When Rocky beat Apollo, the future was written for how to tell boxing’s greatest tales.
Where did 40 years go?
If it weren’t for iconic moments captured through media modalities like newspapers and cinema, we wouldn’t grasp how time metastasizes life. So it is no surprise that we wake up today only to discover that it’s already the 40th anniversary of Rocky II.
The sequel to the Academy Award winning Rocky cemented the underdog story of boxing and the city of Philadelphia. It’s a full grown 40-years old and remains a relevant, must watch film to this day. It was Rocky that made the world fall in love with the affable Robert “Rocky” Balboa, a Philly-Italian remake of New Jersey’s real-life boxing underdog, Chuck Wepner, and that love only grew in the sequel.
Wepner famously fought Muhammad Ali for the WBC and WBA heavyweight titles. He knocked Ali down from a body shot in the ninth round, giving hope to the underdog victory narrative native to the sport of boxing. Although Wepner was TKO’d with only 19 seconds left in the 15th and final round of their 1975 battle, that moment, despite the loss, fueled the Rocky franchise as the underdog’s performance inspired a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone to pen the film, eventually creating a series enshrined in pop culture history.
Stallone mimicked Wepner’s real life in Rocky, giving us the ultimate underdog and a character which would last for decades.
Everyone wants to see the underdog win and Philadelphia has always been the ideal setting for such stories. The industrial blue-collar vibe still permeates the city even through the current stages of gentrification.
Philly breeds underdogs. The indomitable story of Joe Frazier defeating Muhammad Ali in 1971. The tale of Vince Papale, the 30-year-old bartender from South Philadelphia who essentially walked on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976 (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the movie “Invincible”) and, most recently, the Philadelphia Eagles winning the Super Bowl on February 4th, 2018. All stories which capture the hard work and passion of the City of Brotherly Love.
In Rocky, Stallone gave us an emotional ending that immediately drew fans of all types to the Italian Stallion. He followed that up by giving boxing fans what they craved in Rocky II.
When Rocky decided to box again, ignoring the protestations of his pregnant wife, Adrian, it was the perfect pinnacle moment for him to defeat Apollo Creed and continue the Philly underdog victory narrative.
But it wasn’t as simple as getting back into the ring. Stallone made sure to show us that Rocky had real life problems like everyone else. After getting married, Rocky tried to capitalize on his newfound fame through commercials. When that failed, he attempted to secure a job while Adrian continued to work at the pet store. But the ring, and Apollo, kept calling him, and he tried to answer; but without his wife’s support, his heart and mind wouldn’t let his body do what it needed to do. Then Adrian fell into a coma during childbirth and everything came to a grinding halt, and that’s when Stallone captured everyone’s emotions.
You felt the pain of Rocky as he prayed for his wife to wake up, as he read to her in the hopes that she would hear him. And just when it seemed he was at his breaking point, her hand gripped his, which led us to one of the most emotional moments in the film.
Rocky went back to training, embodying the fighting spirit of Philadelphia and bringing the City of Brotherly Love with him. In the process, he gave the city what it needed; a new hero to identify with, who triumphed through the toils of hard work and dedication.
But the movie didn’t just give us a Rocky win.
Staying true to the toughness which defines the city, Rocky gave everything to earn the victory. At the end of their rematch, both Creed and Rocky fall to the mat, struggling to get up before the ten count. Creed hoists himself on the ropes first, but it is Rocky who endures, pulling himself up at the count at 9 while Creed crumples back to the canvas in defeat.
At that moment, a new star was born who legitimized the feelings of hope and optimization which still drives sports entertainment.
For the iconic characters it has etched into the world’s collective minds and the authentic portrayal of boxing, Rocky II has aged like wine while inspiring future generations.