Cinematic Adventures: Rocky Balboa, The Greatest American Hero

The quarantine has brought us an unmistakable opportunity, to watch as much film and television as humanly possible. The ability to be taken on a cinematic adventure every single day for the foreseeable future can be a lot to comprehend, I understand that. During a time of great uncertainty, not knowing what’s next, we tend to look for a hero, someone who can stand up to any foe and come out victorious, there is only one man who time and time again answers the bell, literally and figuratively. That man is the one and only, Rocky Balboa.

Rocky is a man that we all wish we could be, his drive, determination, sense of humor, compassion, seeing the best in everyone and the ability to overcome hardships makes him a champion in and out of the ring. You might think that at times I speak of Rocky as if he is not a fictional character, to me he his real, as real as the rain that falls onto the brim of your cap, as real as the wind that pushes your hair back on a summer’s drive, as real as the sand between your toes on a crowded beach, he is real. If that imagery didn’t do anything for you, then let me ask you a question, if he wasn’t real, if the message he conveyed wasn’t as real as a heart attack, would the city of Philadelphia make a statue for him and display it more proudly than the Liberty Bell, I think not. You don’t grow up like I did, an Italian- American kid from the North East without worshiping Robert “Rocky” Balboa.

It all started back in 1976 when a Philadelphia club fighter named Rocky Balboa stepped into the ring in a church basement against a veteran brawler named Spider Rico. Rocky got viciously head butted but would respond to win this bloody fight. The boos and chants of “you’re a bum” rained down upon Rocky but he never lost his focus, his belief in himself and that my friends is a lesson we should all carry throughout our daily life. Rocky would go in and out of the bar, back to his shitty apartment, meet with his buddy Paulie and just count the days away. That is a feeling that is all too familiar for a lot of people, during that time, Paulie set Rocky up with his shy sister, Adrian, pretty much love at first sight. For any of you who have fallen in love, you have that moment where you look at your partner and realize you need to improve yourself, do better for yourself but more importantly your future as a couple, when Rocky did this, there was no stopping him.

The Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1976 was the one and only, master of disaster, king of sting, the count of monte fist-o, Apollo Creed. This suave, charismatic and smooth fighter was on top of the sports world, he had a title fight set up and when his challenger dropped out he went to the boxing encyclopedia to look for his next opponent. He stumbled upon the “Italian Stallion” Rocky Balboa. It is rumored that Creed liked the fighter just for his nickname and said that it sounded like “a damn monster movie, Apollo Creed versus the Italian Stallion”. After years of being ridiculed, nobody wanting to do anything with him and being called a bum, Rocky would have his opportunity. His whole life was a million to one shot and now he had a chance to become a hero, to be the greatest underdog story of all-time. Rocky kept his circle close, his trainer Mickey, who after some consideration and arguments, Rocky decided to give him a chance. In addition to Mickey was obviously Adrian, Paulie and Rocky’s cut-man, Al Silvani and Gazzo, Rocky’s lone shark boss. Rocky was now ready to prove everybody wrong and become a beacon of hope for the working man and to make a statement that it is never to late to give up on your dreams.

The heavyweight championship of the world, in Philadelphia, PA. Everybody thought it was just going to be a “show”, nobody was assuming it was going to be an actual drag out brawl, except for Rocky. Early in the fight, he took the pressure to Creed, knocking him down for the FIRST time in his career, Apollo would respond and put the hurt on Rocky all night long, breaking his nose, busting his eye socket, but Rocky refused to quit, he was showing everyone the underdog mentality, the working mans heart.

The fourteenth and fifteenth round of this fight is an absolute battle. Creed would send Rocky to the canvas and although Rocky’s corner urges him to stay down, he emerges and tells Creed he wants more. I get goosebumps just thinking about it, Creed heads back to take on Rocky and Rocky unloads on him, breaking his ribs, the champ is spitting up blood. They both return to their corners, both corners want to stop the fight, Rocky can’t see and Creed is bleeding inside, the warriors determine that they want to keep fighting. Rocky needs to prove that he’s not just another bum from the neighborhood and the champ wants to prove he can win a drag out brawl, something he has never done before.

The fifteenth and final round, is a live look at two warriors, two men who refuse to lose, back and forth, toe to toe in the middle of the ring, exchanging blows. The final bell would ring and Apollo assures Rocky that there would not be a rematch, Rocky says he doesn’t want one, he proved to everyone what was said to be impossible. Rocky doesn’t care about the decision because he was able to go the distance with the greatest fighter in the world, guts, stamina, all on display and Rocky just wants to embrace Adrian. Apollo Creed would win the split decision and retain his heavyweight title. Rocky taught us so much, anybody can be somebody, on any given day. It is never to late to achieve your dreams and for all the people who told you that you can’t do it, if you believe in yourself, anything is obtainable.

Part II
Three years went by, it was now 1979. Apollo Creed had a couple of title defenses that he won easily, nobody was able to find or hear from Rocky Balboa. The once great underdog story had simply vanished. He was living modestly in Philadelphia with his new wife Adrian, their dog Butkus, two turtles named Cuff and Link and Rocky was working at Mickey’s gym, helping train some young boxers. Rocky searched for desk jobs but his lack of reading and writing ability made him tough to hire, even with his local fame. Rocky had remained adamant that he was retired from boxing, the amount of damage that Creed caused to his eye was catastrophic, a couple more bad blows to the eyes and Rocky could go permanently blind, he had a baby on the way and it seemed like a risk not worth taking.

Rocky was in a tough spot, everyone was telling him to go back to boxing, I get it, but as a family man, I understand that Rocky had to think about his wife and soon to be child. During this time, Apollo Creed continuously was being heckled for not scheduling a rematch with Rocky and everyone was referring to him as a “paper champion”, even his kids were being harassed at school because their dad could barely beat a convention hall boxer from the streets of Philly. Apollo Creed is a proud man, he would not stand for this, he took to the media to call out Rocky, get him out of hiding and lay an ass kicking on him, once and for all, the first time had to have been a fluke and Apollo was going to prove it to the entire world.

Enough was enough, Rocky decided to take on the champion once again. Adrian was hesitant to support Rocky and after a challenging pregnancy, she knew she needed to stand by her man, she gave Rocky her blessing and told him to go shut the mouth of the loud mouth champion, she wanted her man to become the champion.

I want to run head first through a brick wall right now, wow, “win”. I am going to head to my garage and start bashing things with a sledge hammer I am so fired up. If Apollo had the access of the hospital footage that I had then he probably would have called the fight off right then and there. Rocky was out for blood, he could taste the championship, everybody would know his name. Rocky was showing us the true heart of a champion, even when you get knocked down and you feel out, you cannot give up, get back up and try to scale that mountain. A message that resonates through all aspects of life.

The rematch lived up to the hype, so many boxing rematches are able to capture the essence of their predecessor but this one gave it a hell of a run. Back and forth they exchanged blows, Rocky changing up his style and fighting right-handed which confused the champion a bit, Creed laid hard hitting blows on Rocky and by the fifteenth and final round, they were both exhausted.

The pageantry, the guts, the resolve, two warriors displaying every inch of what makes them great. It doesn’t get more dramatic than that finish, in my estimation, it is the greatest finish in the history of boxing. Rocky dragging himself from the canvas and becoming the heavyweight champion of the world brings a tear to my eye. Never give up, the perceived insurmountable feats are able to be accomplished and Rocky proved that to the entire World, absolutely amazing.

Part III
1982, Rocky is now rich and famous, appearing in every single commercial and ad you can shake a stick at. Adrian is all glam now, their son Robert Jr. is living high on the hog, crushing all sorts of cereals and playing with any toy he can get his hands on, it is high times in the Balboa household. Rocky is still fighting, he has had ten title defenses since the 1979 victory over Creed. Rocky is a new man, he is slimmer, ripped, got a little face lift and is now the GQ boxer, a far cry from his humble man roots. Unbeknownst to Rocky, there is a challenger climbing up the ranks, he has devastating punching power and he is hungry for the shot at the title, his name is, Clubber Lang.

Mickey tells Rocky to retire, he has nothing left to prove and that it is time to ride off into the sunset, after the embarrassment at the statue ceremony, Rocky convinces Mickey to stand by his side one last time, one more fight versus Clubber Lang. Rocky is blinded by the fame, the fortune and the love he receives everywhere he goes, he takes the training for granted while Clubber is sweating it out everyday at the gym.

The final result is an absolute beat down from Clubber Lang, Rocky is outmatched and on top of the loss, Mickey has a heart attack during the pre-fight build up and passes away. Rocky is devastated, he doesn’t know where to turn, he begins to realize that Mickey protected him and gave him title defenses against fighters who had no chance to defeat Rocky. Rocky begins to question whether or not he is a true champion or if he just got lucky against Apollo. Speaking of Apollo Creed, the retired former champion goes and sees Rocky and tells him that he can help him, he can restore the eye of the tiger in him and he can defeat Clubber Lang and become champion again. The two former champions, combining their efforts to take out Clubber Lang who is continually badmouthing Rocky and Apollo. Rocky agrees and heads to California to train with Apollo and Apollo’s former trainer Tony “Duke” Evers. Rocky is still feeling the shock waves from losing Mickey and the feeling that he might have been carried through his title defenses. Adrian comes to the rescue, Rocky realizes that he needs to toughen up, leave the fame, glory and admiration aside and focus on what is important. Providing us with another phenomenal lesson, never letting the success go to our heads and to stay true to who we are.

It is time for Rocky to respond to the critics and take down Clubber Lang, to prove to everyone that Apollo Creed, his new best friend was able to resurrect his career. Rocky takes to the ring, wearing Apollo’s trunks from their first fight together and gives Clubber Land a beating that he could have never imagined, Rocky once again is the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

What a true test of the athletic spirit, changing the way he fought in order to regain the title belt. The true test of a champion is his ability to adapt, improve and refocus himself to become better, that is true in boxing and that is true in life.

Part IV
By 1985, Rocky was retired, living in luxury with his wife Adrian, his son Robert, Paulie and spending time with his best friend Apollo. Life was good, Rocky was relaxed and enjoying retirement. The rest of the world wasn’t as relaxed as the Balboa’s and their friends, it was the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union had a wrecking ball on two legs named Ivan Drago, he was an International sensation and he was getting ready to take his talents to the United States and wanted to take on Rocky in his first bout. Rocky was not interested in coming out of retirement so Apollo took it upon himself to knock this Soviet bum out first and prove to everyone that American boxing was still the top of the line. Rocky was hesitant to see his friend step in the ring but like any good friend would do he trained Apollo and with Duke and Paulie, they stood in Apollo’s corner for his fight vs Drago.

The fight resulted in the death of a legend, it still hurts me to this day, Drago beat Apollo Creed to death while Rocky looked on, not stopping the fight on the wishes of his best friend, a decision that would haunt Rocky forever. There was no need to convince Rocky, he was going to fight Drago and get revenge for him killing his best friend. Adrian continually tells him that this is a suicide mission and he needs to think of his family, he can’t win and he could get killed. Rocky does not want to hear this, he needs to defend Apollo’s honor.

The fight is set for Christmas Day 1985 in the Soviet Union, Rocky heads to Russia to start his training in a snow bound cabin with Duke and Paulie. Adrian who doesn’t support this decision stays behind until one day, when she unexpectedly shows up and a lot like before his fight with Clubber lang, Rocky is rejuvenated by Adrian’s support and presence. That eye of the tiger that Apollo instilled in Rocky had return, it was time to focus on his greatest opponent yet, Ivan Drago.

Rocky once again proves to us that there is a lesson and silver lining in every journey, the hurt and loss and demons that were festering inside him were making him stronger if he could face them head on, he could overcome them. He taught us to be patriotic, to respect our friends and always be there for them, that’s life boys and girls.

Rocky would fight Drago in the most brutal and painful bout of his career, the two time heavyweight champion of the world had come out of retirement to stand up to everything that the oppressive Soviet Union represented, it is chronicled in many scholar’s texts that Balboa’s victory and respect he earned from the Russians helped tensions cool and eventually led to the end of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.

Part V
Immediately following the fight with Drago, Rocky began to face some serious setbacks. He was diagnosed with brain damage from the blows he took from Drago and by 1990 Rocky has lost his entire fortune do to the workings of his crooked accountant. We stopped hearing about Rocky but it was rumored that he was running Mickey’s old boxing gym in Philadelphia and he moved back into his old neighborhood, back to square one.

Then Rocky appeared on the national scene once again, training an up and coming boxer named Tommy “The Machine” Gunn. Gunn would prove to be a top contender and his big punching power led him to a title match with Union Kane, an over the hill champion who gained the title following Rocky’s retirement. Kane tried to lure Rocky out of retirement so he could prove to be the “real” champion but Rocky refused, stating his declining health, staying true to his values. If Rocky took that fight with Kane, his financial problems would have been solved, or significantly improved. Instead, he declined, giving Tommy Gunn his moment in the sun. Before the Gunn vs Kane fight, Gunn was convinced Rocky was holding him back and fired Rocky and began bad mouthing him in the press.

Following the Kane vs Gunn fight, which Gunn won, the news cut live to a bar in Philadelphia where Rocky was inside and Tommy Gunn was outside telling Rocky he wasn’t his puppet and he was challenging him to a fight. Rocky said he wasn’t interested, Tommy was his friend and he didn’t want to throw hands with him, he was being conned by a ruthless promoter, George Washington Duke, who only cared about money and not Tommy’s well-being. Paulie defends Rocky and Tommy punches Paulie, sparking an outrage from Rocky and he accepts the challenge, on one condition, that they fight right there and now.

Rocky once again teaching us that sometimes you need to take a step back to move forward, to keep your family close to you and to push forward during the toughest times.

Part VI
Rocky remained in Philadelphia, his wife Adrian passed away and in her honor he opened an Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia named “Adrian’s”. He stayed out of the public eye until 2006 when he resurfaced due to a simulated fight on ESPN involving him and the current champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon.

Dixon is infuriated by this simulation and challenges Rocky to a fight. Rocky who was dealing with a bunch of emotional issues following the loss of his wife, gets clearance from the boxing commission regarding his health and he agrees to fight Dixon in an exhibition match. Twenty one years from his last fight, Rocky was back, to prove to the World he still had a little something left in the tank.

Anything you ever needed to know about life, is right here, go ahead and watch, tell me I am wrong, I dare you.

The older Rocky gets Duke back in his corner and gets to training with the help of Paulie, his son and his old rival Spider Rico, Rocky has a solid support system as he sets his sight on exercising the demons and showing everyone that age is only a number and anything can be achieved with hard work and determination.

Rocky would fight Dixon in Vegas, Dixon would break his hand early in the fight giving Rocky an opening to compete, he battled Dixon and like his first fight with Apollo, Rocky would lose but he would go the distance, proving once and for all his heart of a champion, his boxing career had come full circle.

In his later years, Rocky would stay out of the public eye, running his restaurant and living in Philadelphia. He returned to boxing when he began training Adonis Creed, the son of his friend, Apollo Creed. Rocky would battle and beat cancer, training Creed to the Heavyweight Championship and defending his title in a win vs Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, Rocky and Drago would appear in the ring together, both as trainers, an incredible sight to see. Rocky spends time with his son and his son’s wife and his grandson, he still trains Adonis Creed and he is Godfather to Adonis and Bianca Creed’s daughter Amara.