At the heart of every great sports movie is exciting drama and an inspiring tale, which’ll leave you wanting to stand up and cheer – just like in a real game or fight.
It’s no wonder then how Hollywood produces sports films year on year, turning to this specific arena for exhilarating and moving stories about underdogs, or significant athletic feats which are designed to rouse audiences.
While there are many great ones out there – Chariots of Fire, Senna, The Wrestler – and one of my personal favourites, Bend It Like Beckham, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 film Rocky will always be the best, reigning as winner.
And don’t just take my word for it, take the word of over 1,860 people who voted Rocky to the top of a Ranker list of the ‘Best Sports Movies Ever Made’.
42 years ago today (November 20), Stallone’s labour of love Rocky, had its premiere in New York City introducing the world to Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa, a character we later get to know across eight films to date – including the highly anticipated Creed II which’ll be released later this month.
To see a glimpse of the action you can expect from the upcoming film, check out the trailer here:
A shy aspiring southpaw fighter from an Italian neighbourhood in Philadelphia, in the 1976 movie Stallone’s Rocky finds himself on the world stage of boxing after being challenged by the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed.
While Rocky went into the title bout – which was being held to celebrate the United States Bicentennial – not expecting to win, he wanted to prove himself by going the distance which, *spoiler alert*, is exactly what he did.
In the film, promoter Miles Jergens, describes it as ‘the greatest exhibition of guts and stamina in the history of the ring’. Rocky showed the world what he had – making both Creed and others take him far more seriously.
For a reminder of the drama, you can watch the original trailer for Rocky here:
One of Rocky’s greatest strengths is the fact the film isn’t what you expect it to be in so many ways.
Growing up at school there was a kid in my year who went by the name Rocky because he infamously knocked out another lad with a single punch, which was enough to earn schoolyard notoriety, apparently.
As kids would yell at him, ‘yo Rocky, what fight did you get into today then?’ he would reply with some poor soul’s name. He was clearly trying to come across as a big man when in reality he was shorter and scrawnier than I was.
Of course I thought this kid was just a stupid bully with a ridiculous nickname, which to be fair to a young Emily, he was.
But little did I know how inappropriate and undeserving this lad was of the ‘Rocky’ moniker, as he was nothing like Stallone’s shy and stoic hero.
When I first watched the film I expected it to be rough, violent and explosive. However, what I got was actually the complete opposite.
While the fight between Rocky and Creed was nail-bitingly tense, exciting, and the bloody battle I both wanted and needed from the film, the movie was a humble, sensitive and surprisingly sweet story of an underdog finding himself, and falling in love.
Rocky didn’t need to beat Creed as he was already a champion having won over Adrian’s heart, something he’d been working at since we first saw the two interact at the local J&M Tropical Fish pet store.
As much a romantic drama as it is a sports movie, Rocky has real heart and that’s what makes it stand out from the crowd, which resulted in three Oscar Awards, as well as seven other Academy Award nominations.
Rocky‘s emotional heart is one of the many reasons the character has enduring appeal, leading to the numerous sequels and the boxer’s status as an iconic figure from the world of cinema.
Off the top of your head, can you name another movie character which has a statue built in the city where they’re from?
The film is also the ultimate ‘rags to riches tale’ as we see Rocky go from dancing with carcasses in meat lockers, to nobly entering into a ring facing a fighter he knows he doesn’t really have a chance at beating.
Remaining humble, modest and the same lovable hero throughout, it’s hard not to be taken in by Rocky’s hangdog eyes, sly grin, and incredible courage.
It’s no wonder then Stallone refused to let anyone else play the character, issuing an ultimatum when he was selling his script.
Shortly after watching the 1975 championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky in a remarkable three and a half days.
While production companies were keen to take on the film, they were unsure on casting an unknown, instead wanting a well-established star like Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds.
But Stallone said no, knowing he was the right fit for the character he’d written.
That’s because Rocky mirrored Stallone’s own rags to riches story as the film not only made Rocky Balboa a household name, but also Sly himself.
Check out his greatest acting roles in the video below:
Although Stallone had made the odd appearance in films including The Lords of Flatbush, Capone, and Death Race 2000, he was struggling to find work. He even began to star in soft-core pornography when he found himself homeless after being evicted.
Having written his script, despite having only $106 in the bank and selling his dog to pay his bills (who he later bought back and who appeared in both Rocky and Rocky II), Stallone refused several generous offers from studios who wanted his screenplay but not him in the role.
In an interview for a biography programme called The Rocky Story, Stallone explained his seemingly strange decision given the desperate times he was facing:
I thought, ‘You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on.’ I sort of figured it out. I was in no way used to the good life.
So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script and it does very, very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset.
So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, ‘I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it’.
Those words could have been spoken by Rocky himself.
The risk paid off. Rocky was an enormous success, completely turning around both Stallone’s career and life.
This is the special ingredient which makes Rocky not only a great film, but one of the best of Stallone’s, with his passion, emotion and heart as the driving force.
Without Stallone at the helm, during that specific time of his life, it’s undeniable Rocky wouldn’t have been a knock-out victory.
It’s also why it doesn’t matter Rocky didn’t win the fight – Stallone did – and that’s all what really matters.
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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.