Kids are regularly asked ‘what do you want to be when you are older’, and the answers are often similar.
A young Mike Kunda didn’t offer the usual response of actor or sports star, instead telling his teachers and parents he wanted to be Rocky when he grew up.
Not an actor or a fighter, but the character ‘Rocky’, and if you asked the now 50-year-old the same question today, his answer remains the same.
Mike’s life completely changed when his dad showed him the Oscar winning film on television in 1979, when he was 11 years old.
The family tuned into CBS at their home in Scranton, Pennsylvania (yes where The Office is set) to watch Sylvester Stallone’s underdog boxer take on the champ, proving himself to everyone.
As soon as Bill Conti’s epic score kicked in, Fanfare For Rocky, with the giant white letters spelling R-O-C-K-Y across the screen, Mike was hooked.
He fell in love with the character, relating to Rocky in a way he had never experienced before. Mike says in that moment, his ‘DNA was forever changed’.
Mike had idolised film characters before Rocky, dressing up as Superman and Zorro early on in his childhood, but this was different.
His dad showed him the film in the hope he would ‘pick up some tips’ to help him fight off bullies at school.
However, while Mike didn’t pick up any boxing moves, he did find the inspiration which would develop his self-confidence.
Speaking to UNILAD, Mike explained how he learnt more from Rocky than he ever did at school, and his love for the character is clear.
I was coming home with bruises from the bullies. The way I handled it? I would wear a Superman costume underneath my school clothes thinking it would give me superpowers. But that only made the situation worse as the bullies noticed my cape and tore it.
My dad showed me Rocky and I tell you, it punched me in my heart. No matter how supportive my family were, I just couldn’t believe in myself or be confident. I couldn’t find that within myself until I saw Rocky.
It didn’t matter that he lost the fight, he just wanted to go the distance. He would know he wasn’t a bum from the neighbourhood, and that was enough for him. He didn’t have to be champion, or the best in the world, he just had to be the best in his world, achieve his personal best.
The scene which really struck home for him saw Rocky’s boss, dodgy loan shark Mr. Gazzo, question why he didn’t follow orders, refusing to break a guy’s thumb.
Rocky tells Mr. Gazzo ‘I figure if I break the thumb, this guy gets thrown outta his job and can’t pay nothin’ no more’.
This is the moment Mike initially connected with the character, as he explained:
After Gazzo leaves him, there’s this slow sad music and Rocky starts bouncing a ball on that lonely street. I said that’s me. I said I don’t fit in. Rocky didn’t fit in. I just could not fit in with people around me.
I always felt odd, or different. People would deal with me similarly to how they dealt with Rocky, and that was my initial reason why I loved this character.
Since Mike saw himself in Rocky, he wanted to achieve his personal best, taking on the philosophy the film promoted.
He wanted to be his hero, wearing his grandfather’s fedora hat and leather jacket to school, also getting up at five in the morning each day to train.
Mike admits this gave him the confidence he had been searching for:
Every morning before high school, I would put the grey sweatsuit and black Chuck Taylors on, and I would run through my home town. This is what gave me confidence. Rocky could do it, he could be proud of himself, this is what I needed to do.
My teachers thought I was out of my mind when I said I wanted to be Rocky. I wanted to wear the hat and coat, and walk the streets of Philadelphia. I got that the job doesn’t exist, Rocky isn’t even real, but when they asked me what I wanted to do, that was it.
Once he graduated high school, Mike took on several jobs, from construction to working as a police officer, but none worked out.
He ultimately ended up working in corporate retail until the economic recession in 2008, when he got laid off like millions of others at the time.
Although Mike had continued to dress as Rocky and watched the film on repeat (he lost count at 600), until this moment he had given up on his dream of becoming the character.
Two years prior, the owners of The Victor Cafe in Philadelphia, a.k.a. Adrian’s restaurant, had invited Mike to a get together to celebrate Stallone’s 60th birthday.
This was the first time Mike met the man who played his hero, and the two had a chance to have a moment together outside.
As Mike explained to UNILAD, this meeting was life-changing in so many ways:
Here I was, standing in front of The Victor Cafe with Sylvester Stallone. He is waiting for me to say something, and so I tell him I just saw the trailer for Rocky Balboa, and we start talking about that.
My wife Sue comes out and goes ‘Sly, if I don’t get a picture of you two together, he’s going to kill me’. He points to her and goes ‘yo, Adrian’. Because he said that as Rocky, I go into my best Rocky impersonation, and there we were, both doing our best Rocky lines.
He said ‘wow, you do a great Rocky impersonation, and you look like me 30 years ago’. He said ‘you should do something with that, like an Elvis impersonator but only Rocky’. I thought he was being kind so it went in one ear, out of the other.
Several months later Mike received a call from a national Rocky lookalike contest in Philadelphia, telling him he had beaten over 1000 people to get through to the final five.
He was at first confused. He hadn’t entered the competition himself. At the time he didn’t think he looked anything like Rocky, and ‘was afraid to be embarrassed and humiliated’.
It turned out the maître d’ from The Victor Cafe had actually sent a picture of Mike in, and spurred on by this he went to the final, and won the contest!
This triggered what Mike described as a domino effect. Following his win, several charities got in touch asking him to make appearances as Rocky.
He soon began doing paid work too, but unfortunately this wasn’t enough to keep him financially stable after he lost his job in 2008.
While looking for work, Mike wrote a book about his relationship with Rocky called Cue The Rocky Music, and it ended up in the hands of none other than Stallone.
The picture hit the press and social media, drawing attention to Mike who decided now was the time to launch his own business, running ‘The Yo, Philly! Rocky Film Tour‘ and working as a Rocky impersonator.
He was doing not only exactly what Stallone advised him to do when they met in 2006, but the job he dreamed of as a child.
Mike explained to UNILAD, just like Rocky, he was given an opportunity out of nowhere:
Rocky also taught me about perseverance. He just wanted a shot, he knew he could do something, but he was never given a shot.
We want to fail on our own terms. We just want an opportunity, to know what we are worth.
In Rocky’s case it was Creed who gave him that chance. For me, it was that Rocky lookalike contest. It was a wacky contest, I won it and I thought that was it. But it got noticed by other people. I didn’t seek it, it came to me.
When Mike started running the tours, he was doing about three or four a year, but following the picture of Stallone with his book going viral, this number went up to 25 a month.
Stallone would once again change Mike’s life when he officially endorsed the tour, promoting it on his own Instagram page.
Mike was invited down to the set of Creed 2 by the Mayor of Philadelphia, and here he met Stallone again, who was being honoured with a plaque by the Rocky statue.
Dressed as Rocky of course, Mike yelled ‘yo, Sly’ at Stallone, who recognised him and went over for a chat.
A week later Mike’s phone was getting inundated with messages from family and friends telling him to look at Stallone’s Instagram.
The actor had shared a picture of the pair by the statue, with the caption:
Amazing, I even met ROCKY aka Mike Kunda at the Rocky statue last week. If you’re visiting Philly, quite often he does the ‘YO, ROCKY FILM TOUR’ which is pretty amazing.
Stallone had included a link to Mike’s website too.
Mike couldn’t believe it, telling UNILAD:
Now, if that isn’t an official endorsement, I don’t know what is. When I was that 11-year-old kid being bulled and didn’t fit in anywhere, I didn’t think in a hundred years this would happen.
Since Stallone’s Instagram post in April 2018, Mike gets around 100 requests a month for tours, meaning he can now be booked up to a year in advance.
Currently commuting to Philadelphia every day, Mike and his wife are now looking to move to the city to expand the business, which includes setting up a Rocky memorabilia store.
A documentary film called The Pretender was recently made about Mike, and you can watch the trailer here:
Mike’s journey with Rocky clearly isn’t over yet, and he acknowledges this saying ‘what I learnt from Rocky about achieving your personal best, well I am on my way to reaching that’.
Reflecting on this, he concludes:
We may never get there, but we can keep striving for it.
Stallone would share great behind the scenes stories with me, and I now share these with my clients on my tours.
He told me once, ‘Mikey, that’s why I endorsed you’. He had read the online reviews, and he said that’s your passion.
Before I thought I didn’t have a lot to offer society, I had no skills, but I love this character and if I can pass that on, I will consider myself to have done a good thing.
Passing on his love for Rocky is exactly what Mike does, and what he does best, which is clear from the passionate way he talks about the character.
When a young Mike told his teachers he wanted to be Rocky when he grew up, he was telling the truth and he achieved just that.
As Rocky Balboa says himself, ‘it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward’, which is exactly what Mike did, making him the real life Italian Stallion.
If you want to find out more about Mike, The Yo, Philly! Rocky Film Tour and Cue The Rocky Music, you can visit his website.
To find out more about The Pretender movie, you can visit the film’s website.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.