One of the most iconic characters in Hollywood history is Rocky Balboa. Played to perfection by the one and only Sylvester Stallone, the Italian Stallion endeared himself to millions of people through his hard work, perseverance, and determination. His impact on moviegoers is so profound that the city of Philadelphia has a statue of their fictional sports hero.
Like all great athletes, Rocky has a multitude of highlights throughout his career. When reflecting upon his legacy, there are several instances that symbolize what he’s all about – and there are sure to be several more as he trains Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) in Creed. Here are Rocky Balboa’s 10 Greatest Moments (so far).
NOTE: This list is presented in chronological order. It is not ranked.
Ice Skating With Adrian
Rocky is a boxer first, but he’s also a kindhearted person. In the original film, he takes a liking to friend Paulie’s (Burt Young) sister Adrian (Talia Shire), the cashier at the local pet store. After much prodding, Adrian finally agrees to go on a date with Rocky, spending Thanksgiving night with him. Saying that she likes ice skating, Rocky takes her to the rink so she can enjoy the evening.
When the two arrive, Rocky learns that the place has closed for the night, but he goes the extra mile and negotiates a deal so Adrian can skate for 10 minutes. Here, the two start to form a strong bond that would last a lifetime, opening up and realizing that they complete each other in a way as they talk about their personalities and upbringings. It’s one of the best scenes in the first movie (which is saying a lot); a tremendous feat considering it was improvised on the spot. When only one extra showed up for filming, Stallone rewrote the whole bit, and the rest was history.
Outburst At Mickey
The Rocky franchise is known for its roster of memorable supporting characters, but few made as great an impression as Mickey (Burgess Meredith). The no-nonsense trainer was essentially a potty-mouthed Yoda for aspiring fighters, sharing tough love wisdom to push his pupils to the next level. He was particularly hard on Rocky, disgusted with Balboa’s choice to become a loan collector instead of taking advantage of his talents. But when Rocky is selected as the replacement opponent to challenge Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the heavyweight title, the roles are reversed.
Mickey visits Rocky’s apartment to offer to be his trainer and manager, using his past experience of being a wasted prime to illustrate the importance of having a manager. Rocky initially rejects Mickey in an outburst wondering why Mickey wasn’t there for him when he really needed help (“What about MY prime?!”). Almost heartbroken, Mickey leaves, but then Rocky chases after him down the street and begins one of the most famous partnerships in sports movies. Sometimes you need to vent, and this was a case of two people discovering how much they needed each other via frustrations boiling over.
The Training Montage
Training montages may be cliché now, but Rocky made them a Hollywood staple. Needing to push himself to the limit so he can stay in the ring with Apollo, Rocky mixes nontraditional training methods (punching the meat) with a rigorous exercise routine to get into peak physical condition. Viewers also see a prime example of the fire and hunger that would go on to define the Rocky character, traits that made this sequence so inspiring that it influences everyday people to get off the couch and start working out.
What sets the original Rocky training montage from all the others is the debut of the legendary “Gonna Fly Now,” the song that is now part of a million workout mixes. The horns and vocal choir give Rocky’s training a mythical quality, as if he’s getting ready to take on a Greek god instead of the heavyweight champ. It made moviegoers believe they could do anything they put their mind to, and it’s easy to see why the training scene has been spoofed many times over since 1976.
Going the Distance With Apollo
Even after all the training and words of encouragement from Mickey, Rocky remains convinced that it’s impossible for him to defeat Apollo and claim the championship belt for himself. Instead, he wants to do something nobody has ever done: go the distance, meaning last for 15 rounds in the ring. He feels that if he does that, he’ll prove the world and himself that he’s not a bum and has done something worthwhile in his life.
Going into the fight with that mentality, Rocky gives it his all and shows tremendous heart, winning over the Philadelphia crowd as they chant the name of their new favorite son. Battered and bruised (and suffering a cracked rib), Apollo can’t believe that he had the foresight to handpick Rocky as his opponent. The two go through an all-out war, the toughest test either of them faced at that point in their careers. Balboa may have lost the fight on a split decision by the judges, but he scored a phenomenal personal victory that would go down in movie legend.
When their first fight ends, Rocky and Apollo agree that there “ain’t gonna be no rematch,” but once he receives hate mail, Apollo is fueled to face Balboa in the ring to show his first performance was just a fluke. He goads Rocky out of retirement by running a smear campaign that angers Mickey, and the Italian Stallion begins training again. However, he is in a different mindset, since Adrian (now his pregnant wife) disapproves of Rocky returning to the ring. Things get worse when Adrian faints after a confrontation with Paulie, prematurely giving birth to her son and falling into a coma.
Once again, showing how great a person he is, Rocky refuses to leave Adrian’s bedside until she wakes up. When she finally does, they have a touching moment as they see their newborn baby for the first time together and Rocky suggests that he could be done fighting for good. But Adrian has a change of heart, telling her husband that she only wants him to do one thing: win. That gives Rocky (and Mick) all the motivation he needs to train hard and square off against his rival.
“Yo Adrian, I Did It!”
The rematch between Rocky and Apollo almost went horribly wrong for Balboa. He has to fight right handed (instead of his natural southpaw) to protect an eye injury, and Creed builds an insurmountable lead in judges’ points by the time the fight reaches its fateful 15th round. Even though he can just play it safe and win by decision, Apollo’s ego leads him to trade blows with Rocky in an attempt to knock him out.
For the final round, Rocky changes styles and comes out left handed, landing a devastating punch to Apollo that knocks him to the ground. Rocky loses his balance and collapses to the canvas as well, but manages to get back up on his feet before the 10 count is over. For the first time, Rocky wins the heavyweight title and ushers in a new tradition for the films: the post-fight speech. Gracious in his victory, Rocky thanks Apollo and Mickey for all they’ve done, and then turns his attention to a recuperating Adrian at home, saying triumphantly “Yo Adrian, I did it!” to make her a part of his success as well. It’s hard not to shed a tear as emotions run high.
Confessing Fear to Adrian
With Rocky now the heavyweight champion of the world, he enjoys a newfound high point in his life, defending his title multiple times and becoming one of the most famous athletes in the world. The dream comes to a crashing halt when he runs into the ferocious Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who knocks Rocky out in a way that seems impossible. Not only that, Mickey tragically dies after the fight, which Rocky blames himself for (after pushing Mick to train him one last time). Apollo finds his former rival in a tumultuous state and offers to train him so Rocky can rediscover the eye of the tiger, but Rocky is too consumed by grief to take things seriously.
Once again, it’s Adrian who sets Rocky over the edge. Confronting him on the beach, Adrian demands to know the truth about what’s going on. In a shocking moment of vulnerability, Rocky confesses that for the first time in his life he is scared. Lang’s intensity combined with the revelation that Mickey handpicked “safe” challengers to protect Rocky made Balboa question himself and his ability to win. He doesn’t want to lose what he has, and he’s afraid what might happen if he fails. Adrian assures him that as long as he gives it his best, it doesn’t matter what the result is, and encourages him to finish his training strong.
Taking the Belt Back
The second fight between Rocky and Apollo was billed as the “rematch of the century,” but this was the rematch fans really wanted to see. After having his championship title ripped away from him, Rocky was ready to square off against Clubber Lang again to take it right back. This fight, like so many others in the franchise, was a great illustration of Rocky’s passion and will to win. After dominating the first round, Rocky adapts an unorthodox method by intentionally taking a beating from Lang (to wear him down), taunting his opponent to make him angrier. As the battle progresses, the outcome becomes inevitable.
With Lang tired and weary, Rocky unleashes a series of vicious haymakers to knock him out and become the heavyweight champ once more. While Apollo was a charismatic showman with an ego, Clubber was the franchise’s first real “villain” that viewers were meant to despise. Watching him get his comeuppance was very satisfying for fans, and seeing Rocky back on top after hitting rock bottom was a thrilling way to end the movie.
“If I Can Change…”
Even though Rocky was done with title fights, he couldn’t escape the boxing ring. Convinced that up-and-comer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is a sham, ultra-American Apollo challenges the Russian to an exhibition match at the height of the Cold War. Things take a tragic turn when Apollo is murdered during the fight, something Rocky may have been able to prevent if he threw in the towel to call it off. To avenge his friend, Rocky travels to Russia to battle against Drago and delivers another inspiring performance.
The series may have fully embraced 1980s camp at this point, but there’s no denying the entertainment of seeing Rocky go toe-to-toe with the Soviet giant, giving Rocky IV some not-so-subtle political undertones. Rocky ends up swaying the Russian crowd, as they spend the final rounds chanting Balboa’s name in unison. When Rocky is deemed the winner, he gives a cheesy (yet heartfelt) speech about how his perceptions regarding the Russians changed over time (and vice versa), suggesting it means that anybody can change for the better. Did Rocky end the Cold War? The debate will rage on forever.
“How Winning Is Done”
As he advances in age, Rocky chooses to spend his days as a restaurant owner in Philadelphia, telling stories about his glory days to interested customers. When a computer simulation showcases a fight between an in-his-prime Rocky and the current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), the two men agree to a charity exhibition match to see what would happen for real. Rocky is excited to get back in the ring, but his decision takes a toll on his son (Milo Ventimiglia), who blames his personal failings as a corporate employee on having to live in his celebrity father’s shadow.
As his son tries to discourage Rocky from fighting again, the elder Balboa gives some meaningful advice in one of the more inspiring speeches in the canon. It can be applied to anybody who’s going through a hard time. When life has you down, it doesn’t help to point fingers and blame others for your problems. Winning is done by seeing how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. The words were so powerful and impactful that they were used in the marketing for Creed. In a way, it symbolizes what the Rocky character has been about from day one. No matter what he’s facing, he kept moving forward and became one of the best fighters of all-time.
Rocky Balboa is such an important character, and any film buff who has enjoyed even one of the films has one moment they always go back to for inspiration. As always, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share your picks in the comments section below and let us know what you think the best of the Italian Stallion is!
Creed is in theaters November 25, 2015.