Former champion discusses what it's like following in the footsteps of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang.

Antonio Tarver was born to play the role of Mason "The Line" Dixon in Rocky Balboa. As a former contender turned champion now turned former champion, Tarver knows what it means to have the public's expectations on you. We recently caught up with the pugilist turned thespian to discuss what it was like creating a foe who was worthy enough to stand alongside Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago.

Rocky Balboa is the next story in the saga of Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa, one of Hollywood's most beloved characters. In the film, Rocky has long since retired but is drawn back to the boxing ring one last time. On the way he is challenged by a powerful new champion, by personal tragedy and ultimately by himself.

Related: Creed 2 Is the First Rocky Movie to Get a Theatrical Release in China

What's it like to be in the ring with Rocky?

Antonio Tarver (Laughs) He had some disadvantages but he's a tough guy, a real tough guy. He was really in great shape. I was really in awe with his physique, his strength. His energy. It goes to show you what hard work can do. I just hope that when I'm pushing 60 I can look half as good as Sylvester Stallone.

What did it take out of your athletic career to take a break and do a movie?

Antonio Tarver I think it should do wonders. Being an athlete we always dream of being on the big screen, bigger than life, this is an opportunity I think a lot of people would have given their right arm to be in my position. So, I'm very thankful and blessed that Sylvester Stallone believed in me and that I was able to come through and bring Mason "The Line" Dixon to life.

Were you able to keep fit during the 12 hour days you were shooting?

Antonio Tarver We prepared about a month and a half before we ever started shooting. We got the fight scene down... I trained out here in L.A. with Gunnar Peterson. He worked me really, really hard, to bulk up to 215, 218 pounds was hard. I had to fill out for the part but people do it all the time in acting. The hard part was I had to get back down to light heavyweight and that was a tremendous struggle. Maybe it cost me a win, who could ever say? If I had it all to do over again, I would never turn down the opportunity to be in such a great movie. Rocky Balboa, the final chapter in the Rocky Franchise. They'll forget about the fight I lost, but they'll forever remember Mason "The Line" Dixon.

There was a scene in the movie where you busting up Rocky, and you were looking at the ref to try and stop it. That reminded me of your fight with Eric Harding where you had him hurt and we're doing the same thing. Did that scene in the movie come from that?

Antonio Tarver I often wonder how close this whole thing was! (Laughs) That did happen. I hurt the guy pretty bad and I felt the ref should have stopped it way before he did, but we got him out of there and I guess Sly saw that fight.

What's it like to prepare for a fight as opposed to preparing to play a fighter in a movie?

Antonio Tarver There's a physical demand in preparing for a real fight. Depending on what role... this particular role it was hard, because I had to go lift weights, I had to train, I had to look the part. That was a real grind, you know? Real boxing is more of a toll on the body. We diet, we spar, we hit bags, you run the morning, you tell your girlfriend or wife to sleep in another room. It's hard. A lot of sacrifices.

Why do you think Mason Dixon eventually decides to fight Rocky?

Antonio Tarver At the time I just felt that being 33-0 with 33 knockouts, the most superior heavyweight that had come along in a long time, it didn't make sense to me. Like I said, I thought that I could beat this guy with both hands tied behind my back. It didn't make sense to me but after looking at it more carefully, there was something else to gain from fighting a great fighter. That had the fanfare and love I felt like I didn't have, that I thought I should have had. It was an opportunity for me to gain that rather than just the money.

How difficult is it for you to make it look real in the ring?

Antonio Tarver I think he got dazed a couple of times. That was not hard, I think that's the skill that I brought to the movie. He's been in the ring with a lot of fighters... he's gotten cut, hurt, he's gotten injured from those fighters because they just didn't have the wherewithal to not turn over their punches. I think that's what I brought to the table. I'm glad that he was able to see that I had that special thing.

Did he ever accidentally hit you too hard?

Antonio Tarver He didn't accidentally hit me, he purposely hit me. (Laughs) It wasn't an accident.

Were you a fan of the Rocky films?

Antonio Tarver I loved Rocky from the very beginning. It's been in my generation forever. I'm 38, so I was old enough to recognize what was going on. Apollo Creed was one of my favorite characters. He had that pizzaz, that bravado, that I think I have in my own personal career. It was great, you know? I rooted for Apollo in the beginning but I've been rooting for Rocky ever since.

Do you plan to continue acting?

Antonio Tarver I hope that there's more acting. We want people to believe that I can get the job done, give me an opportunity. Right now, my focus is definitely on my return to the ring. To the sport that has given me everything. Opened every door for me... it's just great. I have my back against the wall once again and I've got to come back from defeat and show these people that I am truly the talent that I think I am.

How did you get the role of Mason "The Line" Dixon?

Antonio Tarver I don't remember getting a call from anybody but Sylvester Stallone. He called me directly he said that he wrote the script with me in mind. That it was mine to turn down. I automatically said, "Where do I sign up?" I wasn't going to turn down this opportunity for no one. When I heard of the character and read the script, it was perfect. It was something that I wasn't going to turn down for anyone. I'm glad that he had faith in me. He's done that a number of times with Mr. T, he took a chance with him, Clubber Lang, and the rest is history.

Rocky Balboa opens in theaters nationwide on December 20 from MGM Pictures.

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Evan Jacobs