It’s been nearly 50 years since a southpaw from Philly went the distance with Apollo Creed. Back then it was a genuinely euphoric moment in cinema, so feel-good that Rocky over-performed at the box office and Oscars, beating out flicks like Network and Taxi Driver for Best Picture, and making Sylvester Stallone one of the biggest movie stars of his generation. Yet even the most elated audiences could scarcely predict how long a tail Balboa’s left hook would have.
Forty-six years on, the legacy of Rocky and Apollo grows with nine films and counting, including six Rocky movies and three Creed films, the latter about Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan). And as time passed, many of the installments have become as synonymous with their eras as, well, Rocky is with the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Hence we here at Den of Geek have put our leather pads on and entered the arena to figure out… which is the best Rocky/Creed movie and in what order we rank the challengers.
9. Rocky V (1990)
What better way to begin this list than with the installment that even Sylvester Stallone detests? In 2010, the actor called Rocky V “a mistake” he made because “I’m greedy.” However, it didn’t entirely start from that instinct. In fact, it creatively made sense on paper, with Stallone attempting to course correct the Reaganite excesses of Rocky III and Rocky IV. For the first time since the ‘76 classic, Rocky V would have John G. Avildsen return to the director’s chair. Everything else, too, appeared to be about recapturing the glory of those more grounded, soulful ‘70s pictures with the script returning the Balboa family to the working class streets of Philly after Rocky’s wealth and 15 minutes of fame vanish overnight.
How it got there, however, was laughable as was just about every other contrivance and cliché in this ludicrous script by Stallone, which sees Rocky forced to retire (again) because of brain damage from the last movie. After being thrown on his ass, he takes on a protege (Tommy Morrison) at the local gym. Things are going well enough until the young dope is corrupted by George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a grotesque parody of Don King. Ultimately, the movie ends with Balboa and Tommy taking their beef to the streets with a finale so bad it nearly killed the franchise off out of shame. But hey, at least it gave us the meme line of “I don’t hear no bell,” although it says a lot when most of the internet thinks it came from South Park.
8. Creed II (2018)
In Creed II’s meager defense, it never descends into self-parody like a few of the other Rocky sequels a little higher on this list. However, it never really transcends them either, which is the problem. Michael B. Jordan’s second round in the boxing movie ring makes the poor choice to retread Rocky IV, the entry where Weathers’ original Creed boxer met his untimely end at the hands of a doping Soviet boxer who may as well be a super-soldier in a Marvel movie. But what was campy trash in 1985 just becomes a dull legacy sequel in 2018, with Creed II somberly telling the story of how Apollo’s son got revenge by facing the offspring of Ivan Drago in the ring.
Directed by Steven Caple Jr. (The Land, the upcoming Transformers: Rise of the Beasts), Creed II’s loss of Ryan Coogler in the director’s chair is noticeable. Meanwhile Stallone’s increasingly creaky ideas of melodrama—with the aging actor working on a screenplay about a young, Black millennial family—fall completely flat for a movie that is languid and stiff instead of nimble and devastating. The film’s inability to decide if it’s about Adonis’ revenge or Rocky’s guilt also makes it an indecisive chore, although the CrossFit montage in the desert at least packs some heat.
7. Rocky IV (1985)
Video essayist Patrick H. Willems recently asserted that Rocky IV is “the most ‘80s movie ever made.” It’s difficult to argue. Whereas the original 1976 film was an often quiet character study rooted in earthy color tones and (sometimes) introspective acting, Rocky IV was a big garish neon-lit sign advertising consumerism and jingoism to such an extreme that the Reagan White House should’ve cut Stallone a check. As the old joke goes, this is the movie where Rocky wins the Cold War by defeating the Soviet Union’s cheating übermensch, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in a battle of wills in Siberia on Christmas Day. And did I mention the robot?
Yes, Rocky is so rich in this one that he has a robot butler (that’s what the Star Wars kids are into now, right?) and hangs out with James Brown. In fact, the Godfather of Soul pops up just long enough to drop the decadent “Living in America” (which reached No. 4 on the charts) in Las Vegas, complete with showgirls and Weathers’ Apollo Creed dressed up as a sexy Uncle Sam to dance along. It’s all so tacky, and at times hilarious with its glossy music video editing and three montages, that it’s kind of marvelous to behold. It’s like watching a nationalist boat flotilla sink. You’re both horrified and amused. Another way to put it is you’re never bored even if Rocky has been diminished to little better than a propagandistic cartoon character.
Also give the spectacle this: Without contrived plotting that leads to Apollo’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago, we may never have gotten Creed.
6. Rocky III (1982)
The Italian Stallion reinvents himself in the 1980s as a wish fulfillment fantasy, and it’s not about going the distance; it’s about making sure you stay on top, unbothered with those beneath you. In this case, the unworthy usurper is Clubber Lang (Mr. T before The A-Team), a hungry and crude challenger that Rocky spent his whole career unknowingly ducking because of the business tactics of his trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith). However, this one isn’t about Rock and Mickey despite the fact Mick dies midway through with a bittersweet farewell. Nay, this is all about the thrill of seeing Rocky and Apollo become bromates.
Most folks think “Eye of the Tiger” came from the original movie, but it’s in Rocky III that the Survivor song first appears, making music from a line of dialogue about killer instincts that Apollo Creed lives by. After Clubber Lang humiliates Rock and steals his belt midway through the threequel, Apollo finds his former rival at his lowest point and offers to give the eye of the tiger back to him.
It’s silly but oh, so satisfying watching Apollo and Rock bond over matching crop tops (it was the ‘80s) and train by racing along a Los Angeles beach at sunset. The evening Rock can beat Apollo in slow-motion, he’ll know he has his mojo back. Luckily, the magic never leaves this kitschy and enjoyable throwback to ‘80s cheese.
5. Rocky II (1979)
At this point, the list gets a little tougher since the top five are all legitimately good movies that added something to the boxing movie canon. With that said, Rocky II might just be the one with the least to add since the film gilds the lily that everyone wanted to sparkle in 1976: Stallone’s humble brawler not only goes the distance with the heavyweight champion of the world but takes the belt from him.
Rocky II is the rematch movie and feels like one as Rock repeats similar bouts of self-doubt and arguments with his trainer Mickey about whether he got lucky or is a true champion on the rise. Yet the movie’s resolutely gritty and understated ‘70s aesthetic is still refreshing when compared to everything that came after. There remains a hunger in this one to Stallone, as both writer and actor, as he makes the most out of his chance and proves he can draw audiences. The picture’s largely cold, wintertime setting also adds to Rocky’s desperation to stay in the sun.
The film again makes good use of the romance between Rock and Adrian (Talia Shire). In this one, the pair tie the knot and have a child, but the delicate, often speechless attraction between them remains as fragile as newly fallen snow. At the end of the movie, Stallone as the first-time director wallows in the physical brutality Rock and Apollo endure in their sweaty rematch. But what you remember is Rock holding his belt above his head, unable to see through swollen eye sockets, and screaming with a cracked voice, “ADRIAN, I DID IT!!!” You could feel the chills off that one all the way in Pittsburgh.
4. Creed III (2023)
It might be a bit premature putting the newest entry in the top five, but Creed III is that good. Like Stallone before him, Jordan uses a sequel in his marquee boxing franchise as his directorial debut. But this is more than a vanity project; Jordan demonstrates real visual flair with the most stylized boxing matches the franchise has seen to date. The actor/director has told the press that he was inspired by his favorite anime growing up, and you can see it as the audience literally falls away in the climax until all that’s left is Adonis, his rival Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), and the long shadows their regrets have cast around them.
Indeed, the other secret of why this movie is special is Majors as Dam. With a setup about a hungry challenger who feels like the retiring champ owes him a shot, the movie undoubtedly is inspired by Clubber Lang in Creed III, but Majors, Jordan, and screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin (working from a story by Ryan Coogler) take it to another level with Dam being Adonis’ childhood friend whose life was ruined when a fight Donnie started landed Anderson in prison for 18 years. Adonis got to become the champion of the world; his buddy got four walls and bars for nearly two decades.
It’s Angels with Dirty Faces, but with a boxing match at the end. A fabulous boxing match between two great actors.
3. Rocky Balboa (2006)
I’ll admit I was skeptical when Rocky Balboa was announced: a belated sequel 16 years after one of the worst movies in Stallone’s career, Rocky V. Yet like his now aging southpaw, Stallone proved the cynics wrong with the most heartfelt and poignant entry in the series since Rocky II. When we meet Rock in this one, things are bleak. Adrian has been gone some time now due to cancer, his adult son doesn’t really talk to him, and his career path has become that as a contented (if melancholy) restaurateur.
But after a ludicrous hype job by ESPN, Rocky is convinced to enter into an exhibition match with the current heavyweight champion of the world, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). So it’s essentially the plot of the original Rocky again, except with an over the hill underdog whose sport seems intent on exploiting him one last time. But that turns out to make all the difference. Stallone achieves a level of gravitas in this one that punctures the cartoon image of Rocky he built in the ‘80s. This is Death of a Heavyweight, as defined by the cold, unforgiving snow that piles up around his beloved museum steps during his final training montage.
There’s a surprising grace to this movie that made it a perfect swan song for Stallone’s most beloved character. We are fortunate though that for at least one more movie, he came back…
2. Creed (2015)
Before the concept of what we now call “legacy sequels” was codified a few months later by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there was Creed, Ryan Coogler’s vital and thrilling reimagining of the Rocky story for a new generation. Also a reunion between Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, who starred in the writer-director’s Sundance breakthrough, Fruitvale Station, Creed brings an urgency and excitement to this now generational saga like we haven’t seen since the first movie.
In the film, Jordan is Adonis, the secret son Apollo never met before his death in ’85. Adopted as a teenager by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), Donnie grows up well enough but with a chip on his shoulder, haunted by the ghost of a man he never knew beyond the sports clips he shadow boxes against. Adonis is adrift until he meets Rocky Balboa, the only man who ever beat the old man and who is reluctantly convinced to now train Apollo’s son in the sport that took his friend. The unlikely friendship and chemistry between Jordan and Stallone make this movie a real contender, and then Coogler delivers the K.O. with the most intense boxing matches in the series.
1. Rocky (1976)
All of the movies in this list, the good and the bad, are standing on the shoulders of one movie, perhaps even one image: Stallone’s slow but true Rocky atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, arms outstretched in joy after he went the literal distance—running 10 or 15 miles without losing his pace. The movie itself is also a joy to watch.
As the role that made Stallone a star, the actor created Balboa from the ground up by writing the screenplay and fighting for the chance to play the title character. When this movie came out, there were no preconceived notions created by sequels, Soviet supervillains, or Hulk Hogan cameos. There was just a humble, working class guy named Rocky who really looked like he grew up on the streets of Philly without anyone ever thinking he’d amount to anything. That image begins to change when, out of desperation to find a last minute substitute challenger in Philadelphia, Apollo Creed selects Rock’s name practically out of a hat. Everyone, including Rocky, thinks it’s a joke… but why not go for it anyway?
Filmed in muted natural lighting and with even more appealing naturalism by director John G. Avildsen, Rocky’s heart is as much a reflection of ‘70s cinema as his sequels’ commercialism were of the ‘80s. And that heart lies in the romance between the leftie boxer and a painfully shy shopgirl named Adrian. The world sees two losers when they walk by, including her own brother Paulie (Burt Young), but their cautious, growing faith in each other makes them winners. This is cemented by an ending that most folks remember incorrectly. Despite never staying down, Rocky loses the fight against Apollo after getting his ass kicked for about 12 of the 15 rounds. Before the final two rounds and Rocky’s sudden resurgence, even his manager is pleading with him to lie down. He comes back though, albeit too late to impress the judges.
But the magic of the movie is that it doesn’t matter. Rocky proved something to himself—not the sport, its gatekeepers, or Mickey. To himself. And Adrian. When she rushes the ring in the post-fight madness, and composer Bill Conti’s now iconic score reaches its most breathless crescendo, it’s one of the most feel-good moments in cinema history.