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The 'Rocky' Saga: An Appreciation

Or, Why I’ve Never Met a ‘Rocky’ Movie I Didn’t Like

1976. I went alone, and I’m glad I did. Actually, I snuck into my local multiplex. The audience was standing during that climactic fight - no hyperbole - and pounding their fists into the air. World Heavyweight Champ Apollo Creed was knocked down for the first time in his career, though he didn’t “look the best he’s ever been,” according to one of the ring announcers. 

It didn’t matter, he was still down! In the first round! 

I was thrilled I attended alone, as I surely would have been a pain in the ass on the way home. I would have been more of a pain in the ass if I had actually heard, through the eardrum-shattering cheering of my fellow audience members, that Rocky actually lost the fight in a split-decision. 

I had no idea until I read it later. He deserved the win, damn it!

Though Mickey did a tremendous job with his fighter, Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian, didn’t care that her guy lost. She was proud that the former “ham n’egger” proved to himself that he was “no longer just another bum from the neighborhood.” She was so excited she lost her hat running into the ring to exult in her love for him. 

Rocky truly did speak to our inner underdog. Perhaps that’s a cliched statement when describing the iconic film over 40 years later. But imagine yourself in the theater during that initial release, if you were not there at the time. Forty-two years after the fact, yet another sequel (of sorts), Creed 2, is presently in production. 

That speaks to a film that spoke to us all. When the Oscars were announced early the following year, the Best Picture battle was set to be a toss-up between Rocky and Network. 

Rocky took that title. The first of many. And to think, “his whole life was a million-to-one shot.”

The Rematch Happens

Was the outcome really in any doubt? Apollo said, “There ain’t gonna be no rematch! There ain’t gonna be no rematch!” 

“Don’t want one,” Rocky responded. 

But there was a rematch. Rocky won it, and Apollo raised the new champ’s arm in victory. Adrian couldn’t make it to the ring this time, as she was home watching the event with her brother, Paulie, on television. 

She almost died in childbirth with Rocky’s child. 

Would there be a rubber match? Time would tell. 

There is no rubber match. Mickey dies, Apollo trains Rocky, and the 'Eye of the Tiger' reigns.

Risin’ up, back on my feet, took my time, took my chances ...

Current Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa has had ten title defenses, not counting his charity benefit draw against Thunderlips, The Ultimate Male. But those defenses were “has-beens,” according to Mickey. Why? Because Rocky has gotten comfortable. He’s lost his hunger. He wants to fight Clubber Lang, but Mickey would rather leave the side of his surrogate son than see him permanently damaged. “This guy will kill you to death, in front of three rounds!” he says.  

Rocky convinces him to stay at his side for just one more fight. Mickey suffers a heart attack, Rocky is knocked out by Clubber, and Mickey dies. 

Apollo returns to the scene with a proposition for the depressed Rock. He will train him for the rematch, in exchange for a favor. “What favor?” Rocky asks. 

The rematch is set, Rocky and Apollo become close friends, and Rocky knocks out Clubber. In a gym, the two pals have an unsanctioned third fight ... but we only see the first punch. 


Apollo comes out of retirement, and Rocky helps train him. Nice reversal, there. But Apollo is killed by his monster opponent, Ivan Drago, when Rocky doesn’t throw in the towel. In an act of revenge - “Because I’m a fighter, Adrian!” - Rocky will fly to Moscow to battle the man who killed his best friend. 

Guess who wins? The crowd turns in his favor, and by the end, Rocky is the new national hero draped in two flags. 

Tommy Gunn turns heel.

Ivan Drago delivered far more damage to Rocky than anyone could have imagined: brain damage. Further, Paulie signed a blanket power of attorney, in favor of a crooked accountant. 

Rocky and Adrian are now bankrupt as a result. They sell off their belongings, and move back to the old Philly neighborhood. Rocky returns to his comfortable old leather jacket and black hat look. 

Pardon the pro wrestling terminology in the capsule subtitle above. In the midst of chaos, enter Tommy Gunn. Tommy was a rugged, good-looking persistent kid who strived to have Rocky train him. But he was being seduced by a Don King-like promoter as his winning record continued to improve. 

You see, the Don King character was all along attempting to manipulate a multi-million dollar championship fight between his new charge, and the man who trained him. 

Tommy wins the title and turns against Rocky, who is not interested in returning to the ring. He promised Adrian. So instead, Tommy challenges the now-retired champ to a street fight. 

Rocky kicks his butt. The end. 

Fans generally loathe this film. I find it compulsively watchable. 

He’s back.

For my money, Rocky Balboa perfectly bookends the original as the finest film in the series. Rocky is old, he’s long-retired, and he owns a restaurant named after his late wife - Adrian’s. Miraculously, he has recovered from the brain damage of the prior film, which is never mentioned in the new film, but as this one was meant to be a restart after the horrific reception of the last, all is easily forgiven. Rocky delivers some inspiring lines to his son, who objects to his old man returning to the ring over health concerns and his own personal embarrassment. 

“It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winnin’ is done!” Rocky says. 

Par for the course, a true fighter will never stay down. Rocky will return for one night only, based on the results of a computer simulation with the current champ that he had unexpectedly won. The subsequent real-life fight will be for charity, and aired nationally. Rocky (barely) loses that HBO-telecast battle. 

It was close, though. Another split decision. Balboa still got it going on.

A New Beginning

Rocky meets the troubled son of his former foe and best friend, Apollo Creed. He trains the prodigy, Adonis, who rapidly climbs the ladder of success. Romance happens in the process, with a local musician, as do the seeds of an upcoming sequel. 

And Rocky seems to be doing just fine following a second-hour cancer diagnosis. 

P.S. Rocky tells Adonis that Apollo won their unsanctioned third fight.

The Saga Continues ...

I know. Adonis Creed is not in the above piece of art, but I dig it and so ...

I meant what I said earlier. To date, I’ve never met a 'Rocky' film I didn’t like. I’m anxiously awaiting Creed 2, which will feature Adonis, again trained by Rocky, taking on the son of the man who killed his father. 

The movies are all fun, tragic, humorous - sometimes intentionally so - melodramatic, romantic, and generally action-packed. 

Are there true masterworks in this saga? The first, for sure, is a film that continues to appeal to moviegoers of all generations. I also believe, as I stated, Rocky Balboa is a sensational picture. 

What about you? Where do you stand with the 'Rocky' series?

Do tell. 

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The 'Rocky' Saga: An Appreciation
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