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Boxing Movie Review: ‘Rocky’ is the sport’s greatest film success, and Stallone’s crowning achievement

The Best Picture winner for 1976 may not be the best boxing film ever made, but it is the greatest success in the sport’s rich history on film, and a lasting phenomenon.

United Artists
Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

As you’re well aware by now, the boxing world is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, and we at Bad Left Hook are looking for various ways to keep the show going without any actual fights to cover at the moment. So we’ll be watching some boxing movies and discussing them.

Last time out, we did the 1972 neo-noir drama Fat City from director John Huston, considered something of a classic, albeit a cult classic. Today it’s time for a mainstream classic: 1976’s Rocky, which was a massive surprise hit, won three Academy Awards including Best Picture, and has spawned seven sequels, a few of which are actually pretty good, and even some of the ones that aren’t have become fan favorites and cable TV staples for decades.

Once again: I’m no film critic. I’ll do my best with a review and all that, but mostly this is for the discussion.

Rocky is available for rental and purchase through Amazon Prime, and also might be airing any time of any day on a cable TV channel.

Note: There are spoilers for plot points and whatnot in the review. This is a 44-year-old movie that basically everyone has seen, and even if you haven’t you probably know what happens the way I knew what happened in the original Star Wars trilogy even before I’d ever watched the damn things. But still, if you want to avoid all spoilers but still get quick thoughts, you can skip down to the bottom for the rating and the bits after that. Otherwise you might be better off watching the movie and then coming back to read the review. Plus then you can discuss it with us!

Rocky (1976)

119 minutes. Directed by John G. Avildsen. Written by Sylvester Stallone. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Thayer David, Joe Spinelli, and Tony Burton.

There’s a scene on “The Sopranos” where Carmela is hosting a movie club in her home theater for herself and the other mob wives, as they attempt to go through Leonard Maltin’s top 100 or whatever it is. After starting with Citizen Kane, one of the wives asks what’s next. The answer is The Godfather. They all groan; not only have they seen the movie 1,000 times, but they’ve heard about it in conversation far more. Maybe their first few times seeing The Godfather were great, but it’s at the center of their very lives and culture, almost all the time. They can’t escape The Godfather. The movie club doesn’t meet again on the show, and it may be because they don’t want to sit through that film again, even if they’re going to get wine drunk and have a private space together where, if they want, they can talk shit.

When I started the idea to do these boxing movie reviews during our coronavirus hiatus from an active boxing schedule, I knew two things when I plotted out the first 10: Rocky had to be among them, and I wasn’t dying to watch it again. I’ve not only been writing about boxing for almost 15 years now, which as I’ve mentioned has sapped my desire to keep up when new boxing films are released, even though I watch tons of movies, but Rocky and its many, mostly lousy sequels comes up all the time when people I don’t know yet ask what I do for work, and also when other people I know quite well remember what I do for work. I cannot escape Rocky.

We’ve all seen this film, surely, most of us many times. If you haven’t — maybe you’re young, maybe you’re new to caring at all about boxing, whatever it is — please do not let me put you off watching Rocky with any of this talk. It won the Academy Award for Best Picture, after all, even if it shouldn’t have in that field. At the same time, I ask you this: which of those nominees has had the greatest lasting appeal? As monumental a film as Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is — and it’s a better film than Rocky, to pick just one of the other nominees — it hasn’t become the massive pop culture mainstay that Rocky has. Is it so bad to reward a people’s choice, at least when that choice is also a great movie? That’s a whole other conversation, and of course the Oscar voters had no idea that Rocky would become the lasting phenomenon that it did.

The movie is directed by John G. Avildsen, but it’s entirely Stallone’s baby, really. He wrote the script in three-and-a-half days, largely inspired by the March 1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is based in part on Ali, and while Stallone denies that the actual Rocky Balboa character is based on Wepner’s life or anything like that, it’s hard to say he could have watched Ali-Wepner, been struck by inspiration for a script, and then none of Balboa is “based on” Wepner. Of course it is.

United Artists wanted the script, but didn’t want Stallone in the lead, which Stallone insisted he had to be. He wasn’t a star; the company wanted James Caan or Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal. So Stallone, who wouldn’t let the movie be made without him in the lead, teamed with producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff to work around it: if the budget was kept low enough, they had the contractual right to greenlight a project however they saw fit.

On a budget of just barely over the $1 million mark, Rocky did $225 million at the box office. Adjusted to 2019 figures, that would be bout a $4.5 million budget and north of a billion dollars in box office. In other words, it did OK, and Stallone became a superstar.

As for the movie itself...

We meet Rocky Balboa fighting a guy named Spider Rico in a bout that may or may not be sanctioned by the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. The fight stinks, the handful of patrons booing them out of the building. Rico throws a blatant headbutt, leading a tired Balboa to surge forward and unleash a furious rage, beating Rico even while he’s on the mat. This earns Balboa a KO win, a free cigarette from a fan, and being called a bum by an old lady.

Rocky lives in a shitty little apartment with a couple of turtles and a goldfish named Moby Dick. He frequents the local pet store, where quiet Adrian (Talia Shire) works. He consistently tries to chat her up, but she’s too shy to interact with him much at all. Her brother, Paulie (Burt Young), is a friend of Rocky’s, or at least what passes for a friend. Paulie is a miserable human being — he hates his sister, hates himself, and resents Rocky at various points for not getting him work with local loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell). Rocky works for Gazzo collecting outstanding payments.

Gazzo is an interesting side character here. He’s a loan shark and thus a criminal, a bad dude, and he gets mad at Rocky for not breaking some poor bastard’s thumbs when he was directed to do just that. But he’s also clearly a staple of the neighborhood, and there is some kindness in the man, even if that is drowned by how he makes his living. When Rocky gets his big chance, Gazzo gives him $500 for training expenses, and it doesn’t seem to be a loan. “Don’t worry about it,” Gazzo tells Balboa. He, like the others in the neighborhood, may have their differences with Rocky now and again, but they all root for him when his ship comes in, too.

United Artists

Local trainer and former fighter Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) has his own gym, where he trains hopeful fighters. When Rocky arrives one day, he discovers his locker has been given away to someone more promising. “You got heart but you fight like a goddamn ape,” Mickey tells Rocky. Like many things, this quietly cuts Rocky to the bone.

The reigning world heavyweight champion is Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who lost his scheduled foe about five weeks out from the fight. Creed’s plan is to deliver a local, “snow white” underdog; the fight is a bicentennial celebration, and the story he’s selling is that he’s giving a man a chance at the American dream. Rocky gets a call that he thinks is to serve as a Creed sparring partner.

When he’s offered the big fight instead, he initially turns it down. “I fight in clubs,” he tells the promoter, sitting in his fancy office. “I’m really a ham-and-egger. This guy, he’s the best, and it really wouldn’t be such a good fight.”

At first, I thought, “What an approach. Imagine if Tom Schwarz had this sort of reaction when offered a fight with Tyson Fury.” But Schwarz had been carefully managed, had run up a 24-0 record, fought in some arenas in Germany. He was being told all the time, no doubt, how great he was. He wasn’t having his locker given away at the local gym and being told he was a bum by every third person he had a conversation with on the street. Schwarz didn’t have the insecurity and self-doubt that Rocky has.

But Rocky eventually takes the fight, just as Schwarz did, just as a million other massive underdogs have and will continue to do. It comes with a $150,000 purse and Creed busting his chops on television when they hold a press conference. Creed means to be good natured, in his way, but he’s all but laughing in Rocky’s face. This is another thing that hurts Rocky, which he privately admits.

After he hears of Rocky getting the fight, Mickey shows up at the fighter’s home. Rocky is cold to his presence, and the 76-year-old pug tries to make a case to manage and train him for the fight. Balboa has decided to go it alone; after all, the deal is already done, and nobody was there for him before it was, anyway.

“I needed your help about 10 years ago,” Rocky tells Mickey. “You didn’t help me. You didn’t care.”

Mickey eventually gives up on convincing Rocky to let him help him, listening to Rocky vent his frustrations and anger as he somberly walks back into the Philadelphia night. Balboa chases him down, though, and accepts the offer. He had to get what he had to say off his chest, but when he’s done that, he knows that Mickey can help, and believes the trainer came in good faith.

United Artists

The real heart of the story is with Rocky and Adrian, even more than Rocky and Mickey. Adrian goes out with Rocky one evening, more because her brother Paulie is verbally abusing her in their shared home than anything else. He convinces a local ice rink manager to let them skate after hours for 10 minutes, which costs Balboa a not-insignificant $10. Well, she skates, he semi-jogs alongside her. They talk a bit, and she even talks back.

Now, in 2020, the scene in the apartment where Rocky repeatedly tries to put the moves on a reluctant Adrian is frankly a little uncomfortable, and would not pass the standards of today. But this is a 44-year-old movie, after all; it’s every bit the old timey film that something from the 50s was by the late 1990s, and the 1990s were a long time ago. There’s nothing sinister in Rocky, but things have changed in the real world.

And at any rate, all of Rocky’s efforts do eventually work. He and Adrian are good for one another. He helps her open up a bit more, gives her a confidence that her shitty brother has been trying to knock out of her for years. Adrian gives Rocky confidence, too, helping him to overcome some of his self-doubt, but not in an unbelievable way.

“I can’t do it,” Rocky admits to her before the fight. “I can’t beat him.” There is, frankly, no reason for Rocky to believe he can beat Creed, even after all the brutal gym sessions with Mickey, captured in a wonderful montage that highlights Bill Conti’s memorable score with the eternal “Gonna Fly Now.”

On the other side of things, Creed’s trainer Duke (Tony Burton) sees footage on the news of Rocky training by smashing the hell out of a side of beef at Paulie’s place of employment. He tells Apollo that he should take a look at Rocky, and that the guy means business. He’d previously expressed concern about Balboa being a southpaw on short notice, which the champ dismisses both times.

On fight night, Balboa is out quietly with a robe given to him by Shamrock Meats, where Paulie works. He gets to keep the robe, the company puts an ad on the back, and Paulie gets $3,000. Everyone wins, such as it were. Creed comes out with a huge entrance, carried to the ring dressed as George Washington. He doesn’t even have his gloves on yet, as he has to toss out silver dollars to the crowd.

As Creed disrobes and whatnot before the bell sounds, one of the commentators notes, “I’ve never seen a fighter that concerned about his hair.” These were the days long before Paulie Malignaggi and Franchon Crews-Dezurn, however.

The fight in Rocky isn’t quite as absurd as the fights in the sequels would become, but that goes for everything about Rocky compared to its cash grab follow-ups. That’s not to say this isn’t a ridiculously brutal fight, mind you; it’s a movie, it has to be, because real boxing simply isn’t movie-level exciting or dramatic most of the time, and never has been. Several points had been made from early in the movie that Balboa has never had his nose broken despite 64 pro fights and however much work in the gym. Guess what happens in the first round?

United Artists

But Rocky is giving as good as he’s getting from the get-go, too, in part because Creed didn’t take him seriously, in part because he has every bit the heart Mickey has screamed at him about. “He doesn’t know it’s a damn show,” Duke bellows at Creed. “He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

Eventually, Rocky’s vaunted body punching has Creed bleeding internally, and Duke wants to call it off. Creed won’t let him. In the other corner, Rocky shouts at Mickey to not stop the fight, despite his face being gradually turned into raw hamburger. Mickey, however, doesn’t seem to want to stop it; he knows this is Rocky’s one shot. Both come out for the final round like the walking dead, then turn up the heat with whatever they have left, brawling until the final bell.

“Ain’t gonna be no rematch,” Creed tells Balboa as they embrace from both exhaustion and respect. “Don’t want one,” Rocky responds. But the box office demanded that there would, in fact, be a rematch.

Apollo wins a split decision, but the announcement is secondary here, drowned out by Rocky, one eye working to some degree, screaming out for Adrian, who fights through the raucous crowd, losing her nice red hat on the way, in order to embrace Rocky.

Rating: 4.5/5

If I ever do the sequels, I expect a lot of push-back on how much I don’t like the first four of them. But I also feel that, if anything, Rocky may be a hair underrated by some folks now, as is inevitable when something gets as popular as this movie did. It is, in its way, every bit as good as 1972’s Fat City, which we talked about a few days ago. They are very different movies, contrasting one another to some degree. Fat City is a viciously somber look at the life of a fighter who didn’t make it and can’t get out of his own way; Rocky imagines a similar fighter, but with a better general attitude, and gives him the fairy tale. Both ideas have their strengths.

Stallone would never be this good again, either acting or writing. This launched him to a level of superstardom even he couldn’t have really dreamed of when he was putting this all together on a tiny budget. As he did later with the Rambo franchise, Stallone would take a legitimately great beginning and let the character and original story get watered down for the sake of money, and, well, money is money, and there are greater evils associated with greed than silly Rocky and Rambo sequels. He had a lot of mainstream success, no question, but this was his crowning artistic achievement. Everything with this movie went right, against the odds. Rocky is, in a way, its own “Rocky Story.”

BLH Boxing Movie Rankings, as of now:

  1. Fat City (1972) 4.5
  2. Rocky (1976) 4.5
  3. The Harder They Fall (1956) 3.5

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