I’ve watched Rocky 1-4 about 100 times each. They’re the kind of movies that I can just have on in the background and not pay attention to while I’m doing other stuff. I used to think the first couple of Rocky movies, specifically 1 & 2, were about as close to perfect as a movie could get. The arc of down on his luck sports guy that just needs a chance is the perfect fodder for these kinds of movies. I loved the message at the end of the first Rocky, after losing, showing that just trying your best is its own kind of victory. When I was younger, there wasn’t much wrong with these movies. And before Creed, I didn’t really bother thinking about them outside of being a good boxing flick.
Creed movies are better than the Rocky movies. I don’t know if that’s a particularly controversial take, but, if Creed III comes out and sticks the landing, there won’t even be any competition. The directors behind each Creed will have taken the, admittedly very solid, foundation, and crafted a story from the racism of every movie, the jingoistic Rocky 4, and created characters that feel far more lived in than any of Balboa’s films. I have three major criticisms of the Rocky franchise in comparison with Creed.
First, nobody really feels like a whole character outside of Rocky. They’re all there as either motivation for Rocky (Adrian) or obstacles (every opponent boxer).
Second, Apollo Creed was done dirty and didn’t get his flowers until the Creed movies set the record straight.
Third, some not so subtle racism throughout the franchise as Rocky is constantly paired against braggadocios Black men.
During COVID, I rewatched the Rocky series a more than a few times. One of the first things that struck me is how Rocky harasses Adrian. She’s quite obviously not interested in him. Tells him no several times when he asks her out. He looms over her several times, and she shrinks away from him. It was uncomfortable to watch. And then, finally, when she is coerced by Paulie (who is a racist piece of shit) to go out with him, it doesn’t feel, to me, like she actually wants to be there. It colors their relationship in an entirely different light. She might eventually come to like, love, and adore The Italian Stallion, but it wasn’t a position she seemed to want to ever be in in the first place.
Adrian has no real arc in the Rocky movies. She’s there only when Rocky needs a pick me up. When he needs motivation for a fight. Does anybody know what Adrian did after she left he pet store? Did she have a career after Rocky got famous? Did they ever mention it? Compare that to Bianca, who from the outset makes it clear that she doesn’t have any space for somebody getting in the way of her goals. When Donnie lies to her, she calls him out. Tessa is beautiful, and so is Bianca, but we see Donnie really falling for her when she’s performing. Theirs is a relationship of mutual respect and trust, and Bianca as a woman and a character wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bianca’s shows after Donnie’s first fight that she’s not happy that he won, but she’s happy that he’s good. I couldn’t imagine Creed 3 where Bianca’s career takes a back seat or isn’t mentioned because it’s integral to their relationship and to do so, without talking about it, would feel like a betrayal to the character. Adrian can disappear in the background and only show up to say Rocky shouldn’t fight, and then be happy that he wins (again), and nobody bats an eye.
Apollo is probably the only opponent that gets any development in the Rocky movies. It’s unfortunate that this development is wrapped up on problematic tropes (more on that later). Apollo, though, in every appearance, charismatic, flamboyant and talented. After his win by decision in Rocky 1, he is torn. “I won, but I didn’t beat him,” he says. Because he’s a true champion, and he knows that first fight could have gone either way.
But some of us know that when you’re Black, there’s no room for a split decision. You have to be perfect, and until that moment, Apollo had been. Rocky admits that there was never a better fighter. But none of that matters when you leave a crack for doubt to seep into. It’s this that makes Apollo a great character, and when, in Rocky 3, he agrees to train Rocky, it’s a really cool moment, because he’s come full circle, but it also shows how incompetent Rocky is as a boxer. Apollo had that man out there just doing some basic footwork drills and Rocky couldn’t do shit. What was Mick doing with this man? Rocky is about as incompetent as a boxer as I’ve ever seen. His strat was pretty much just try and tank hits for 12 rounds and hope he could haymaker his way into a W. The man had tons of HEART but he ain’t got no fighting skills at all. Dude was running around the ring with his hands at his waist just taking shots to the forehead. No wonder his doctor told him he had brain damage (Oh, and even though he had brain damage in Rocky 4, still went on in retirement to keep coming back for a couple movies after…but Apollo was a has-been. Boy, please).
And YET, Apollo was able to get this man looking like a real boxer. If Rocky weren’t protected by main character status, Apollo would be undefeated. But I digress. I’m just saying, Apollo got to be a whole ass character in the Rocky movies, even if it was to do him dirty in part 4.
In Rocky 3, Mick knows that Rocky ain’t about that life. Rocky stops training. He’s taking easy fights. And up comes a challenger. Clubber Lang. He calls Rocky out on TV. He does it in the newspapers. He’s the #1 Contender, but Rocky ain’t budging. Won’t take the fight, and Mick tells Rocky straight up that he’ll get killed if he takes that fight. So Clubber takes the action right to Rocky.
In 1910, Jack Johnson won a championship, which put white people on edge. The sport of boxing was considered the white man’s domain (just like pretty much all of America), and the belt around Johnson’s waist was an affront (just like Black people existing in front of them, especially in the 1910s). And so a reporter and novelist, Jack London, wrote that, “Jim Jeffries [the previous champion] must emerge from his alfalfa farm and wipe that smile from Johnson’s face.” Johnson was known for “speeding in expensive cars, frequenting gambling rooms, and worst of all, coupling with white women.” He was a Black man, good at what he did, and enjoying the fame that came with it. And so white people called on a boxer out of his prime to beat this uppity Black man. Does this sound familiar? Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and even Mason Dixon are cut from these pieces of history. Mason Dixon in Balboa isn’t even considered a “real champion” since he’s so much better than the rest of the competition.
Well, in the case of Jim Jeffries, trying to beat Johnson didn’t go too well.
After this DECISIVE victory, America went crazy. Johnson’s victory sparked one of the worst race riots in American history. Jeffries was supposed to be “the great white hope,” putting Johnson back into his place. That didn’t happen. But in movies, white people get to write history and stories however they want, and we can see through Silvester Stallone and Rocky the story they envisioned.
Clubber Lang is played off as a villain because he’s loud, brash, and he likes to flirt with white women. But the thing is, he’s right. Rocky has been ducking him, even if he didn’t know it, and when he does get the fight, Rocky gets absolutely demolished, and the only thing that saves him is Apollo’s tutelage. It’s unfortunate that Paulie has to go along to keep showing how racist he is. The throughline from Johnson to how the Black boxers appear in the Rocky franchise before Creed are very clear. Racism is very rarely creative. It just keeps pulling from the same well of tropes and stories.
This is can be seen in how the Rocky movies handle the career of Apollo. By Rocky IV, Apollo is, apparently, a retired champion, far past his prime. He wants to take the fight with Drago just to show he can do it. He’s a has-been, and people apparently think he should hang up the gloves, retire, relax, and enjoy being wealthy. But he doesn’t want to do that. In Rocky IV, Apollo is 43. Rocky Balboa is 39.
I want to repeat that.
Apollo is 43. Balboa is 39.
Apollo enters the ring draped in American iconography. James Brown singing “Living in America.” He literally has a golden calf idol. The imagery is not subtle. But the message might be. He’s a Black Man claiming to be American. Claiming to represent America. He’s doing so with all of the cockiness and braggadocio that other Black athletes have been condemned for.
And he’s killed for it. Multiple people could have stopped the fight at any time, but they don’t. Apollo Creed is tossed aside to give Rocky something to fight for in this movie. He’s tossed aside at the age of 43. A has-been. And when Rocky wins in Russia, he doesn’t even mention Apollo. He gives some nonsensical speech about everybody can change.
In Balboa when Rocky fights Mason Dixon, a fight which is, by the way, inspired by a videogame simulation, The Italian Stallion is SIXTY YEARS OLD. So what the franchise is telling me (pre-Creed films) is that an Apollo Creed, fucking CARL WEATHERS IN HIS PRIME, is washed at the age of 43, but Stallone can go toe-to-toe with an undefeated champion who has decimated the heavy weight scene. Ultimately proving that the people in the movie were right: they don’t make champs like Rocky no more.
That’s why the Creed films are great. The second movie opens up with the aftermath of Rocky 4. Drago and Viktor live in Ukraine. They’re poor, and their training regiment is rugged. What was a ridiculously jingoistic piece of media for Rocky has real consequences for these characters. None of the accoutrements from Rocky are present. Drago suffered, and now so is his son. This intro does more to humanize both Drago and Viktor than Rocky ever even attempted. There are real consequences from the Rocky movies. The Dragos were thrown aside by their country left with nothing. When Adonis and Viktor fight, there’s a weight and importance to the bouts that make them feel like they matter more than the feats of physicality and training montages the series is known for. These are characters that are choosing to fight, and it means something in Creed’s world that it doesn’t in Balboa’s.
But mostly, the Creed movies finally give Apollo his flowers. The last vision we’ve had for Apollo for decades has been that if him dying in the ring at the hands of Drago. But Coogler changes this. He gives us commentary acknowledging how Apollo is seen in the world of boxing later in life. Gone are the racist trappings that defined him in Balboa and now he’s a father and preeminent boxer that he should have always been. We’re left with a much better image than Apollo dying.
Creed 1 and 2 are stronger than Rocky 1 and 2, and with Majors behind the antagonist in Creed 3, I have no doubt that Michael B. Jordan’s going to pull the hat trick. Creed already has better fights, better boxing, and better training montages than Rocky. It just needs more movies in the franchise.