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Everyone is a connoisseur of something. Some people know their wines. Others know their cigars. Me? I know Rocky movies. I’ve seen all five Rocky movies hundreds of times each. And counting.
Last week, I learned that a long-rumored Rocky VI is inching ever closer to production. People are going to wince when they hear this. They’re going to roll their eyes and say, “Really? What’s next? Rambo IV?” (Well, actually, yeah. Sylvester Stallone’s planning that one, too.) I’m not going to lie to you. I don’t think Rocky VI—or Rocky Balboa, as they’re apparently calling it—will be a good movie. In fact, it may well be horrible. Most people would agree that the original Rocky is a great film. Any fair-minded person would agree that Rocky II is very good. And anyone who can’t find something to enjoy in Rocky III lacks the qualities I look for in a person. But after that, all bets are off. For most people, Rockies IV and V were the cinematic equivalent of a steaming pile of horse crap. They ruined the credibility of the entire Rocky franchise. But as low as the series may have sunk, that shouldn’t exclude Stallone from making another one. And as a Rocky connoisseur, I’m here to tell you that, if anything, he should.
To understand why I say this—to understand why I want to subject the Good Earth to another 120 minutes of poorly spliced fight scenes, 2-D antagonists, and Sly Stallone’s apparent case of early onset dementia pugilistica—you have to understand how closely the Rocky series resembles the average pro boxer’s career trajectory. Pro boxers are notorious for hanging around the ring a little too long. With the exception of Rocky Marciano, Marvin Hagler, and Homer Simpson in that episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes a boxer because he’s too dumb to go down from a punch, no boxer has ever known when to call it quits. Ever. Take Evander Holyfield, for instance. Evander Holyfield has a career record of 38 wins, 8 losses, and 2 draws, with 25 knockouts. Not bad, right? Well, not bad until you consider that both draws and five of his eight losses came in his last ten fights. In fact, of his last ten, he’s only won three. Suddenly “not bad” isn’t so good anymore. The man’s skills have clearly faded. And the sad part is, he’s probably not done boxing yet.
So what makes fighters keep fighting past their prime? Well, two things. Sometimes, money. Other times, ego. But whatever the case, it’s always because boxing is the only thing they’ve ever known how to do. Boxing used to be big business in this country. Back in the day, it was a way out of the ghetto. Men of various races and weight distributions routinely packed large arenas as they battled for lucrative purses. But then something happened. College sports and pro leagues exploded on the scene. Suddenly you didn’t have to bash your head in for money anymore. All you had to do was jump real high, or run with a ball. Gifted athletes flocked to basketball courts and the gridiron. They earned scholarships, sneaker contracts, even segments on MTV’s Cribs. As a result, boxing’s talent pool dwindled. The Sweet Science no longer attracted the lowest of the low; now it called upon people even lower than that. Fighters are some of the most genuine folks you’ll ever meet, but they’re also some of the most destitute and desperate. These are the guys with few other talents, who often times need other talents the most.
Rocky Balboa fit this description when the original Rocky hit theaters in 1976. Set in Philadelphia at the time of America’s bicentennial, it’s the story of a down and out clubfighter, a man who supplements his income by breaking thumbs and collecting debts down by the docks. But then heavyweight champ Apollo Creed comes to town, riding his high horse and wearing red, white, and blue. He offers Rocky the chance of a lifetime. And Rocky gives him the fight of his life. Our hero doesn’t win at the end of the movie—oops, spoiler alert—but he gives it his all. That’s what makes it so beautiful. Here’s a guy who has absolutely nothing left to live for, who’s long since stopped dreaming of fabulous riches and being fed grapes by half naked ladies at the pool. And yet, when opportunity knocks, he answers with furious left-right combinations. He doesn’t win the fight, but he wins the girl and wins the crowd. Failure has never looked so human before. It’s never looked so natural, acceptable, or bold.
Rocky II throws this out the window, of course. The movie opens with a promise that there won’t be a Balboa-Creed rematch, and ends with a Balboa-Creed rematch. But it’s a solid flick nonetheless. The two men fight for what seems like four hours, throwing lots of body shots that don’t necessarily land but are somehow still strong enough to lift each other up into the air. Then, finally, with everything on the line, Rocky and Apollo manage to knock each other down at the same time, giving them ten seconds—or two minutes, for those watching at home—to get to their feet. Apollo tries and fails. Rocky gets up and wins. Ding, ding, ding, ladies and gentlemen. We have a new champion.
This represents a turning point.
In Rocky III, Rocky isn’t the underdog anymore. He’s the titleholder. He’s every man who’s ever let success get to his head. Caught up in fame and untold fortune, he loses his belt to a brash, angry black man named Clubber Lang (played by Mr. T), and soon finds himself faced with uncertainty. Should he do the smart thing and walk away now, preserving his brain cells as well as his riches? Or should he befriend Apollo and ask him to train him, so the two can go running down the beach together and participate in an awkward hug as they jump up and down and splash in the water? Like I said, the smart choice was the first choice. But this is boxing. And boxers don’t always make smart choices. Rocky goes for glory. He beats Lang in the rematch and wins back his title. But it comes at a price, for soon we will learn that his health has started to erode.
In Rocky IV, the brash, angry black man has been replaced with a cold, angry Russian named Ivan Drago, whose fists are apparently made of steel. I could probably write whole volumes on this particular Rocky movie, so I’ll save most of my comments for another day. But to make a long story short, James Brown performs “Living In America,” and Drago—perhaps angered by the performance—kills Apollo in the ring. Rocky then flies to Russia to run up a mountain and scream Drago’s name at the top of his lungs. Then he beats the crap out of Drago and wins over the crowd, thus fulfilling Sylvester Stallone’s weird one-man-brings-down-the-entire-Soviet-Union fetish, which seemed to haunt him through most of the 1980s. (Interestingly, this is the only movie I’ve ever seen in which we are treated to back-to-back musical montages. It’s also the only movie that ever made me want to grow a full beard. Those are two feats unparalleled in cinematic history. But like I said, I’ll have to expand on that some other time.)
Finally, in Rocky V, Rocky retires, having taken too many blows to the head. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, a convenient accounting error wipes out his entire fortune, and Rocky’s forced to move back to the streets. This is the movie where everything comes full circle, and the part of the column where I stop making jokes. You see, as contrived as Rocky V was, it’s the only Rocky movie as important as the first one. Because boxing history is littered with fighters who, like Rocky, reached the highest heights of the mountains in Russia (or Vancouver, where IV was filmed), only to fall back to Earth with nary two pennies to cushion the blow. Boxing is the cruel pimp of professional sports. Boxers are routinely ripped off by people they think they can trust. Mike Tyson is a prime and glamorous example, but there are others—men whose stories are much worse. In the 1940s, Cleveland’s Jimmy Bivins was a top ranked heavyweight contender. In the ‘90s, they found him locked in his daughter’s attic, the blanket over his shoulders covered in urine and feces. He hadn’t eaten in weeks. His bones poked through his once heavyweight flesh. This is how boxers’ lives end: Back in the gutters from whence they rose.
You wonder why fighters keep fighting well into their 40s and 50s—why they never know when to say when, when they could easily work as trainers and stop taking physical punishment. But then you look at the poverty so many of them come from, and you look at the poverty so many of them end up in, and you realize they’re fighting because, deep down, they have to. They’ve been fighting all their lives. In the words of LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.”
Sylvester Stallone is pushing 60 at the moment. People are going to hear about Rocky VI, and they’re going to cast it off as a washed-up actor’s last-ditch attempt at recapturing past glory. On some level or another, I suppose that’s what it is. (Rambo IV won’t help his case much.) Look, don’t get me wrong: I don’t want him to make this movie. I don’t want Evander Holyfield to keep fighting, either. I also didn’t want Michael Jordan playing his last two miserable seasons in Washington, but, sometimes, storybook endings only happen in storybooks. In a way, the Rocky series wouldn’t be complete without one final comeback. Because just when you thought it was over—just when you thought you owned the entire Rocky anthology—it turns out there’s some fight in the dog left. Maybe not a lot of fight. Maybe not enough to win. But enough to try and—if nothing else—fail.
Thirty years ago, a young Sly Stallone shopped Rocky all over Hollywood, and against all odds scored the hit that shocked the world. Here he is, 30 years later, still fighting—still trying to make his movie. This is how careers end in boxing: Not with a bang, but a whimper. Boxers jump the shark. They become parodies of their once fearsome selves. Nothing can highlight why this happens quite like one final Rocky. We deserve to see it. And who knows? Maybe it’ll shock you.