Ranking The Various ROCKY Fights: From Worst To First

The Rocky franchise has spanned 46 years and while the overall theme of going the distance is at the heart of its success, it's how that's channeled through the boxing matches that has thrilled audiences.

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Much of the credit for that has to go to Rocky director John G. Avildsen, whose approach to the boxing match of the original carried over to the rest of the series. “After seeing a number of boxing films, I realized that the boxing usually looked pretty bad,” says Avildsen. “We wanted the final fight to look real, so I was able to get the producers to give us rehearsal time and put the boxing at the end of the schedule so we would have as much time as possible to get it right. On the first day they got into the ring, long before we started to shoot, Sylvester said, ‘I’ll do this’ and Carl Weathers [playing Apollo Creed] said, ‘I’ll do that.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you go home and write this thing out: left, right, up, down... whatever you want, and then we’ll learn that like a ballet.’  Sylvester liked that idea and he came back the next day with thirty-some pages of lefts and rights. I had my 8mm movie camera and started shooting them do it. I’d show them the footage every day and they’d see how terrible it looked, and came up with ways to make it better and better and we got it down. We knew the first quarter of the first round was here, and the second quarter of the first round was there, and we really got it down, so that by the time it came to shoot it, it looked great.”

By our count there have been nine significant matches over the course of the Rocky films — not the Creed films (those will come later) — and we’re ranking them all.

9. Rocky vs Tommy Gunn (Rocky V, 1990)

rocky-vs-tommy-gunn

We have yet to encounter anyone claiming to love the Rocky film series who hasn’t offered the caveat, “Except for the fifth one.” Twenty-two years later, that still hasn’t changed. After training and leading Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) to champion status, the two end up in a street brawl, though to this day we wonder why they just didn’t take it down the block to Mickey’s old gym, which was still there and would have brought a poetic quality to their fight. Instead, we get Rocky quickly taking Tommy out with a couple of punches, walking away only to get struck in the back by a recovered Tommy (boo, hiss!), and then beaten to within an inch of his life (literally). But then, with the spirit of Mickey and Bill Conti’s “Rocky” theme encouraging him on, Rocky gets up for “one more round,” and pounds the crap out of Tommy, culminating in Tommy being slammed into the hood of a bus conveniently coming down this back alley. [Note: We believe we’ve figured out the fatal flaw of this film — early on, after Rocky has lost his fortune, we’re told it’s because Mr. and Mrs. Stallion gave Paulie power of attorney. Game over. Nothing is bringing this one back from the abyss.]

8. Rocky vs. Thunderlips (Rocky III, 1982)

rocky-vs-thunderlips

This won’t be the only time you hear this, but so much of Rocky III is a cartoon, but that does not take away one bit from its awesomeness. Inspired by Muhammad Ali’s 1976 fight with Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki (which was, admittedly, a borefest), this one pit Rocky against Hulk Hogan (at the height of his wrestling popularity) as Thunderlips. Entry into this mini-event within the film comes from it being a charity event, though Thunderlips is intent on giving the audience a show (“That’s the name of the game,” he says after the theatrics are over). Now besides the fact that Rocky should have been crippled from the beating he takes, it’s actually pretty shocking when Thunderlips tosses him out of the ring. But shock gives way to an adrenaline rush when Rocky has Paulie cut off his gloves, he climbs back into the ring and takes control, pummeling Thunderlips, putting him into a choke hold that brings the (relative) giant to his knees, and then throwing him out of the ring.

7. Apollo Creed vs Ivan Drago (Rocky IV, 1985)

apollo-creed-vs-ivan-drago

There are many people who feel that Rocky IV (part of Stallone’s 1985 one-two anti-Russia punch, the other being Rambo: First Blood Part II) is the best entry in the series. We respectfully disagree, feeling that this one was truly a product of the MTV generation, because much of it plays like an extended music video. Proof? Check out James Brown’s performance of “Living In America” (awesome song) leading into the film’s preliminary bout, this one between Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago and Apollo Creed. Now all of that being said, there is a genuine tension underlying this fight. Carl Weathers’ Apollo is completely oblivious to who or what he’s about to go up against, instead basking in the opportunity to be back in the ring, in front of an adoring crowd. Even when the fight starts and Apollo starts slipping out jabs (to no response from Drago, who for a time does nothing but hold his arm up, cocked), the audience — both at the event and watching from home (even decades later) — is crapping a collective brick in apprehension. And then Drago launches his first punch, nearly taking Apollo’s head off of his shoulders. It all goes downhill from there.

6. Rocky vs Clubber Lang, 1st fight (Rocky III, 1982)

rocky-vs-clubber-lang-1

When you binge watch this film series, seeing Clubber Lang beat Rocky in their first match isn’t that big a deal, because we know he’s going to get the title back and go on to several more sequels and a spin-off. But back in the day, when we had to watch these things three years apart from each other, it was genuinely shocking. Shaken psychologically by the fact that trainer Mickey Goldsmith (Burgess Meredith) was dying and physically because he hadn’t taken Clubber seriously as an opponent and had allowed success to soften him, it’s a short but powerful bout. Up to this point we’d only really seen Rocky go up against Apollo Creed where he ultimately held his own. Here? He doesn’t get a chance to breathe. He comes out swinging initially — and looks great doing so — but Clubber shakes off anything he has to offer, and then begins delivering his non-lethal killer punches (we’re looking at you, Drago!), sending Rocky to the canvas in a gut-wrenching way. Incidentally, a great piece of cinematography when he goes down. There’s an aerial shot where we see a tiny Rocky collapsed within the image of the Italian Stallion. That motif — of the legend dwarfing the man — is repeated a number of times, notably when tiny Rocky looks up at his gargantuan statue some time after this fight. Nice touch.

5. Rocky vs Mason “The Line” Dixon (Rocky Balboa, 2006)

rocky-vs-mason-the-line-dixon

“Welcome to Rockyland,” proclaims one of the ring announcers during this fight, and ain’t that the truth? Look, the idea of Rocky Balboa getting back into the ring seemed as outrageous as Sylvester Stallone playing the part 30 years after introducing the character to the world, but, damn, they both pull it off. Taking a more realistic approach to everything about the film paid off big time, which is driven home with this fight, which sees the film stock altered to make it feel like we could be watching an HBO boxing broadcast. For much of it, Stallone avoids many of the tricks he’d utilized in previous films as he and real-life boxer Antonio Tarver as Dixon go after each other. Dixon leads early on, until he (conveniently) breaks his hand against Rocky’s calcium-filled hip, giving the latter the opportunity to lead for a time and evening out the playing field. Things become a little more traditional with slow-mo, shifts to black and white, voices speaking out to Rocky to keep him going, and so on, but all told it works great. Surprisingly moving is a quick black and white montage — lasting only seconds — that show clips from previous films, notably his marrying Adrian, the birth of their son and a shot of her gravesite — that effectively conveys the tapestry of a life these films have created.

4. Rocky vs Ivan Drago (Rocky IV, 1985)

rocky-vs-drago

Look, there is a lot about this fight that should have made it impossible for Rocky to get past the first round, but who gives a damn? Drago towers over Rocky and for a while there doesn’t seem to be any way for the Italian Stallion to make any leeway, but this is, after all, a Rocky film and ultimately he does turn the tide. Lots of quick cutting, superimpositions and slow-motion punches (which continue to convey the kind of endurance these things would require) work in tandem with the always-inspiring score. There’s plenty to applaud, but there are some things that defy credulity (even for these films), such as the Russian audience suddenly cheering Rocky’s name towards the end of the fight, the fact that, when (SPOILERS!) Rocky has won, the Russians help wrap him in an American flag and then Rocky delivering a speech that has apparently enlightened the Gorbachev-lookalike, who is the first to stand and clap. Of course, it’s not a total victory for Rocky, as we learn in Rocky V that there has been brain damage as a result of this fight. Hmmm. At least now maybe we have an explanation for that film (see how we jabbed there?).

3. Rocky vs Apollo Creed, 1st fight (Rocky, 1976)

rocky-vs-apollo-creed-1st-fight

Over the decades, many people have forgotten this was the winner of the 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture Of The Year, and for very good reason. Much of it has to do with the fact that it wasn’t really a boxing movie, but more a romance and character study. Which is all fine and good, but it is also the first time we really get to see Rocky in action, driven more by a need to go the distance than taking the title from Carl Weather’s Apollo Creed. While there is a low budget quality to the fight (understandably: the entire film was shot for $1 million), it works to its benefit. The lack of budget negated the possibility of director John Avildsen offering up much in the way of cinematic tricks, so what we get, instead, is the sensation of what it feels like to be inside the ring with the participants. It’s thrilling to watch Rocky’s growing determination, and Weathers’ first turn as Creed, effectively capturing the essence of real-life champ Muhammad Ali, who the character was modeled after. Initially he treats Rocky as a joke and promotional tool (“Apollo Creed Versus The Italian Stallion….sounds like a damn monster movie,” he laughs), but very quickly realizes what he’s up against. Great moment: when Rocky delivers a blow early on that sends Creed to the canvas for the first time in his career.

2. Rocky vs Apollo Creed, Rematch (Rocky II, 1979)

rocky-vs-apollo-creed-2nd-fight

Back in 1979, sequels for the most part (Godfather II not withstanding) were considered underwhelming and usually disappointed the audience. Rocky II was an early exception, and that was particularly true with this rematch between Rocky and Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed. In their first bout, Rocky pushed himself forward with the need to prove he “wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood,” while Apollo didn’t have to prove anything. He was champ, Rocky was an amateur and the only reason he even got into the ring with this nobody was to not cancel a scheduled fight when his original opponent pulled out. This time, however, Apollo most definitely had something to prove: he may have gotten the decision in the first fight, but he didn’t win, and he is determined to put Rocky away quickly to prove that he was just lucky the last time. Yeah, good luck with that. The fight between them is fantastic, director Stallone infusing an energy into the fight that John Avildsen couldn’t on the first film, all of which is enhanced by Bill Conti’s music, which projects a sense that we’re in the Roman Coliseum and these are gladiators in battle. Exciting throughout the fight, this one keeps you on the edge of your seat right until the final seconds when things could go either way. Yo, Adrian, he did it!

1. Rocky Vs Clubber Lang, Rematch (Rocky III, 1982)

rocky-vs-clubber-lang-1st-fight

There are probably more punches thrown in this fight than in 50 real-life championship bouts combined, but who cares? This one is awesome. Losing his title to Mr. T’s fearsome Clubber Lang in their first fight, Rocky is left with the choice of giving up out of fear (“For the first time in my life, I’m afraid!” he tells Adrian), or allowing former opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, once again in great form) to train him so that in essence both of them can take the title back. By the point Rocky steps into the ring for their rematch, he conveys a completely different attitude than the first time (“Gonna bust you up,” says Clubber, to which a steely-eyed Rocky replies, “Go for it”). And it plays beautifully as Rocky employs Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope technique used against George Foreman in 1974, tiring Clubber out and causing him to waste his punches, thus allowing Rocky to unleash everything he has. Is it enough? What do you think? Forty years later and it’s still a wonder to behold. Special bonus: Survivor’s song, “Eye Of The Tiger,” which nicely captures the themes of this film.

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