The Rocky franchise is one wild roller coaster. While the series experienced its ups and downs, so too has its antagonists. Whether it’s a juiced up Russian or the greatest world champ to ever live, we can at least say the Sylvester Stallone’s “Italian Stallion” has squared up against some interesting boxers.
With all of that said, we’ve taken the liberty of ranking each of Rocky Balboa’s foes.
6 Tommy “The Machine” Gunn
Tommy Gunn (played by Tommy Morrison in 1990) was taken under Balboa’s wing in Rocky V. However, living in the shadow of one of the most beloved boxing champions in the city that made him famous is no easy task. Breaking under the pressure, Gunn left Balboa’s side to be managed by George Washington Crane (Richard Grant) and rejected any influence his former trainer had on him. This somehow led to a street fight where a retired Balboa with brain damage won decisively, then assaulted Crane for some reason.
On paper, Gunn sounds like a pretty great villain, but Rocky V's ideas were never fully realized, and this particular fighter was probably hurt the worst as a result.
Aside from being remembered for one of the grossest names in cinema, Thunderlips is really only known for being played by Hulk Hogan. Though, if you weren’t a wrestling fan in the 1980s, we don’t really blame you for forgetting this part.
Thunderlips makes an appearance in Rocky III, where he absolutely destroys Balboa during a charity fight. While the concept of a wrestler vs a boxer is almost universally a bad idea, Thunderlips put the crowd in danger and almost murdered Balboa by throwing him into the audience. Once everything was said and done, the jacked up grappler said he was just doing it for the show and took some photos with the Italian Stallion, but when looking back, he was just kind of a jerk for no reason.
4 Ivan Drago
He killed Apollo!
Outside of that, Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren) would probably be the last on this list. But that, mixed with his small lines of “if he dies, he dies,” and “I must break you,” make the Russian boxer a truly despicable villain. With all that said, there is something to him being a puppet for the USSR, and he does sort of redeem himself near the end of the final fight. Still, there isn’t much to Drago as a character in Rocky IV.
He’s big, he does steroids, and he’s a communist. It would have been nice to know a little more about him, but given that this entry was released at the height of the Cold War, it’s not surprising to see why he was treated like a lab monster more than a human. At least we got some fun training montages!
3 Mason "The Line" Dixon
Antonio Tarver's Mason Dixon is a really interesting character in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. As a champion in an era of not-so-great-boxers, Dixon becomes furious when a simulation suggests The Italian Stallion would win in a fight. Capitalizing on the hype of said sim-fight, Dixon’s promoters convince the champ and Rocky to square up in Las Vegas.
Sure, the premise of the movie is sort of cheesy, but its execution is top-notch, and a lot of that is thanks to the complexity of Dixon’s character.
2 James "Clubber" Lang
Mr. T playing the big bad in any movie sounds comedic in 2019, but in 1982, he was the biggest threat Rocky Balboa ever faced. As a hungry up-and-comer, Lang was fed up of being passed over for opportunities at the title, and he made sure to call out Balboa during a retirement ceremony.
This led to an eventual title match, but before that could happen, the challenger caused a scuffle outside of the champion’s dressing room, accidentally causing Balboa’s manager, Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), to suffer a heart attack and die. The emotional weight was too much for Balboa, causing him to lose the fight. Yet, Lang was too much of an adversary for Rocky to just simply get a rematch. Balboa had to enlist the services of Apollo Creed to help bring his fighting style into the 1980s, and it worked.
What makes Lang such an endearing character is that his motivations are not necessarily wrong, and the montages highlighting both Balboa’s and Clubber’s workouts show that he’s driven to win, while Rocky was caught up in being a celebrity.
All in all, Lang is a great, compelling character that is the antithesis to what Balboa has become by the third movie. What more could we ask for?
1 Apollo Creed
Apollo Creed (played Carl Weathers) was Rocky’s first adversary, but he was also his best. The champion of the world gave Balboa a shot at the title and didn’t take him seriously enough. This arrogance led to an epic boxing match that saw the Italian Stallion go the distance against the best boxer in the world at the time. Creed didn’t take too kindly to the fallout of said match and coaxed Rocky into another bout, eventually losing after another classic.
What makes him such an interesting character is his more nuanced relationship with Balboa. Throughout the first movie, Creed is seen as an arrogant champion who is more interested in promoting his fight than actually winning, however, a degree of sportsmanship is shown at the beginning of the second movie when the two have a heart to heart in a Philadelphia hospital. While he stoops to some name-calling in the media, by the end of Rocky II, it’s easy to see that both Creed and Balboa have a bit of a complex relationship. This leads to a partnership in Rocky III, that sees Rocky’s former adversary train him to help him take down Clubber Lang, who was a little less than respectful to the former champion.
He’s the only person aside from the titular character to show that kind of change, and because of that, he is our favorite opponent of Rocky Balboa.