more advanced than the public schools.” Noel stayed there through 10th grade, when she moved out to City Line Avenue and got him into Overbrook High, from which he’ll graduate this spring.

“Marquise knows he needs to keep his grades up, because boxing is very expensive, the equipment, the sneakers,” Broadnax said, “and all that comes from me. So the deal is if you want to look good boxing, you need to keep the grades up. I’m that mom.”

‘Maybe he heard it in the womb’

Noel and his mother, Dywanna Broadnax
Noel and his mother, Dywanna Broadnax Credit: Danya Henninger

At age 6, Dywanna enrolled her son in the local football team, the Kingsessing Roadrunners, where he did well and picked up the on-field nickname “Toughie.” That same year, she also bought Noel his first dirt bike. Dirt bikers were everywhere in Southwest Philadelphia — they’d been part of Dywanna’s own childhood — and Noel begged and pleaded until she gave in, figuring it was better to be involved than have him try to pick up a bike off the street.

“I rode on the back of bikes when I was pregnant with Marquise,” she said. “He says maybe he heard it in the womb, and that’s where he got the itch.”

“There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think about it,” Noel said. “I used to see people street riding, and think, ‘That’s gonna be me.’”

Dywanna kept her son on a short leash while he was learning to handle his kiddie bike, because she knew first-hand what could happen if she didn’t. Three years before Noel was born, in 1994, her own brother and three of his friends had gone out for a bike ride and were missing for two days before police pulled the four young bodies from the Schuylkill River.

“They were biking where they shouldn’t have been,” Broadnax said, explaining that the cops thought one of the kids may have fallen in, and the rest went in to help him but were then caught up by hypothermia and drowned, too.

When Noel was 16, he got his driver’s license. Given the option between a car or a dirt bike, he made what to him was an obvious choice.

“It was fully insured, and registered to me, and he was a legal rider,” explained Dywanna. “Yes, I’m in fear every time he gets on a bike. But he’s so good! The skills that they do on the bikes are just amazing. I think they should make it a legitimate sport.”

The YouTube dirt bike culture

Noel and other riders on the set of ‘Creed'
Noel and other riders on the set of ‘Creed’ Credit: Dywanna Broadnax

Street riding is a big part of urban life across the U.S., especially in cities with big African American communities. Doing stunts on bikes has been going on for decades, but the culture has recently surged thanks to Instagram and YouTube, which allow riders to show off, compete and connect with a community around the globe. It entered the national conversation with 2013’s dramatic documentary about a group of riders in Baltimore, 12 O’Clock Boys, and hasn’t left.

YouTube video

Last year, Philadelphia-born rapper Meek Mill released a mobile app called “Bike Life,” which lets people take virtual versions of the thrill rides he was famous for creating slick videos of in Philly and cities around the world. Riding dirt bikes or quads (the four-wheelers some prefer), is illegal on all Philadelphia streets, unless it’s private property and the owner has given permission. In interviews, Meek has said that “getting chased by the police is a part of the lifestyle,” but many riders don’t see it that way.

“If they would give us a sanctioned place, we would go there,” said Noel, who does his best to go riding every Sunday, after he’s done with his weekend job of working as a lifeguard. “We don’t want to be chased, because if there’s a crash, you could get injured or die. Just give us a place to ride, and we’ll be out of your hair.”

Advocates in the national street riding community are pushing to get the skills recognized as a sport like motocross. That way, organized competitions could be held, leading to specialized facilities so the noise (and danger) doesn’t invade residential communities.

Older riders in the crews of 40 or 50 that fly through Philly streets say even though some of the stunts are dangerous, the activity is positive.

“It’s a good stress reliever and it keeps people out of trouble. If they’re on a bike, they’re not out selling drugs or shooting people,” said Gill Robertson, 39, a childhood friend of Dywanna who rides a quad in Creed.

And it’s a misperception that most of the bikes are stolen, riders say.

“People think we run from the cops because our bikes are stolen, but it’s the actual opposite. It’s because we paid so much for them, and we don’t want them confiscated,” said Reginald “Hot Boyz Reg” Cook, 30, another of the Creed riders.

Street riding was written into the script of the movie because it’s part of Philadelphia’s reality today, Dywanna suggests.

“This movie was based around Apollo Creed. Apollo is African American, so you’re gonna have to show true African American culture. In Philly 2015, that’s bike riding,” she said.

‘Is that really him on the bike?’

Noel on set with his bike
Noel on set with his bike Credit: Dywanna Broadnax

When Dywanna signed Noel up to audition for Creed, the plan was to get him in as an extra in a boxing scene, not as a bike rider. She attached some stunt riding photos along with the pics of him in boxing gear with the online casting application, just because she thought they were better photos. Twenty minutes after sending the form, she got an email reply.

“Noel is too young to be a boxer,” it said (he was just 17 at the time, and boxing extras had to be at least 19), “but is that really him on the bike?” When she replied that it was, the casting crew sent another note, asking, “Great, can you find 12 other street riders and have them show up at the audition, too?”

As his mother got more and more excited, Marquise was nonchalant. “I don’t like attention,” he said. Although he wasn’t allowed to actually ride his bike at the audition because he was still a minor, producers looked at his videos and decided he was good enough to participate, seeing as he would turn 18 on the first day of shooting.

That day was a freezing February morning, and Noel and Broadnax showed up at 5 a.m. The shoot ran all the way through 7 o’clock at night, but even though the they had to be outside in the cold, Noel and the other riders enjoyed themselves. They got to meet Sly Stallone, Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, and do their wheelies and “Superman” stunts on the streets of Kensington without fear of being chased away.

Noel stood out from the start. “The producer came up to me and goes, ‘How is it that your son is the only one who wasn’t able to physically audition, but he’s the star of the bike scene?’” Dywanna said. A few weeks later, producers called to say they wanted to give Marquise a speaking line.

“I showed up and they sat me down, changed my whole wardrobe, and told me what to say,” Noel remembered. “It took me around seven takes, and everytime I did it, I had to ride down the street and do another wheelie.”

Noel didn’t mention the movie to any of his other friends — “I’m not a flashy person” — but when the first Creed trailer surfaced, they started asking him about it.

“There’s somebody that looks just like you in this new movie coming out,” they’d say. “For real, yeah?” he’d reply, playing dumb. “I’ll hafta go see it.”

When the film hit theaters, his friends knew he’d been hiding something. “People were like, yo that was you! I’m like yeah, that’s me, sorry. My friends were mad at me for not telling them, but they were happy for me too.”

It was only standing next to his bikes on the red carpet premiere in Exton, Pa. that Noel really got excited for the first time. More acting isn’t in his career plans, however. “If it happens, it happens, I’m not like, pursuing being a movie actor,” he said. Instead, he’s planning to go all in on boxing.

The ring, and the ticket

Noel plans to go all in on a boxing career
Noel plans to go all in on a boxing career Credit: Danya Henninger

And, wouldn’t you know it, this story has a Rocky Balboa, who in Creed becomes Donnie’s trainer and mentor.

As Noel got older, and dirt bike riding started taking up more of his attention, he began spending less and less time with boxing. He’d gotten into a rut at the start of his junior year in high school, and it seemed like he was in danger of getting sucked onto the streets and giving up everything his mother had worked for.

“I was actually getting in trouble and stuff — I got arrested for assaulting somebody, and I wasn’t focusing on my schoolwork, I wasn’t in the gym,” Noel said.

Enter the real-life Rocky: Coach Jimmy George.

The “gym” was Southwest Philly’s Kingsessing Recreation Center, and Marquise had been training there since he was 12.  A former boxer and trainer who’d worked with Joe Frazier for 17 years, Coach Jimmy was known by everyone in the neighborhood. He was the guy with the big heart who volunteered to coach the kids boxing, but also spent time checking up on them around the neighborhood.

“Coach Jimmy,” said Noel, “became like a father figure to me.”

George took Marquise on trips to the country and let him hang out in his New Jersey home. With George’s encouragement, Noel got back on track at school and also at in the ring. He won fight after fight, and then scored a big win at the 2015 state championships, taking home the title in his weight class. Noel plans to continue training with George after he graduates from high school, eventually going for a shot at the 2020 Olympic boxing team. He’ll probably take some classes at community college “to stay sharp,” but at least at first, he wants to focus on boxing.

“I love Philadelphia, this is my city. It made me who I am, and I’m always gonna remember where I came from. But boxing is how I’m gonna get out of Southwest Philly,” he said. “This is my ticket out.”

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.