Directed by John G. Avildsen and written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, Rocky still has the excitement, optimism, and thrill of victory that brought audiences to their feet when it first hit the screen. Moviegoers didn’t yet know it was the beginning of a franchise where every other movie was a technical knockout but culminated in a tour de force exit for the elder pugilist. Rocky, the original 1976 movie, is a winner, even though the main character ultimately loses at the end. It doesn’t matter, he’s still standing, and that in itself was a long shot.
Rocky, the scrappy strip of celluloid, has endured with the same stamina that drove the upstart fighter in the middle of it to run the length of Philly on no more juice than some raw eggs. It’s still champ after over 40 years. Rocky Balboa, the boxer who gets the once-in-a-lifetime chance at a match with Apollo Creed, the Heavyweight Champion of the World, would have had a short career. Forget the fact that, just a few movies from now, his eyesight will be threatened, like real-life boxing star Sugar Ray Leonard, the guy could have died from exposure in the movie’s fifteen rounds.
Rocky Balboa takes enough head shots in any given round in his first movie to get him a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Put your hands up, Rocky, please. You are not George Foreman, who sometimes looked like he got off on it. Every single shot Apollo lands is clean, on the button, and full force. I’ve never seen an actual fight where someone goes from almost-dead to almost-winning or winning, or a match where that many head shots landed so accurately.
That stance, that dance, those taunts, you don’t see that shit in Raging Bull. It would probably take Creed a full half-round to get through the crablike defenses of Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta. Well, until he drops his hands and taunts Sugar Ray Robinson with that “you never got me down, Ray,” but the real La Motta swore De Niro was good enough to go pro.
In Rocky, undefeated heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is originally slated to defend his title against Mac Lee Green at the Philadelphia Spectrum on New Year’s Day 1976. But Green backs out and Creed puts out a call for a worthy opponent. Because it is the year of the Bicentennial for America, discovered by Cristoforo Colombo, Creed saddles up an Italian stallion for a victory lap. Rocky Balboa, in white shorts with a red stripe, defies all odds and goes the distance with the champ. He puts up such a battle that Creed swears there “ain’t gonna be no re-match” and his opponent “don’t want one.” The fighter already got more than he dreamed.
In the real life 1975 match that Rocky is based on, Muhammad Ali kicked the living shit out of Chuck Wepner. Wepner had an original style. He stepped on Ali’s foot in round 8 and really pissed The Greatest off. Wepner did knock Ali down in the ninth round.
Wepner trained for the Ali fight with Al Braverman, who was a cutman, as expert in the quick fix as an army medic. Wepner did get cut above the eye, both actually, in the match. “The Bayonne Bleeder” stayed on his feet until the final nineteen seconds of the 15th round, where he lost by TKO after getting up after a seven count. He beat incredible odds. It was as inspiring as it was painful to watch. Wepner survived the Marines and Ali intact. Like Balboa in Rocky III, Wepner also fought a pro-wrestler (Andre the Giant, while Stallone took on a pre-superstardom Hulk Hogan), who tossed him out of the ring.
The first time we see Rocky Balboa, he is a club-fighter getting his head handed to him by Spider Rico. Balboa’s record is 44 wins and 20 losses with 38 KOs. He drinks some kind of pick-me-up out of a brown paper bag that’s kept in his corner. It gets him through enough rounds for a good payoff for the bookies, but it is more dangerous than pre-fight sex, which is said to be bad for the knees. A drug test would have gotten him booted out of the leagues sooner or later if it didn’t give him lasting damage.
Rocky Balboa is an infighter when we first see him ringside. He’s a southpaw. But like the dark pirate in The Princess Bride, he can swiftly switch stance and fight right-handed. Balboa comes in quick and drives his opponent into the ropes where he methodically tears them apart from the inside with a massive body attack. He learned to break ribs at his friend Paulie’s butcher shop, we remember, and the scene where Apollo almost implodes is agonizing. It doesn’t matter who you’re rooting for, that sequence produces an audible moan. Wonderful filmmaking and acting, but the road to those ropes was pure punishment for Balboa.
Rocky is known for his iron jaw. He can take brutal punishment throughout his fights. He may not be the hardest puncher but he can get hit hard and keep moving forward. Rocky swears to go the distance. It really doesn’t matter if he even loses the fight or if his opponent opens his head. That kind of reckless quest for fame plays great on the screen but can get you killed in the ring.
Boxers die all too often from the trauma of the sport, regardless of how well-trained they might be. Gino Perez was a lightweight boxer whose opponent died as a result of a match. Perez was slated to fight “Boom Boom” Mancini, another boxer whose opponent died after a bout. The fight was supposed to be promoted as “killer versus killer,” which neither boxer liked. The bout never happened because Gino died at the age of 24, at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a few days after a fight at the Felt Forum put him in a coma. He had over-trained.
I saw his mother watch the fight on videotape. Perez did nothing wrong in the match. There were no mistakes. No bad pacing. His defense was tight. This was a titleholder who could stop fifteen to twenty punches a quarter inch from my nose in under 45 seconds. He was young, hungry, and absolutely prepared. He did not make it to thirty. He was the eighth boxer to die in the ring in 1983.
If Rocky didn’t get wrecked in the ring, he might not have even made it through training. Between the raw eggs and the meat-locker tenderizing side-gig, he’s on his way to a nasty bout of salmonella. He’s managed by Jake gym owner Mickey Goldmill, an ex-bantamweight fighter from the silent film era who talks like an Irish Popeye and who was old and almost blind when he’d played in The Twilight Zone a generation earlier. Burgess Meredith, based on his early screen appearances, was really not the kind of guy you looked to for tough guy roles. He was the nice guy, the one with the book in the corner trying not to be noticed so bad you couldn’t take your eyes off him. He was George to Lenny, the gentle giant with the Kung Fu grip.
Balboa’s club fighting past could have damaged him enough to cut his professional life span. He will be on the circuit for years at the rate he’s going. His life outside of the ring isn’t that healthy. Balboa breaks legs for Philly loan shark Anthony Gazzo. Paulie’s shy, quiet sister, Adrian is played by Talia Shire, who played Michael Corleone’s not quite so shy sister in The Godfather, whose husbands have short life spans.
The punches in motion pictures are done cinematically. In Raging Bull, Scorsese pounds the audience with incessant quick cuts until they feel the same punch drunk mania that La Motta feels. Rocky’s are done operatically, to the beat, slow fills and snare hits. It’s beautiful to watch, but has none of the quick measured approach to combinations that you see in the ring. Rocky doesn’t get fast until Rocky III (1982). If his trajectory followed boxing, Balboa certainly wouldn’t have been able to keep up with Mike Tyson, who was the No. 1 challenger by late 1988. I saw Tyson fight once. It was nothing like TV. I had never seen anyone that big that fast. But regardless, when Tyson fought, matches were scheduled for 12 rounds anyway.
Balboa had one thing in his corner that Chuck Wepner didn’t. His secret weapon. Bill Conti, who wrote such inspirational music for the film people still run up the 72 steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky‘s championship run at the box office had little to do with Balboa being a boxer. He could have been a dancer, a firefighter, or an exterminator. This movie stood the test of time because it is about the struggle against odds. Rocky is the lovable loser who takes his best shot, and is still a man standing after ring announcer Miles Jergens declares Creed the winner in a split decision (8:7, 7:8, 9:6).
As cinematic as it is, you have to credit Stallone, the writer of the film, with knowing every blow writers like me would try and land. He put his counterpunch right there on the screen when the announcer, Stu Nahan, defines Rocky Balboa’s style as a “bull in a china shop.” Every one of these problems was fixed by the movie Rocky Balboa, which set a new standard for boxing film realism. Rocky retired a pro with a record of 57 wins (51 KO), 23 losses and 1 draw, just a bum from the neighborhood who won the Heavyweight Championship of the World title twice.
Apollo Creed didn’t just yank Rocky Balboa from obscurity. He saved his life.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.