In my never-ending quest to understand and live the warrior ethos, I have read about the lives of famous (and not so famous) people of the past and present. I have also enjoyed the stories of fictional heroes, on the page and the screen. One of the most enjoyable of the latter has been that pug boxer from Philly, Rocky Balboa. And this week, I got to visit with him again.
I will not be giving out any spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen Creed. If you’re not a boxing fan, not a Rocky fan, you probably won’t bother with the film, until maybe it comes out on free TV about a year from now. Those of you who like stories that are about striving to achieve a goal, fighting against near-insurmountable odds, making sacrifices, bonding with fellow warriors…well, this film’s for you. So even if you don’t like boxing, even if you have no idea who Rocky Balboa is, go see it.
Birth of an icon.
Sylvester Stallone was born in New York City in 1946, the son of an Italian immigrant father and a French-Ukrainian mother. Complications during delivery resulted in partial paralysis of the left side of the infant’s face. The family moved to Washington, D.C., during his grade school years and after his parents divorced, young Sly went to live with his mother in Philadelphia. He went to college at the University of Miami but soon went back to New York and struggled to find his place in life. After being evicted from his apartment he auditioned for a role in a cheap soft-core porn flick and got the lead, for which he was paid $200 for two days’ work. But he hung in there, displaying many of the characteristics that he would later amalgamate into his most famous role. Bit parts in more legitimate theatrical releases (including 1971’s Klute, for which Jane Fonda won the Oscar for best actress) followed.
In the early 1970s, boxing was much more of a glamorous, popular sport than it is today, thanks almost entirely to one man: Muhammad Ali. Loved for his colorful personality and boxing prowess, hated because of his successful efforts to avoid the draft, Ali was the most famous athlete in the world. Three times the world heavyweight boxing champ, Ali fought his share of legends and chumps. One of the latter was Chuck Wepner, a 6’5″ ex-Marine from New Jersey who was matched with Ali for a bout near Cleveland in March 1975. Maybe not so much a chump, after all; Wepner took Ali into the 15th and final round before being knocked down. Ali was awarded the victory by TKO. Among the millions watching the bout, according to legend, was the struggling young actor Sylvester Stallone, who sat down and spent 20 hours writing a script for a movie about a pug boxer who makes the most of his one shot at immortality. Stallone, however, has denied that Wepner inspired the character. But hey, it makes for a good story, one that Wepner took seriously enough that he filed suit against Stallone; they settled out of court. Whatever his inspiration, Stallone hustled the script and eventually sold it to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff for $350,000, with the condition that Stallone play the lead role. Supposedly, other actors such as Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds had been considered. Fine actors, both of them, but as Rocky? Forget it.
Rocky was a smash hit, the surprise of the year. Among the ten Academy Award nominations the film garnered, Stallone got two, for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. He didn’t win those, but the film did win Best Picture, Best Directing (for John G. Avildsen) and Best Film Editing.
The film was much more than a boxing movie. In fact, the two fights depicted in the film–the opening scene, showing Rocky fighting in a seedy club, and the climactic battle with the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed–take up only a small percentage of the film’s actual running time. It tells the story of Rocky Balboa, a small-time fighter from Philadelphia who supplements his meager winnings from the ring by working for a loan shark as a strong-arm enforcer. Creed needs an opponent to replace a fighter who had to drop out of a planned title fight due to injury, and he selects Balboa. And, as film fans know well by now, the champ gets a lot more than he bargained for. Rocky teams up with venerable trainer Mickey Goldmill, and along the way he romances Adrian Pennino, a shy wallflower who works at a pet shop and lives with her abusive, alcoholic brother Paulie. Early in the fight Rocky lands an uppercut that sends Creed to the canvas for the first time in his career. The champ recovers, though, and eventually wins by a split decision.
The inevitable sequels.
There have been movie sequels as long as there have been movies. Today they’re referred to as a “franchise,” if they are successful. The James Bond films come to mind, but Rocky inspired its own franchise that is still going strong, forty years later. Rocky’s controversial loss to Creed in the original guaranteed a sequel, and in Rocky II, we see Balboa struggling with his new-found fame and Creed seething because the public thinks he actually lost the first fight. They meet again, and this time Rocky emerges triumphant.
Fame and fortune are now his, and in Rocky III we see he doesn’t deal with it too well. He and Adrian are now married and parents of an infant son. Mickey lines up a series of challengers that hardly provide a test for the new champion, which is commonplace in boxing. But there’s another up-and-comer, Clubber Lang (played by a fearsome Mr. T), who destroys one guy after another in the ring and finally forces Rocky to accept his challenge by insulting the champ and his wife in public. Against Mickey’s advice, Rocky goes into the ring and is defeated as Mickey suffers a fatal heart attack. But here comes Apollo Creed, now retired, who detests Lang and pushes Rocky to train hard for the rematch. With his former nemesis now in his corner, Rocky knocks out Lang and regains the belt.
Rocky IV was released in 1985 and was the only film in the series to have any political overtones. At the time, the Soviet Union seemed to be an impregnable monolith, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and an ideology that was spreading around the world. A bare ten years earlier, communist forces had crushed South Vietnam, the ally we had abandoned. Marxism was on the march in Central America, Africa, Asia. Peace movements in Western Europe often seemed more like appeasement movements. Thirty years earlier, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev had told us, “Your grandchildren will live under communism.” While the Reagan administration was definitely pushing back on all fronts, some worried that he was pushing too hard and that the Soviets would react by launching a nuclear strike.
The film begins with the arrival in America of Ivan Drago, a boxer trained with the latest advancements in science (including, it is implied, steroid use) and undefeated as an amateur. Drago, well-played by the Swedish actor and martial artist Dolph Lundgren, can beat anybody in the world, including America’s champion, Rocky Balboa. But instead of Rocky, Apollo Creed decides to come out of retirement and face the Russian in an exhibition bout. Amid much fanfare, including a great musical intro by James Brown, Creed squares off with the imposing Drago and is pounded nearly into submission in the first round. Rocky, who is Creed’s corner man for the fight, tells his friend that he is going to throw in the towel, but Creed says no, and Rocky relents. Not long after the bell, Drago drops Creed for good. “If he dies, he dies,” Drago says as Creed spasms on the canvas. And he does. Rocky feels responsible for Creed’s death and will not allow it to end like this, so he challenges Drago to a fight in the Soviet Union. Leaving his wife and child at home to train on his own in Siberia, Rocky works himself into the best shape of his life. Fighting Drago on his home turf, Rocky takes an incredible beating but perseveres and ends the fight in the final round with a knockout. He appeals to the Russians to join him in a peaceful way forward, and they respond with a standing ovation.
Ten years into the series, one would think the franchise might be losing steam, but Rocky IV had the biggest box office haul of the four films. Critically, like the first two sequels, it had mixed reviews and garnered no Oscars. Stallone’s ripped physique was a testament to the actor’s fitness regimen–he had been training with the bodybuilder Franco Columbu and had gotten his body fat percentage as low as an astounding 2.8%–but as he approached age 40, even Rocky fans began to wonder if their hero could do this any more.
To Stallone’s credit, he decided to move the character forward in a reasonable way. In Rocky V, the champ is suddenly down and out financially. Adrian had flown to Russia to support Rocky during the Drago fight, and upon their return home the Balboas discover that their attorney has squandered the couple’s fortune in a series of bad real estate deals and they are way behind on their taxes. The riches Rocky had accumulated are now gone. Even worse, Rocky is told by his doctors that he is already showing signs of brain trauma and if he continues his boxing career he stands a real risk of serious damage. A flashy promoter, George Washington Duke, tempts Rocky with a multimillion-dollar bout against the top challenger, who is in Duke’s stable. But Rocky agrees with Adrian that it’s time to quit the ring, so the couple downsizes their lifestyle considerably. Adrian goes back to the pet store and Rocky goes to work in Mickey’s old gym. He begins working with an up-and-coming heavyweight, Tommy Gunn (played by Tommy Morrison, a real boxer who claimed to be related to John Wayne), which leads to problems with his own son, Robert (played by Stallone’s son Sage). Gunn has loads of potential but becomes frustrated with Rocky’s cautious handling of his career. He breaks ties with Balboa and signs with Duke who promises him a title shot, which Gunn wins. But the public and press do not embrace Gunn the way they did Balboa, and the young hothead confronts Rocky at a neighborhood bar, taunting him into a bareknuckle street battle that is broadcast live by a news reporter. Rocky, initially hesitant to fight, finally throws down only after Gunn punches Paulie. Rocky prevails, of course, and drops the loudmouth Duke as well.
The icon returns.
Despite bringing back Avildsen as director–Stallone had directed the previous three sequels–Rocky V didn’t cut much ice with critics or the box office. It appeared we’d seen the last of the Italian Stallion on screen, and for the next 16 years Stallone concentrated on other projects. But in 2006 he brought Rocky back into the ring one more time. In Rocky Balboa, our hero is now in his fifties. Adrian has died of ovarian cancer, young Robert is now working for an unnamed corporation, and Rocky is operating an Italian restaurant, Adrian’s, on Philly’s south side. Paulie is working out the string at the meat-packing plant where his soon-to-be brother-in-law had hammered away at beef carcasses in the original film. Stallone was back in the director’s chair for this film and painted a portrait of Rocky as a still-grieving widower who misses the ring almost as much as he does his wife. The restaurant provides him with a modest living, the brain damage issues have apparently proven to be not as bad as originally feared, but there’s still something missing in his life. As for Robert, he doesn’t appreciate always being known as Rocky’s son rather than as his own man.
The reigning heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (played by real boxer Antonio Tarver), is the undisputed champ but is not respected by the public. Making things worse, a computer-simulated fight between Dixon and Balboa is shown on ESPN and results in Rocky knocking out the champ. Dixon’s handlers become aware that Rocky has applied for and received a boxing license, intending only to have a handful of fights for charity, and they persuade Rocky to fight Dixon in a ten-round exhibition in Las Vegas. Robert confronts his father and expresses his frustration with living in Rocky’s shadow, asking him to decline the fight. Rocky responds by giving his son a memorable talking-to, which for many fans is the highlight of the film: Rocky and his son.
Milo Ventimiglia is well-cast as Rocky’s son. Sage Stallone, who had played the son in Rocky V, declined to reprise the role in the new film, and tragically would die in 2012 of heart failure at 36. At first rumored to be the result of a drug overdose, the coroner’s report said drugs had nothing to do with it. Sage was a heavy smoker and undoubtedly that contributed to his death. Talia Shire, who had played Adrian in the first five films, had no problem with “dying” before this one, saying that showing Rocky dealing with his wife’s passing added depth and dramatic punch to the film. Burt Young returned for his final bow as Paulie, and another bit of good casting brought back Pedro Lovell as Spider Rico, a washed-up boxer who had been Rocky’s opponent in the fight shown at the beginning of the first film. Rico is now an habitual guest at Rocky’s restaurant who worms his way into being an actual employee, and then assists Rocky in his corner during the fight with Dixon.
Sylvester Stallone was 60 years old when Rocky Balboa was released. That’s pretty old for any kind of athlete, much less a boxer, but the scenario is not as far-fetched as it might seem. In 1994, 45-year-old George Foreman regained the heavyweight crown he’d lost to Muhammad Ali twenty years earlier with a knockout of 27-year-old Michael Moorer. Ironically enough, before getting to Moorer, Foreman had lost a unanimous decision to Tommy Morrison in 1993.
The fight is held in Las Vegas and “televised” by HBO. Stallone uses this effectively by essentially “adopting” the HBO telecast as the entrance and first few rounds of the fight, including the use of real announcers, with Jim Lampley at the lead mic. One of the announcers says excitedly that he had grown up watching Balboa fight and now he’s actually calling one of his fights. The crowd undoubtedly feels the same way, as Rocky is treated with near-reverence as he enters the arena, led out one more time by Paulie and with his son at his side. By the tenth and final round the crowd is on its feet and roaring that old familiar “Rocky! Rocky!” chant. It comes down to the judges’ cards, and the split decision goes Dixon’s way. However, an alternate ending that shows Rocky as the winner is included in the film’s DVD release.
I saw this film in the theater with my son Jim, during his freshman year of college when he was home for Christmas break. The theater was packed and, like all Rocky films, the audience reacted during the fight scenes as if we were ringside ourselves. Cheers, groans and exclamations could be heard all over the place. I’d been watching Rocky fight for forty years and still I was excited as the fighters entered the arena. And did all us middle-aged guys root for Rocky? You’d better believe we did.
We exited the theater all thinking that if this was Rocky’s final bow, it was a damn good one. But, thankfully, there was more to come.
The legend takes a new turn.
Stallone said he was satisfied that the series had ended with Rocky Balboa, but a young writer-director had other ideas. Ryan Coogler had already earned a reputation as an up-and-comer with 2013’s Fruitvale Station, a multiple Sundance Film Festival winner. He persuaded Stallone that there was one more story to be told that involved Rocky, but this one would feature someone else as the fighter. Stallone agreed and brought his old producers Winkler and Chartoff along as well. The result was Creed.
Apollo Creed, it seems, fathered an illegitimate son shortly before his death. Orphaned by the death of his birth mother, Adonis Johnson is a juvenile delinquent who is rescued at age eleven by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) and grows up in her LA mansion. She raises him to be anything but a boxer, but young Adonis knows of his father’s heritage and sneaks down to Tijuana on weekends to box. He quits his corporate job and declares his intention to be a full-time fighter, a decision his adoptive mother disapproves of strenuously. But the young man is undeterred and sets off on a quest that eventually brings him to Philadelphia, where he seeks out his father’s old friend and one-time opponent, Rocky Balboa.
No more spoilers. Suffice it to say that it is an exceptional film all the way around, filmed largely on location in Philly. Michael B. Jordan is outstanding as Adonis, and there is serious Oscar buzz for Stallone’s portrayal of Rocky as the lad’s aging mentor. Coogler’s directorial touch is deft and his handling of the boxing scenes is truly thrilling. Without resorting to computer-generated trickery, he puts us in the ring to a much greater, and effective, extent than any of the previous films in the series, indeed more than any boxing movie I’ve ever seen.
The lessons Rocky teaches us.
To varying degrees in the first six films, and especially in the seventh, we see resilience and integrity personified in the character of Rocky Balboa, and now in Adonis Johnson. Life is going to deal you a lot of hard knocks, and as someone once said, it’s not how hard you fall, but how high you jump back up that counts. Or as one old boxer told his son, “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep movin’ forward.” In an age when more and more people are seemingly content to cave at the first sign of difficulty, blame someone else for their problems and then let the rest of us pick up the slack, Rocky’s old school values are a refreshing blast from the past, a reminder of what we could still have today, if we choose to.
As I write this, I am in Arizona, helping my parents through some health setbacks. My folks celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary this past October, and they both rose from humble beginnings to earn college degrees, raise a fine family and work long professional careers before embarking on well-deserved retirement. I learned a lot from them over the years and I’m still learning. I was privileged this week to watch Rocky Balboa again with my dad, who was seeing it for the first time, and the next day we went to a nearby cinema to see Creed. It was the first show of the day and the theater was half-filled, almost entirely with senior citizens. Yet during the climactic fight there were plenty of groans and shouts, and loud applause as the credits rolled. We had spent some time with our old friend, and it was good.