Audiences first met Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa four decades ago, and his legend is still going strong. The character, made famous by Sylvester Stallone, has endured in large part because he is the most perfect example of the ultimate cinematic underdog, and he has continued to punch and scrap his way through six sequels and even a spin-off film.
Stallone’s original 1976 tale of a battered amateur boxer who gets an unlikely shot at a heavyweight title set the template for countless movies to come. And though it’s populist fare, it’s more than just a rags-to-riches story that disrupted the 1970s auteur era of new wave films and special effects-driven blockbusters like Star Wars. If you want to make an underdog sports movie, you inevitably have to go back to the ingredients Stallone used in Rocky. Here they are, broken down one-by-one.
The Sad Sack Protagonist
As the first film opens, Rocky Balboa is being unmercifully walloped in a low-level boxing match on the south side of Philadelphia. It’s a very long way from the glitz and glamor and big stakes that Balboa finds himself in at the climax of the movie. There isn’t much actual boxing in between the two fights, and that’s part of the point. We’re meant to be immersed in Balboa’s everyman life: He works as a loan shark enforcer for a local mob heavy and occasionally visits his crush Adrian at the pet store across from the gym where he trains. It’s a pretty sad existence, giving him a long way to rise.
Balboa represents the humble, somewhat ungifted parochial schlub who beats the odds to win his big break. The antagonists in these types of films — which in the first Rocky is Apollo Creed — don’t have the same difficult road that marks the rise of the protagonists. Rocky trains by punching slabs of meat in a freezer, jogging through rail yards and public markets, and trots through the streets with neighborhood kids in tow. This kind of hard work and determination by the dejected underdog, who is using everything that’s available to him, is eventually rewarded because they’re seen as champions of the people.
The Naturalist Performance and the Real-Life Cinematic Longshot
Stallone touched a nerve as Rocky Balboa because the character didn’t seem too far removed from the actor. The small-time fighter from a down-and-out Italian neighborhood in South Philly getting his big break mirrored Stallone’s own story. Call it method acting or call it simple cinematic truth, but the strength of Stallone’s performance in the first film — before he became a huge 1980s action star — was that there didn’t seem to be a performance at all. This was partly because Stallone was literally acting for his personal survival, with Rocky being his breakout turn after years of less than reputable bit parts (including a softcore porn film called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s) and bouts of homelessness.
This tendency towards naturalism would pervade underdog stories for decades, everywhere from Robert De Niro’s apex of method acting in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull to similar real-life redemption stories like Mickey Rourke’s heartbreaking turn in The Wrestler. It would also manifest in behind the scenes awards clout of filmmakers yearning to bring their personal stories to the screen.
Through Stallone’s Balboa-esque resolve, Rocky became the highest-grossing film of 1976, earning $117 million at the North American box office. It earned ten Oscar nominations (including ones for Stallone, Burgess Meredith, and Talia Shire in acting categories, and Stallone for his screenplay), and it won three: for best picture, best director (John Avildsen), and best film editing. Removing the fictional sheen of the story, with the creator and the character putting everything on the line, makes the underdog story resonate more.
Boxing as Viable Subject Matter
If films were a true reflection of reality, then boxing would probably be the most popular sport in the world. Yet in a reality where the UFC has become the pugilistic activity of choice for fans, boxing is still alive and well onscreen. This is primarily because boxing affords filmmakers such an inherently easy narrative framework, a trend kickstarted with Rocky.
In boxing movies there’s clear drama, easily identifiable heroes and villains, and a broad cinematic canvas on which to paint a full dramatic spectrum. It’s the perfect way to distill the hero’s journey: People get beat up, they try to come back, and then they either win or lose in the end. You really wouldn’t have movies like Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter, Ali, Cinderella Man, and more without Rocky tapping into this idea that you can tell profoundly human stories through something as seemingly simple as a boxing movie.
Equal Hope in Victory or Defeat
Nearly every underdog sports movie is predicated upon an individual or a team working towards a final goal, be it a championship win or a heavyweight title. In much the same way a naturalistic performance defines the underdog spirit of a movie, so does the importance of the climax. Audiences are predisposed to expect the protagonists to win, and most of the time they do. The basketball team triumphs in Hoosiers, the Americans defeat the Soviets in the Miracle on Ice in Miracle, but the narrative importance of Rocky’s ending lies in the fact that Balboa loses to Apollo Creed in the heavyweight title fight.
It’s a genius bit of reversing expectations. The audience is primed to think that Balboa will use the determination and odds against him to pull off an upset, but, in a reflection of real life, he ends up falling short. The anti-climactic finish is then even more powerful than a self-affirming victory. It’s all about how Balboa built up the confidence to get to a point where he could even entertain the thought that he could beat Creed, even if he didn’t actually do it. That’s why similar downbeat endings from wide-ranging underdog films like, say, Cool Runnings, where the Jamaican bobsled team had absolutely no chance of winning Olympic gold, or Moneyball, where the sabermetric strategy of the Oakland A’s doesn’t get them a World Series win, still feel right. The climactic finish is believing that you could get that far in the first place.