“It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”
Sylvester Stallone announced on Instagram last week that he’s “retiring” his iconic Rocky Balboa character. Whether or not that holds true - it is Hollywood so you never know - this feels like the perfect time to take a moment to appreciate everything the character’s given us & to celebrate the most underrated fact about him: Rocky Balboa was Teflon.
Stallone created the iconic fighter in 1976, loosely based on real-life boxer Charles Wepner, who was a clear underdog against then-heavyweight champ Muhammed Ali in 1975 who managed to almost go the distance before losing by TKO in the 15th round. Much like Wepner, Rocky was an underdog who got a shot at the title & stunned the world by not eating shit in the first round, then stunned the world again by not eating shit at all. He was an awkward southpaw you didn’t wanna step up to.
The critical & commercial success of the first film spawned five sequels as well as two spinoffs. While the critical success trended downward with each sequel, returning to a peak for the sixth installment, Rocky Balboa (which remains the second-highest rated in the main series), the commercial success never wavered. No film bearing the name “Rocky” in its title ever failed to, at least, double its production budget at the worldwide box office. Audiences stood by Rocky; no matter how inconceivable the scenarios were, they flocked to see him overcome his next challenge. Teflon!
Those numbers are just half the story; they have to be put in context, measured against the reality that after Rocky III, the plots to the sequels became increasingly inane. In Rocky IV, the Italian Stallion went toe-to-toe with Russia’s laboratory created, boxing version of Frankenstein’s monster, Ivan Drago. The fight, born out of revenge following Drago beating Rocky’s good friend Apollo Creed to death in an exhibition match, saw Rocky train in the wintry mountains of Russia before going 15 rounds with his steroid-infused nemesis, flooring him just seconds before the final bell rang. That’s before even mentioning his post-victory speech that gained applause from the Russian General Secretary, effectively ending the Cold War!
In Rocky V, Rock is broke, suffering from permanent brain damage, is a lousy parent & engages in good old fashioned street fisticuffs against a kid he tried to live vicariously through. It’s a ludicrous premise, its execution is flawed but, again, it didn’t matter. Then came Rocky Balboa (arguably the best main series sequel), which saw an older Rocky, mourning the loss of his wife, trying to maintain a relationship with his son all while attempting to find his way in a world he felt no longer had a place for him. It works so well as a rumination on the perils of getting old that you almost don’t think about the fact that a man in his late fifties with permanent brain damage fighting a man decades younger than him and not dying is about as likely as Ben Simmons hitting a three this season. More importantly, it made you look past the fact that the black boxer he was fighting was named Mason “The Line” Dixon. They basically named him Mason Dixon Line. Rocky Balboa named the antagonist of the film after the line used to separate slave states from non slave states and NOBODY CARED!
Therein lies the true success of Rocky Balboa, the man. It didn’t really matter what the story was. We were there for him. From his guttural screams of “Adrian”, to when he beat the 10 count Apollo couldn’t, at the iconic freeze frame ending, to when Drago said “if he dies, he dies”, all the way until he tells his son “it ain’t about how hard you hit”, we came back for him. We hung on to a character who was a testament to perseverance. An underdog to a champ. A man who loved as hard as he fought & who we want nothing more than to see happy. A character that Sylvester Stallone played better every time out with his last few appearance being top notch. If his final moment in CREED 2 is, in fact, the last time we see the legend on screen then we couldn’t have asked Stallone for a better performance. A man who was resilient but afraid, wise but still flawed &, when it was all done, he made amends with the family he has left in a subtly, beautiful scene.
A tip of that patented fedora to you, Rock, you did it.