• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #156: Rocky Balboa


"It's the rye or the kaiser, it's the wheat or the white..."

I've never been a huge boxing fan. I can think of perhaps ten total minutes of real-time boxing I've watched, though I've seen my share of historic footage. Like many my age, I can remember Mike Tyson being the most fearsome pugilist we'd ever seen. That was probably because we were too young for Muhammad Ali. His passing today has boxing on my mind, though Ali was always more than just a fighter. He was a walking (prancing, even) social statement, a unique creature of intellect and integrity, who refused simple definition, an indelible icon of American history, and not just in athletics.

Again, like most of my generation, I've probably seen more boxing in movies than in the actual sport. And the bulk of that has come in the Rocky saga, Sylvester Stallone's opus-cum-limping franchise that has stretched from 1977 to now, a meandering epic that has been with us for our entire lives. The original film was a triumph, a shadowy glimpse at a grittier and less shiny time in America in general, and in Philadelphia and sports in particular. Rocky was the stereotypical Horatio Alger hero, the little guy struggling for his shot at being big. He's the living embodiment of absorbing more hits than is good for you in pursuit of your dream, of taking all the blows life can give you and not quitting. It doesn't matter that Rocky doesn't beat Apollo Creed, he's proven to himself that he can go the distance, a question we all wonder about ourselves.

The subsequent installments of the series explored different aspects of America through Rocky's experience - the blandishments and extractive costs of success, the veneer of class laid over increasingly violent sequences in the ring. Plus, hey, Mr. T. Rocky becomes a hero, then a celebrity, then, as was perhaps inevitable in the supercharged excessive atmosphere of the 1980s, a capitalist icon. Rocky IV is one of the most bizarre movies there is. It's Stallone at his most juiced and jacked, essentially participating in a superhero movie against the vicious communist evil that is Drago (though credit should go to Dolph Lundgren for making Drago even slightly sympathetic). Rocky isn't fighting for himself any more, he's fighting for all of us. I guess.

I'll admit only passing familiarity with the later incarnations of Rocky as aging punch-drunk shade. But for good or ill, he's a constant, an original. Yo, Adrian.

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