A Fight Fan Watches All Nine “Rocky” Movies—for the First Time

“It’s just like the movies,” Jake Paul said, not long ago. Paul is, in fact, an actor—or was, a few years ago, before quitting to concentrate on his social-media career, which he left behind to embark on an unlikely journey into the sport of boxing. He was on ESPN, hyping his forthcoming fight, which was his eighth, and his first against a professional boxer. “Your body’s dying,” Paul continued, explaining the addictive thrill of being a fighter. (His previous opponents included a retired basketball player and a trio of aging mixed martial artists.) “It’s telling you, ‘Why are we doing this? Give up! Give up!’ You go back to the corner, your coach is slapping you in the face, throwing water at you, saying, ‘What’s going on? You need to step it up!’ It is really just like the movies.”

When people say boxing resembles the movies, they are typically talking about one movie in particular: “Rocky.” It arrived in theatres in 1976, a surprise hit that kept hitting. At first, viewers were amazed that a grimy, small-budget film could be as exciting as a major boxing match, but as sequels proliferated, fans, especially casual ones, found themselves wondering whether any boxing match could possibly be as exciting as “Rocky.” Fighters borrowed the name, or the music (either Bill Conti’s famous “Rocky” fanfare, or “Eye of the Tiger,” by Survivor, from “Rocky III,” which was adopted by Manny Pacquiao); a boxing promoter looking to drum up interest in a mismatch could sell it as a real-life “Rocky” story. Both Rocky Balboa, the character, and Sylvester Stallone, who created and embodied him, were inspired by Rocky Marciano, the nineteen-fifties heavyweight, who is now much less known than his fictional namesake. When Stallone was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, in 2011, he accepted the honor in front of a crowd of people chanting “Rocky! Rocky!”

The franchise, like its hero, refused to quit, delivering “II” through “V”, and then, in 2006, “Rocky Balboa.” In 2015, the series was revived again as “Creed”: Michael B. Jordan played Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s old enemy turned ally. This past Friday, “Creed III,” the ninth installment in the “Rocky” series, arrived in theatres, earning more than a hundred million dollars worldwide over the weekend—a franchise record. I have particular reason to care about the “Rocky” universe, because I am a boxing fan, and not a casual one—more than half a century after Muhammad Ali first fought Joe Frazier, and more than thirty years after Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson (“pure Rocky,” Sports Illustrated called it), it’s not clear that there are any casual boxing fans left. But I had never got around to watching any of the “Rocky” movies. Real boxing matches are televised or streamed just about every Saturday night, and so watching some fictional ones, no matter how hallowed, was never a top priority.

Intentional ignorance, though, is difficult to defend. And so, spurred by the impending release of “Creed III,” I decided I should finally watch the “Rocky” saga—all nine films, in order, in two weeks. No one will be shocked or disappointed to learn that I was neither shocked nor disappointed. On the contrary, the experience was pleasantly familiar, like meeting a celebrity who more or less lives up to his image. I knew “Yo, Adrian,” one of Rocky’s most famous utterances, but I had assumed that Adrian was Rocky’s trainer, rather than his wife. (He says it in “Rocky II,” which was released in 1979, around the same time as the first hip-hop records, and the phrase is a reminder that “yo” long predates hip-hop.) And I liked the way the series folded in on itself: in the “Creed” movies, the fighters appear on fictionalized versions of HBO’s “24/7” and Showtime’s “All Access,” two docuseries that those networks used in order to make their boxing matches seem more cinematic—more like “Rocky.”

“Rocky” starts midfight. Our hero, in a dimly lit hall, is not doing well. “You’re fighting like a bum,” his trainer tells him. But then Rocky suffers an intentional head-butt and responds, as boxers typically do not, by punching his opponent down onto the canvas, and then kneeling over him and punching some more. The referee does not disqualify Rocky, for hitting someone who’s down, but instead declares him the winner. It’s an effective way of plunging viewers into the demimonde of boxing, while also establishing the over-all theme of the series: when it comes to winning a fight, neither skills nor rules are any match for motivation.

One of the cleverest things about “Rocky” is how little boxing there is in it. Rocky spends much of the film brooding, moping, second-guessing himself. I had to wait more than an hour before I saw him standing in his dingy Philadelphia apartment slurping down his famous 4 A.M. breakfast of five raw eggs. And not until the ninety-minute mark does he finally bound up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, raising his wrapped fists. Even as a Rocky newcomer, I was aware that he would lose his climactic fight to Apollo Creed, although I had to watch the ending a few times to really understand what was happening. The sound of the ring announcer, reading off the split-decision scores, is echoey and low in the mix, drowned out by a triumphant scene of Rocky embracing Adrian. The loss sets up a rematch, and therefore a sequel, and perhaps it helped the franchise endure, for decades, by keeping viewers guessing. While watching the eight films that followed, I couldn’t ever be sure that the hero would win in the end.

In the first film, Rocky is a nobody trying to become a somebody. But as the sequels piled up, I could sometimes feel the filmmakers straining to convince both the characters and the viewers that there was a good reason for the hero to get back into the ring. In the second film, Rocky retires and then un-retires, telling Adrian, “I never asked you to stop being a woman—please don’t ask me to stop being a man.” In the third film, from 1982, Rocky is ready to retire again, and then decides that he wants to fight some more. And, in the fourth one, Rocky tells his son, “Going one more round, when you don’t think you can—that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” This scene occurs scarcely ten minutes after Rocky has seen Apollo Creed, now his friend, killed in the ring by Ivan Drago, a menacing Soviet stoic. For Rocky, and for many boxing fans, the rigor and riskiness of boxing can seem self-justifying: fighters are inspiring precisely because the thing they do is so gruelling and so dangerous.

Part of the appeal of the “Rocky” series is that, while the formula stays more or less the same, the hero keeps changing: an unsung club fighter becomes a champion, and then a celebrity, and then a bit of a has-been. I had a sense that the franchise had grown cartoonish over the years, but I didn’t know that “Rocky III” included a goofy professional wrestling match pitting Rocky against Hulk Hogan, or that the cast of “Rocky IV,” from 1985, included a talking robot, who rolls up to the table in Rocky’s California mansion, serving as a valet and perhaps a love interest for his brother-in-law, Paulie. “Rocky V,” from 1990, is by some measures the least-loved Rocky movie: on Rotten Tomatoes, it is rated thirty-one per cent fresh by both critics and audiences, the lowest score for a “Rocky” film. But, while I was exasperated by the tedious street fight that served as the grand finale, I was engrossed by the evolving relationship between Rocky and his restless new protégé, Tommy Gunn. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Tommy was played by a real boxer, Tommy Morrison—it was both exciting and sad to watch footage of Morrison in his prime, because I knew what came next. Morrison’s career peaked in 1993, when he won a heavyweight championship by beating George Foreman, but he lost it soon afterward, in a first-round knockout. In 1996, Morrison tested positive for H.I.V., and announced his retirement; in 2007, at the age of thirty-eight, he launched a comeback, saying that the test had been erroneous, and he died a few years later, at forty-four, claiming until the end that he was H.I.V.-negative. (There is a fascinating and disturbing documentary, “Tommy,” that tells his story.) The real-life stories of boxers are sometimes more dramatic—and often more tragic—than what we see in the movies.

Movie punches don’t quite look like boxing punches, no matter how sophisticated the choreography. In the “Rocky” films, fists and heads often swing in unison, and sometimes the only way to distinguish between hits and misses is by the sound: each fight is a symphony of snare-drum cracks and gusts of wind. The bodies are generally brawnier than you see in professional boxing, and the movements stiffer, the action cleaner, with scarcely any probing jabs, glancing blows, or half-blocked shots. Over the years, the franchise drew closer to the boxing industry. “Rocky Balboa,” from 2006, matched its hero, now sixty, against a champion played by Antonio Tarver, who was then, in real life, a top light heavyweight. The idea that Rocky would be competitive at sixty is absurd, although older boxers do sometimes prosper. The same year that “Rocky Balboa” came out, Tarver lost his championship belt to Bernard Hopkins, who would win his final championship at forty-nine.

I found myself looking forward to these appearances from real-life boxers, although I also found myself distracted, sometimes, by the differences between this boxing universe and the one that I knew. Apollo Creed and Rocky were both heavyweight champions, and so Adonis Creed is destined to become a heavyweight champion, too. But Stallone is something like five feet ten, and Jordan is listed at six feet; by comparison, the top heavyweight today is Tyson Fury, who is six-nine, and who would look hulkier than Hulk Hogan alongside any of these guys. Eventually, I learned to accept that “heavyweight” means something different in the “Rocky” universe than it does in real life. I learned to accept, too, the foolishly wide punches, which created easy opportunities for counterpunches. Part of the appeal of the original “Rocky” was that its hero was not the greatest boxer in the world, just as, in the ring, the most technically skilled boxers are not always the most entertaining. “The belt ain’t enough,” a promoter explains, accurately, in “Creed II,” from 2018. “You need a narrative—something sticks to the ribs.”

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