Michael Rosenthal

Hall of Fame: Stallone created a character — Rocky — who inspired us all

 

This is the third in a series of blog posts on those who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., on Sunday.

 

Gerard Molyneaux, a film professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia, often drives by the steps leading up to the Philadelphia Art Museum and almost without exception sees the same sight: Giddy people gathered around a famous statue.

“Drive  by any hour of any day and some guy or little kid will be posing with arms raised in imitation of the hero,” he wrote in an email to RingTV.com. “The daring ones will then follow the Rocky Road, huffing and puffing up the long steps of the museum and  pirouetting at the top of them.  Undaunted by the hundreds of metaphoric steps of discouragement and exceeding despite the thousand doubts of self and others, the cultists prevail and celebrate their triumph. 

“This is their homage to American grit embodied in a nobody (like most of us) who became a contender and then a champion. ‘Rocky did this, now so have I. Rocky triumphed, now so can I.’ That’s what the legend ’s all about .  ‘Win, Rocky. Win, Joe or Jack or Sam …’”

The original Rocky landed in movie theaters in 1976, 35 years ago. In that time, it and its now-iconic main character – Rocky Balboa – have become a part of the American fabric, indelible symbols of the “every man” overcoming daunting obstacles to prove that anything is possible.

And no film ever captured the thrilling nature of the sport better than Rocky did, giving boxing a significant boost in the waning years of Muhammad Ali’s career and before the heyday of Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler.

So powerful was Rocky’s impact on our culture and the sport that the International Boxing Hall of Fame is inducting its creator and star – Sylvester Stallone – this Sunday in Canastota, N.Y.

“Sylvester Stallone is a big part of the revival of boxing through his Rocky series,” Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward told the IBHOF. “The two things that brought boxing back to the forefront with the pubic was the great success of the 1976 Olympic Team and when Sylvester Stallone gave us our heavyweight champion, Rocky Balboa.

“I still get goose bumps when I hear the Rocky theme. Sylvester Stallone gave to boxing just as much as any promoter or network in the history of boxing. The Rocky series brought so many people to the sport.”

The film, which was made on a budget of less than $1 million, tells the rather simple story of a poor, small-time South Philly pug who by a twist of fate receives an opportunity to fight the glamorous heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Of course, he’s given little chance to succeed in the fight but, through hard work and inspiring determination, takes the champ to the brink before losing a decision.

In the process, Rocky Balboa became a hero to the mythical fans at ringside and the millions who saw the film around the world, all of whom seem to have found something in the character that touched them.

Today, people often use the generic term “a real-life Rocky” to describe someone who started from nothing and achieved something significant.

“The reason it became what it became is that it played to our hopes … our hopes against the odds,” Molyneaux said. “People told Rocky, ‘You can’t do this.’ He even said himself, ‘Maybe I can’t do this.’ He went ahead and did it anyway. He faced down his opposition, which was incredibly daunting. …

“And he worked so hard. You saw him running, punching the butcher meat at the factory in South Philadelphia. I think that’s how we like to look at ourselves, hard-working Americans who can do things nobody else can do.”

Filmmaker Ron Shelton’s character Roy McAvoy in Tin Cup was similar to Rocky in that he was an underdog who rose the occasion when he received an unusual opportunity.

Shelton pointed out that both Rocky Balboa and Roy McAvoy failed to win in the end, which didn’t matter. Neither film was about winning. They were about doing whatever it takes to go the distance, which is really all we can expect of ourselves.

Plus, the fact Rocky Balboa lost to Apollo Creed led directly into Rocky II. Stallone ended up making six Rocky movies, directing four of them.

“Roy didn’t win the U.S. Open but he proved he had what it took to win it,” Shelton said. “Rocky Balboa went the distance against all odds. That’s enough. That’s an honorable goal, the kind of goal we all can achieve in our own lives. You don’t always have to get the brass ring.”

Of course, Rocky Balboa ended up with the brass ring – the championship belt – in Rocky II. He didn’t need the title to define himself, though. He already proved he was winner by pushing through barriers to pursue his dreams, which is what real boxers do every day.

That clearly was Stallone’s inspiration.

“It has been my privilege,” he told the IBHOF, “to have been blessed with the ability to write about the incredible courage and commitment of the many thousands of real-life Rockys whom we have watched perform honorably in the ring.”

 

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