Spawning eight major movies with a ninth inevitably on its way as Creed III, the Rocky franchise is perhaps best known for its varying levels of quality. Even fans of the series will struggle calling the Rocky good overall. Outside of the first film, none of them are really all-time great movies. Rocky II, Balboa, and the two Creed movies are good, but nowhere near close in quality.
So why are the movies still popular? Simple — good character action. The Rocky franchise (usually) does a good job at building up opponents, often dedicating entire film-long arcs to Rocky’s relationship (later Creed's) with his rivals. When it works, it leads to some of the most memorable antagonists in cinema. When it doesn’t, well...
9 Tommy Gun (Rocky V)
Tommy Gun is basically "How Not To Write A Rocky Villain" 101 — which is strange because, conceptually, he’s actually Rock’s best foil. He’s someone of a similar background to Rocky who’s been corrupted by fame in a way Rocky hasn’t. There’s a good story in here somewhere, but the movie never finds it.
There’s also the layer of Rocky personally training Tommy only for the latter to more or less betray him, but even that isn’t handled particularly well since most of Rocky V is spent following Rocky through some rather uncomfortable and tonally out-of-place drama. When Tommy does get to appear, he’s downright insufferable to boot.
8 Thunderlips (Rocky III)
Thunderlips isn’t so much a bad opponent as he is a fairly boring one who ends up transitioning the Rocky franchise out of the drama of the first two films and into the wackiness of Rocky III through V. It’s a change for the worse and each subsequent film is of a lower quality than the last between these three movies.
There’s some novelty to Rocky’s fight against Thunderlips considering the latter is a wrestler and not a boxer, but it’s not nearly as well done as the series’ traditional boxing matches. It’s interesting that Thunderlips offers a unique fight in a franchise that’s solely boxing, but Rocky really is a boxing franchise when it comes down to it.
7 Spider Rico (Rocky)
Spider Rico is Rocky’s very first opponent in the franchise. In the series’ most traditional, most vanilla boxing match, the two men go at it not for the sport, but for the money. There’s nothing glamorous about what they do — they don’t have that luxury. Spider Rico is Rocky. Their struggle is the same.
Spider Rico doesn’t leave much of an impact narratively, but he’s a dense character when appreciating Rocky’s themes as a movie. His reappearance in Rocky Balboa is also quite nice, further developing Spider Rico’s presence in the franchise. Of note, a deleted scene from Creed II featured Rocky attending Spider Rico’s funeral.
6 Clubber Lang (Rocky III)
Clubber Lang is a better opponent than Thunderlips, but he’s very disappointing in the face of Apollo Creed. While Creed wasn’t as compelling a villain in Rocky II, his character was expended upon meaningfully. Creed was as iconic as Rocky himself. Clubber Lang didn’t really have the same impact despite a decent performance from Mr. T.
Clubber Lang is simply too underwritten for his own good, yet he distracts and takes away from the movie in a way that others villains don’t. But if nothing else, he does offer some truly intense action.
5 Ricky Conlan (Creed)
Ricky Conlan is probably the most competent antagonists in the Rocky movies. He gets the job done, he does it well enough not to be distracting, and he doesn’t actively hinder the movie he’s in, even if he doesn’t exactly make it better either. He’s a perfectly fine opponent who serves a good role in Creed’s arc.
It also helps that Adonis’ fight against Ricky at the end of Creed is probably the single best fight in the entire franchise from a visual perspective. Seriously, it’s outstanding filmmaking and their match absolutely elevates Creed into a better film. Ricky’s half of that fight.
4 Ivan Drago (Rocky IV)
Ivan Drago is in a worse movie than most of the opponents featured before him, but he’s quite the imposing figure. He’s basically Clubber Lang done right. Ivan Drago is a force of nature that Rocky Balboa should not be able to beat. Ivan is so dangerous, he kills Apollo Creed less than an hour into the movie.
Rocky has to spend pretty much all of the movie in training montages to even stand a chance against Drago. Creed II develops his character even further (actually giving him a character), but Ivan Drago as he appears in Rocky IV is undeniably one of the most intimidating opponents in the series.
3 Mason “The Line” Dixon (Rocky Balboa)
Mason “The Line” Dixon is an interesting opponent for Rocky. The two don’t have much of a personal connection, but, like Apollo and Rocky before them, Mason and Rocky are thematic parallels to one another. Rocky represents an older generation trying to keep up while Mason represents a new one blazing forward.
Mason’s a lot like Ricky Conlan in that he doesn’t add too much to this film, but he’s also a breath of fresh air after opponents like Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and Tommy Gun. Mason’s not a bad guy, he’s just the person Rocky’s going to fight. It also helps that Mason is both well-acted and well-written on the whole.
2 Viktor Drago (Creed II)
Creed II is nowhere near as good as the first Creed, but it’s hard to deny just how good of an opponent Viktor Drago ultimately is. He has an arc that runs alongside Apollo’s and is arguably pulled off better. The cultural divides present in Rocky IV are no longer comically inappropriate, but thoughtful and respectful.
Viktor Drago is a smarter-written opponent than the typical Rocky antagonist. His connection with Ivan Drago is handled surprisingly well and while the fight between Apollo and Viktor isn’t that great, the latter manages to put up an outstanding fight each time they throw blows.
1 Apollo Creed (Rocky & Rocky II)
The definitive Rocky villain, there’s really no beating Apollo Creed. That Rocky ultimately loses to Apollo in their match at the end of the first movie solidified Rocky as an all-time great. Apollo returned to lose in the sequel, but the movie built up his character well enough where losing befit his arc.Apollo would go on to train Rocky in Rocky III, die in Rocky IV, and be revealed to have canonically won his and Rocky’s fight at the end of the third movie. Apollo’s presence still lingers over the franchise through Creed and Creed II, making him by far the most influential, important, and interesting opponent in the franchise.