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The life and times of Rocky Balboa

Rocky Balboa
Rating and reviewing the Rocky films alongside each other

TO millions, Rocky means Balboa rather than Marciano or Graziano. More than that, it means a fighting spirit, a belief that if you never give up, you will get your rewards.  

Had Sylvester Stallone made his decision to retire Rocky after the success of the first film way back in 1976, we would have been spared the fight that ended the Cold War and his comeback when he was in his fifties, but also deprived of the ending to Rocky II.

How much good the films did for boxing is debatable.

They created lots of interest in the heavyweight division – albeit not the real heavyweight division – at a time when ‘The Lost Generation’ were passing the belts around and the public had no idea who the heavyweight champion was.

The films inspired many, but every fight in every film was bloody and savage, every corner man brave, every referee devoid of compassion. They weren’t so much prize fights as virtual fights to the death.

Balboa won his fights with his heart, not much more, and some boxers weren’t keen on that.

One former champion told me: “You can’t be a boxer taking that many punches” and resented the idea that muscle won fights rather than technique.

Then there was his lack of intelligence.

In Rocky II, Balboa lost an advertising job because he couldn’t read the autocue. 

There was a feeling among at least one fighter I spoke to that Rocky reinforced stereotypes of boxers being big and dumb and susceptible to manipulation.      

Perhaps, but millions rooted for him and there was a time when Balboa was possibly the most famous boxer on the planet – even though he didn’t actually exist.

ROCKY (1976) * * * * *
FAMOUSLY, Stallone, a struggling actor at the time, got the idea for Rocky while watching Muhammad Ali defend his heavyweight titles against Chuck Wepner in 1975.

That was a fight considered so one-sided, Al Braverman, Wepner’s manager, could only say in its defence: “The whole world’s a mismatch.”

The fight lived down to its billing.

Stallone watched “The Bayonne Bleeder”, wrongly credited with a ninth-round knockdown, hit by punch after punch until he was rescued 15 seconds from the end.

Still, the moral victory was Wepner’s, and Stallone was inspired.

Balboa’s Italian heritage was an obvious nod to Marciano and others saw similarities with Gus Dorazio, a Philadelphia street thug who came from nowhere to challenge Joe Louis for the heavyweight title in 1941 and was dispatched by a second-round right hand.

There were rumours Dorazio, later imprisoned for second-degree murder after beating a man to death and accused of much more, had thrown the fight and originally, Stallone toyed with a similar ending to Rocky.

Stallone instead decided Balboa would be one of the good guys, a rough diamond too nice to break thumbs for the local loan shark who employed him. So nice was Balboa, he didn’t want to offend his opponents by making them miss with punches. He was a southpaw who walked in with his hands down and took every punch flush.

The script took only three days to write and Stallone was offered $360,000 for it. Despite only having $106 in the bank, he declined, saying he wanted to play Balboa in the movie – and the decision made him a star.   

Movie buffs – and romantics – will tell you Rocky is more a love story than a boxing story.

The alcoholic Paulie (Burt Young), a worker at the local meat factory, wanted someone to take painfully shy sister Adrian (Talia Shire) off his hands and Rocky set about winning her over with an endless supply of feeble jokes.

Paulie’s place of work was the setting for one of film’s iconic scenes. Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) trainer looked startled – too startled – as he watched Rocky pound carcasses as part of his training for his shot of a lifetime.

There are better moments than that. There’s Balboa and Mickey (Burgess Meredith) swapping accusations of mismanagement and wasted talent, and the awkwardly sweet courtship of Rocky and Adrian.

Balboa got his shot at Creed – who’s basically Muhammad Ali – after Mack Green was ruled out.

He was the ‘novelty’ Creed was looking for, “The Italian Stallion”, a moniker Creed delighted in rolling around his mouth.

Acknowledging he had no chance of beating Creed, Balboa instead set himself the target of becoming the first fighter to last the distance with the formidable champion.

The film’s opening fight scene was ludicrously violent, with Balboa trying to pummel Spider Rico through the canvas, and the Creed fight is 15 rounds of the same.

It includes Balboa scoring a knockdown with the first punch he lands, then being dropped himself and having his eyes battered shut but rallying to break Creed’s ribs.

The announcement that Creed has kept his belts by split decision goes unnoticed by Balboa. He just wants to find his girl and tell her that he loves her.

ROCKY II (1979) * * * *
THERE wasn’t going to be a rematch. They didn’t want one. They had one, nonetheless.

Balboa seemed happy enough to take the advice of doctors not to fight again over fears over his eyesight – until wife Adrian became pregnant and Creed launched a campaign to drag him into a rematch that included taking out a newspaper advertisement that read: ‘Chicken Stallion’. Surely, it should have read ‘Italian Chicken’.

Balboa takes the bait, but knowing he’s taking the fight against Adrian’s wishes, Stallone lacks motivation in the gym where he works on boxing orthodox to protect his bad eye and confuse Creed. Adrian ends up in a coma after giving birth to their son and Balboa finds the drive he needs when she awakes and tells him to win. The switch to orthodox doesn’t confuse Creed, who hits Balboa at will for 14 rounds before the dramatic last round…

Rocky Balboa

ROCKY III (1982) * * *
BY the third film, the grit and struggle of the first two was way behind Balboa. He was an unstoppable heavyweight champion, retaining his title 10 times with a string of daft knockouts, challengers being flung through the air by the force of Balboa’s power punches.

Making his way up the rankings was a fighter Mickey would rather Rocky didn’t face, the formidable Clubber Lang, a brooding, ruthless southpaw who was so intimidating referees let him get away with hitting his opponents when they were on the floor.

Lang was played by Mr T and might have been played by Earnie Shavers had he not failed his audition by hitting Stallone so hard in the stomach he had to run off to be sick in the toilet.

Turned out, Mickey was right about Lang…

He didn’t see the first fight. Mickey was backstage fighting for his life having suffered a heart attack after being caught up in a melee when the fighters clashed on their way to the ring. Mickey died with a smile on his face, moments after Rocky told him he had beaten Lang in two rounds. Balboa was lying. It was he who had been blasted out early.

In Mickey’s absence, Creed trains Balboa, takes him back to his Los Angeles roots with the intention of giving Balboa rhythm and flexibility. A guard and some head movement might have been good ideas as well.

The transformation of Balboa doesn’t go well until Adrian gives Balboa a talking to on the beach and what follows is a stirring montage featuring some homo-erotic moments between Apollo and Balboa in the sea.

Following that, Rocky is ready for his final, career-defining fight with Lang and wearing Creed’s shorts, he comes out boxing like him, jabbing and moving, albeit at a pace that a strawweight would struggle to maintain for more than three rounds.

Balboa strays from the game plan in the second, reverting to his hands-down, getting-hit-very-hard-in-the-face tactics. He ends up on the floor twice before getting back to his boxing. He blocks and counters effectively and then hits Lang flush with about a million punches to finally send him crashing.   

ROCKY IV (1985) * *
THE film where Stallone started to lose his way with Rocky…

Movie critics scoffed and sneered, with some reason, but the film brought in $1.4 billion at the box office and cinema bosses reported fans on their feet as Balboa and Ivan Drago slugged it out in a fight to apparently determine the Cold War.

The fight has to happen after Drago kills Creed in what was supposed to be an exhibition, displaying superhuman strength and punching power.

Balboa wants to throw the towel in, but Creed implores him not to and by obeying his friend’s wishes, there are terrible consequences.   

Balboa gives up his world championship to fight Drago. For free. In Russia. On Christmas Day. Crikey!

Drago – played by Dolph Lundgren, who revealed he considered boxing professionally before friends dissuaded him – is managed by his wife, played by Brigitte Nielsen, and is a baddy. He takes steroids, isn’t bothered about Creed dying and just wants to destroy anyone who stands in his path.

Typical Russian, fumed American audiences – or at least, that was surely the idea.

Stallone whips himself into shape via several music video-style montages and goes on to come through several crises to outlast Drago in a scrap that makes Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo look like a light spar.

Cheesiest moment of the film – and there’s a fair bit of competition – is when a silhouette of Mikhail Gorbachev is brought to his feet to applaud Balboa after his victory.

ROCKY V (1990) *
THEY get worse… This is the one with the late Tommy Morrison, which is a loose rewrite of the Mike Tyson story.

Paulie’s decision to employ a dodgy accountant leaves Balboa bankrupt and heading back to his old neighbourhood. Comically, he digs out the clobber he wore in the first film and ignores his son’s pleas for attention to fill Morrison’s character Tommy Gunn with plenty of boxing clichés as he sets about building a champion.

Gunn is lured away from Balboa by a manipulative promoter who bares more than a passing resemblance to Don King, and Balboa and Gunn end up sorting out their differences in a silly street fight at the end.

Even now, nearly 30 years later, Rocky V is still absolutely dreadful.

ROCKY BALBOA (2006) * * *
THIS was Stallone’s shot at redemption after the awful Rocky V and though it’s daft, there are some touching moments as Balboa, running a restaurant named after his late wife, revisits his past.

Father Time is coming out of the opposite corner in the shape of Mason Dixon – Antonio Tarver to me and you. He’s an unloved champion in need of a challenger and when a computer matchup, similar to the one between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano in 1970, between him and Balboa creates interest, they somehow end up having an exhibition. The “age is just a number” and “never give up on your dreams” sentiments are good ones, but as this film proves, a boxing ring probably isn’t the best place to convey them.

Boxing really hurts.

THE EXTRAS…

CREED (2015) * * *
HERALDED as one of the better Rocky movies by critics, Balboa takes on the job of training Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), while battling cancer. The ending is reminiscent of Rocky, with Creed enhancing his reputation in a losing championship battle with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).

CREED II (2018) * * *
IN the most recent of the Rocky movies, the Creed-Drago rivalry is revived. I won’t say any more in case you haven’t seen it yet…

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