On December 3rd, 1976, two simple words boomed from the silver screen that changed movie history forever. They have stayed with us for 40 years, all from a movie which wasn’t even considered to be that significant when first being produced. Yet forty years later, we still watch it and cheer for the main character through our imitation of him screaming those very two words.
That character is Rocky Balboa and with “Yo Adrian!”, Rocky became a cultural phenomenon.
As everyone knows, “Rocky” was played by Sylvester Stallone, a man from Hell’s Kitchen, NY who not only starred in the film but also wrote it. The budget was a paltry $1 million, allegedly the same price as Biggie’s “Hypnotize” video, and was shot in 28 days. But the movie blew away every expectation, generated $225 million worldwide, became the highest grossing movie of 1976 and earned three Oscars, including Best Picture.
Decades later the movie continued to make its mark in history, being selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 2006 and being named as the second greatest sports film ever made by the American Film Institute in 2008 (behind “Raging Bull).
But it wasn’t the money or awards that made “Rocky” so successful. No, it was the character himself that weaved himself into our hearts and minds and instilled himself into pop culture history for basically being himself.
The plot is well known. Rocky is an Italian-American boxer and mafia enforcer from the hood in Philly. By random chance, he gets a title shot against the World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), because Creed likes his nickname, “The Italian Stallion.”
With five weeks to train, Rocky finally gets help from Mickey (Burgess Meredith), gets his girl Adrian (Talia Shire) and takes the Champ the distance, losing in a brutal yet exciting, nail-biting fifteen round fight. It showcased the story of the ultimate underdog and how victory can be earned in defeat.
Rocky’s life was based upon the Warrior’s Ethos and exemplified what all underdogs are taught in that they might not win, but they’ll fight so that all will remember their name.
Admit it. No matter how many times you’ve seen “Rocky”, you still sit glued to the TV during their Championship fight, actually wondering who was going to win, like the outcome wasn’t already determined 40 years ago. And that’s what still makes the movie so amazing; it feels so realistic and emotional that you can’t stop watching it. And, more importantly, you can’t help but cheer for Rocky, no matter your background, color, gender or ethnicity.
Based upon the story line and images we see on the screen, one would think that this would be a racially charged movie. Brash, arrogant Black fighter taking on the blue collar, soft spoken Italian fighter, a plot destined to divide audiences by race. It was Ali vs. Frazier I (the latter who made a cameo in the film), a story told in the documentary “Ali-Frazier I: One Nation…Divisible” where white collar fans sided with Ali and blue collar fans sided with Frazier. But Rocky was so likable that you had to cheer for him despite the color of your “collar” or skin. Eddie Murphy even joked about how Black people loved Rocky and he was absolutely correct.
In a movie laced with racial undertones, the power of Stallone’s Rocky almost eliminated that element and gave moviegoers an underdog they couldn’t help but sympathize with and cheer for. Even after seven films in the franchise, Rocky still remained an underdog that everyone supported, respected and loved.
Sports has a yin-yang quality in that it can connect and divide. Rocky was a manifestation of this fact in that it divided fans between Apollo and Rocky, yet it brought people together because of the type of person who Rocky was. Fast forward to “Rocky III” and it brought us back together again when former nemesis, Apollo Creed, became Rocky’s trainer and friend when Mickey died.
And of course there’s “Rocky IV” where Apollo died (and we all cried), Duke (Tony Burton) had to become his trainer and Rocky had travel to Russia to defeat Drago in order to recapture America’s pride, avenge Apollo and unite countries in a world where the relationship between the two superpowers was on shaky ground.
As unrealistic as that all sounds, Rocky was the person who made us believe it could be accomplished just by being who he was at his very core, a fighter. He had a rage inside that gave him the will to fight, which we saw flare up when Mickey came to his rundown apartment and when Apollo pushed him during their fight.
You could envision the rough childhood he had which gave him that anger and resentment and which he kept bottled up inside until it was time to unleash it, which was primarily in the ring. But he also had a simple side to him, one which we saw when it came to came to things he loved, like Adrian. The corny jokes, the non-stop talking about nothing and the ease of him just being him made him someone that was easy to like.
The film gave us memorable scenes, such as Rocky training with the slabs of meat at Paulie’s job, the run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which is still a non-stop tourist attraction) and of course Rocky’s screaming of “Adrian!” at the end of the fight. It took us through the rougher parts of the City of Brotherly Love, introduced us to “Butkus”, “Cuff” and “Link” and gave us a theme song for the ages in “Gonna Fly Now.”
Forty years ago we were introduced to a character whose life and being was so simple that everyone could relate to him in some fashion and over the next four decades. People loved him, quoted him, cheered for him and cried with him. No matter where you’re from, people know about the movie “Rocky” and Stallone will, first and foremost, forever be associated with his character, one who continued to fight even outside of the ring, as we saw in “Creed” when he was diagnosed with cancer.
It’s just another reason why people took to him so easily and quickly. He was simply Rocky. He didn’t care about the color of your skin or where you were from. He was the ultimate underdog and a fighter who refused to quit.
At the end of their fifteen-round title fight, the fighters were draped over one another in the middle of the ring, stumbling and exhausted after their brutal, gladiatorial type match when Apollo said to Rocky “Ain’t going to be no rematch” and Rocky responded “Don’t want one.”
Fortunately for us, they did have a rematch, and Rocky kept on fighting for forty more years.