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Rocky Balboa, Joe Frazier and their place in the American imagination

Joe Frazier
AFP via Getty Images
The reality of America’s desire for a white heavyweight champion is told in the fictional Rocky Balboa series, writes Anthony Jones

JOE FRAZIER, newly arrived in Philadelphia and eking out a meagre wage at a Kosher slaughterhouse while dreaming of becoming a fighter, used to practice his combinations on the sides of beef he was employed to wheel into the refrigerator. His early morning run would end with a sprint up the steps of the Art Museum where a bronze statue now stands to commemorate… not Frazier, arguably the finest fighter ever produced by the City of Brotherly Love, but a fictional heavyweight champion called Rocky Balboa, who is well known, amongst other things, as being white.

The statue, like the 1976 Oscar-winning movie and the franchise that followed, represents the yearning of a white America for a return to the day when the holder of the greatest prize in sport, the toughest man on the planet, would be of Caucasian extraction. For 40 years, with only the three-year reign of Rocky Marciano and the brief intervention of Ingemar Johanson, the ethnicity of the world heavyweight boxing champion had been African American and accepted as such.

Rocky and Joe Frazier
The character from the Rocky movies has a contested place in the American imagination

Indeed, the mid-seventies saw probably the greatest burgeoning of black American talent gathered together at any one time. Three Olympic gold medallists, Muhammad Ali, Frazier and George Foreman succeeding each other as world champion plus Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers and slippery Jimmy Young, with a young Larry Holmes positioning himself to take over his old boss’ crown. And not a white American in sight. Well, not really.

How did it come to this? The nature of boxing in the first half of the 20th century was dictated by the profile of the ticket paying audience, which was white, making progress for black fighters doubly tough. They were the ‘opponent’ and had to mind their manners and take hometown decisions in their stride. Jack Johnson was often accused of playing ‘cat and mouse’ with his opponents, of prolonging the agony of inferior opposition. In fact, it was a philosophy drilled into any ambitious black fighter; if they blew away the white hometown boy they wouldn’t be invited back, so better to settle for points and the prospect of another payday. L’il Arthur was merely acting out of habit.

There were great black champions in the lighter divisions in the early 1900s; Joe Gans, Kid Chocolate and George Dixon to name a few, but they were exceptional. It was only with the growth of cinema that black fighters began to get a toe hold in the awareness of a wider public and it took the advent of television in the late Forties to finally blow the market wide open.  With free access to a fight bill on any given week, the armchair fans could afford to rest their prejudices and simply enjoy the action. One by one, the colour of the talent in the eight (yes, eight!) divisions then recognised began to take on a darker hue, champions and contenders alike.

By the sixties a white contender was only employed to lift the market value of a heavyweight championship bout when the holder was looking for a relaxing evening. Floyd Patterson made a habit of it, while his legitimate contenders – all of them black – had to content themselves with fighting each other. In the 10 years between 1965 and the ‘second coming’ of Muhammad Ali, the paucity of white American heavyweight talent was such that only four could be found to fill the challenger’s role in all that time, Jerry Quarry being the only one of them to hold genuine top 10 status.

And so to January 1975; Muhammad Ali, fresh from his victory over Foreman, was looking for an easy voluntary defence of his title to top up his bank balance without too much exertion on the night. Ali and his management had always been keen on having a white (mostly European) patsy in the other corner on these occasions and this time the finger of fate fell on a New Jersey trader called Chuck Wepner, “The Bayonne Bleeder”, a 10-year veteran of nuts-and-guts brawls across continental America, and lately on a surprising run of wins, though not enough to avoid cries of ‘mismatch!’ from the boxing media.

Wepner’s main assets were a comprehensive knowledge of the skills that the Marques of Queensbery forbade, a brave heart and an even braver manager. No one expected him to win, but Wepner rose to the occasion and lasted into the 15th round, putting “The Greatest” on the floor in the process (closer inspection of the knockdown showed Chuck’s boot firmly on the toe of an off-balance Ali, but the referee’s decision stands). Wepner was applauded for his efforts and the hoopla that accompanied the story of the no-hoper who put the champ on the deck was not lost on a struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone who had dug into the last of his meagre savings to watch the fight on closed circuit.

Inspired by the spectacle of the underdog who bit back, Stallone went to work on a script that transformed the battered, libidinous New Jersey beer salesman of reality into the Rocky we know – the honest bruiser who is in a professional cul-de-sac and suffering romantic problems. A bruiser who it must also be said, was uncommonly good looking in an almost effeminate way, and whose nose had not been broken in over sixty professional fights – a tribute to any defensive artist, but quite extraordinary for a go-forward brawler like Rocky Balboa.

At this point the personalities of Stallone and his fictional creation are pretty much inseparable, which adds to the charm of the original movie, both characters being down on their luck but prepared to fight for their share of the American dream. Stallone managed to interest United Artists in his script but had to settle on a shoestring budget of $1 million because he – a total unknown – insisted on taking the lead role. Released in the fall of 1976, ‘Rocky’ made $225 million worldwide and won three Oscars including Best Picture.

Rocky Balboa
A scene from the Rocky film with his trainer

It is a great, schmaltzy, feel good story; the hero doesn’t win the fight, but he regains his self-respect and wins his girl. It is, however, the name of the hero that contains the key to the character and where his appeal to the white American community lies.

Rocky.

Rocky as in Marciano, the last white American to hold the heavyweight title. Rocky – forty-nine wins and no losses, who retired undefeated. Rocky who beat Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali – that the aged Louis was washed up and the Ali ‘fight’ was a computer fit-up cuts no ice with Marciano fans – and Rocky, as in Balboa who commands a strange parallel universe lasting from 1975 to 1985 (in script terms) whilst Ali, Norton, Holmes et al dominated in the real world.

One cannot blame Sly for milking a winning formula, but none of the succeeding Rocky movies in the hugely successful franchise that followed could ever be called great, or even particularly good. What they are, though, is a pretty accurate social mirror of the times in which they were created, much as bad popular fiction is; the novels of Dennis Wheatley in the 1930s – 50s, Ian Fleming and Mickey Spillane in the 60s in which the racism, snobbery and misogyny that were part of the contemporary culture are all on display. It is also worth adding W.D. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to this list. Although it was the first movie that could be called ‘great’ on account of its length plus its aesthetic and production values, is also a nauseating peon of praise to the Klu Klux Klan. Back in 1918 president Woodrow Wilson saw and loved it.

This is not to accuse the Rocky franchise of any of these negative qualities – Stallone’s original script had Balboa discovering his trainer was a racist, throwing the fight and walking away from boxing – indeed, Rocky’s relationship with Apollo Creed emphasises to a touching degree the respect and friendship that can develop between two athletes of different races once they’ve finished beating the stuffing out of each other. What the Rocky movies did in the 1970s–90s was not racist per se, but simply pandering to the largest racial demographic, giving back something that was lost.

Of course, it gave back to the Italian American community most of all. Stallone’s creation acted as a salve to an American white male audience yearning for the day when one of their own would once again hold the status of toughest man on the planet. The figure of Rocky became so entrenched in the American psyche that his fictitious persona even made it onto the front cover of at least one ‘real’ boxing magazine.

The hysteria surrounding any white heavyweight of above average ability came to a head with the career of “Irish” Gerry Cooney who challenged Larry Homes for the WBC title in 1983. Cooney stood 6ft 6ins in an age when most heavyweights were 6ft 2ins, could box and had one-punch kayo power in his right hand. He was also white (the ‘Irish’ tag before a boxer’s name used to be a coded indication that he was white).

His development as a serious contender was suffocated by the prospect of the huge pot of gold involved in a potential title challenge, his management team opting for a premature shot against Holmes rather than risking it all by maturing their charge with the sort of ‘live’ opponents who offered serious learning rounds. Cooney made an awful lot of money on the night, but never had the satisfaction of calling himself ‘champ’.

Holmes recalls bitterly that Cooney’s trailer in Las Vegas was wired up with a presidential line to the White House in expectation of victory for the challenger. No such arrangement was on hand for the black champion.

Meanwhile, in the alternative boxing universe of the ‘Rocky’ franchise, Balboa, having beaten Ali/Creed in a return, overcame self-doubt and Clubber Lang in the third movie before moving on to conquer the Soviet threat in Rocky IV when he dismantled the robotic Ivan Drago. This last was slightly out of step at the time with the age of Glasnost dawning, but ironically prophetic of the hordes of ex-Iron Curtain heavyweights that would descend on the land of the free once the Wall came down.

American actor Sylvester Stallone sits on a staircase while holding the leash of a dog wearing a football jersey in a still from the film, ‘Rocky,’ directed by John G. Avildsen, 1976. Photo by United Artists/Courtesy of Getty Images

In Rocky V the ‘Italian Stallion’, broke and in the first stages of dementia pugilistica, kayo’d both his ungrateful mentee, Tommy Morrison and Don King – err – George Washington Duke – to restore integrity to the fight game. (Now that really IS fiction!) And there the franchise rested for 16 years before the widowed Rocky emerged from retirement, blinking in the light of a new century, to take on both Middle Age and Antonio Tarver, losing a split decision to the latter, but once again regaining his credibility.

And here the Rocky story shifts gear. In the 21st century not only was there not a white American heavyweight champion to be found, there were no black champions either. It was the all-American nightmare – the symbol of American manhood in the hands of the Brits and the Commies! And with his finger still unerringly on the pulse of his audience, Stallone produced a contemporary American hero to save the day – a black American hero, the son of Apollo Creed.

Adonis Creed, mentored by Rocky, journeys to Liverpool to challenge “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) for the Light Heavyweight title and, in a reprise of the first movie, fails by a whisker, but comes away with the glory, personal and professional. Stallone, never ashamed to milk a franchise, reworks Rocky IV with Ivan Drago’s son in the opposite corner for Creed II. (Does Clubber Lang have any kids?) The new Rocky is a black American, but forty years on from the first movie, ethnicity is no longer an issue. May it ever be so.

Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder
Tyson Fury has come through two contests with Deontay Wilder Esther Lin/Showtime

And concluding in the real world; in a curious case of life imitating art, 2018’s WBC Heavyweight title fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder could well have been scripted by Stallone – starting with their names. Two protagonists, one looking for redemption, the other for recognition, put on one of the most thrilling heavyweight fights seen in recent years and both got what they wanted although the fight was a draw.

Cue sequel.

And in a huge upset, America’s black Rocky is battered to a humiliating defeat by a challenger who combines the size and power of Ivan Drago with Clubber Lang’s bad intentions. Cue Fury – Wilder III; Sly should sue for copyright!

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  • Insightful reading of the Rocky series interwoven with the realities of the world heavyweight scene . Whatever Rocky’s faults, Stallone is obviously a fight fan who’s not shy of reality influencing ‘art’ and he has an uncanny feel for the base instincts of the average boxing fan . Sly, you done good !

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