The former champion lay battered and bruised on the canvas, belted to the ground by a faster opponent with a chip on his shoulder.
Months of conditioning and reconditioning, a complete change in attitude and approach led him precisely where he was the last time he'd battled this challenger—flat on his back.
In the stands, his family covered their eyes and screamed, "Stop the fight!"
Not this time.
The former champion got to his feet and waded back in. More blows rained down.
The former champion took each shot, staggered but didn't fall. Instead he taunted his opponent: "You ain't so bad. You ain't so bad. I ain't even breathing hard."
The champ took punch after punch, daring his opponent to knock him out.
When the challenger failed to bring him down, the ex-champ went on the attack and felled his opponent with a barrage of shots to the head.
Music swelled, his family rushed to the ring. "Are you all right?" he was asked.
"Never better," he replied. "Never better."
The script for the final fight scene in Rocky 3? Yes.
Also a fitting parallel to Auburn's 41-30 win over West Virginia Saturday night.
Cast Auburn in the role of Balboa, the former heavyweight champion. After ascending to the top of the sport, Balboa grew less focused. His skills diminished.
Like Balboa, the Auburn Tigers reached the height of the game in 2004, but had been slowly slipping since.
If Auburn is Balboa, West Virginia takes on the role of Lang.
The first time Balboa and Lang clash, the challenger is an underdog despite Balboa's lackluster performances. Lang stuns Balboa, breaking his will, knocking him out and destroying the champion in humiliating fashion.
The first time Auburn and West Virginia duel, the Mountaineers humbled the Tigers 34-17 with a second-half offensive barrage that left Auburn broken and battered.
In the aftermath of the first Balboa-Lang fight, Rocky loses his beloved manager. He connects with an old friend who retools his training regimen, reshapes his approach and turns him into a different fighter.
When the clock hit zero in Morgantown a year ago, the career of respected Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was effectively over. The Tigers connected with former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who retooled the Tigers, brought in a different offensive philosophy under new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, and turned the Tigers into a different team.
As the climactic battle unfolded, Lang hammered Balboa early, dropping him to the canvas twice and leading his wife, Adrian, to cover her eyes and beg for the fight to end.
In the first quarter on Saturday night, West Virginia punished Auburn with a long pass to set up one score and a breakaway run for another. Before the Tigers could blink, they were in a 14-0 hole. In the stands, fans who had braved nearly four inches of rain and an hour delay were distraught.
Balboa rallied, daring Lang to hit him again and again, taking his best shots. In the corner, his trainer urged him, "Eye of the tiger, Rock. Take it to him, eye of the tiger."
Auburn refused to quit. The Tigers took shot after shot, but would not back down.
"You ain't so bad. You ain't so bad."
When West Virginia had given Auburn all it had, the Tigers struck back.
Eye of the Tiger.
As Rocky began his comeback, Adrian leaped to her feet and began to chant, " Rocky, Rocky, Rocky..."
As Auburn delivered the knockout blow, Tiger fans picked up the chant.
"It's great to be an Auburn Tiger."
Are you all right, Auburn?
Never better. Never better.
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