Once massively popular in the U.S., boxing now languishes near the bottom of the sports-watching totem pole.
But not at the movies.
Boxing films such as Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter, Creed and Southpaw stir the soul long after the fights themselves have mostly stopped doing so. The heavyweight champion of modern boxing movies is still going strong in middle age. Rocky has its 40th anniversary Saturday.
Four decades after Sylvester Stallone's palooka from Philly clenched his ragged fists around our hearts, he still hasn't let go. This iconic loser-makes-good tale is a populist classic, an emotional powerhouse that packs the most devastating boxing movie punch of all time.
Rocky isn't the best boxing film ever made, but there's never been one more influential, never one as imitated or indelible. It says here that it will endure because its themes of self-belief and overcoming physical and psychological obstacles are timeless and universal, the hallmarks of any celluloid classic.
In the Beginning
Stories abound about how Stallone actually got a movie studio to green-light his film, and the veracity of each is dependent on who is telling the story.
But the fact that everyone seems to agree on is that Stallone pitched an idea about a blue-collar boxer—inspired by New Jersey brawler Chuck Wepner—who gets an improbable shot at the heavyweight title.
Stallone made his pitch in 1975 to Irwin Winkler and the late Robert Chartoff, who had produced the gangster classic Point Blank (1967), which starred Lee Marvin; The Mechanic (1972), which starred Charles Bronson; and The Gambler (1974), starring James Caan.
"I got an idea for a story about a fighter," Stallone said to the producers, in a conversation Winkler recounted in a Vanity Fair first-person account. "If I write the script, will you promise you'll read it?"
The producers read it, loved the underdog story and thought it would make a great movie. They promised the struggling actor he could play the lead part.
Winkler and Chartoff had a deal at United Artists, but the studio executives hated the idea of a film starring the unknown Stallone. Winkler and Chartoff said that they made the film for $1 million, the threshold at which the studio could not interfere or stop production, per their deal.
After the film's first screening on November 21, 1976, influential New York Times critic Vincent Canby called it a "sentimental little slum movie." Four months later, after it became the highest-grossing film of 1976, Rocky won three Academy Awards, for best picture, director and film editing.
Dreams Never Die
Rocky manifested the lofty ideals of an America that offered any dream-seeking, hard-working resident a piece of the pie, an ideal that has powerful emotional resonance.
Al Bernstein, the lead commentator for Showtime Championship Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, agrees.
"The original Rocky remains one of the most entertaining boxing films ever made," Bernstein says. "It is not meant to be a gritty portrait of an edgy sport, like Requiem for a Heavyweight or Fat City. It is a glossy, sweeping movie that speaks to the courage and hopefulness that boxers possess. I remember leaving the theater after seeing it and feeling uplifted. The idea of dreaming big, overcoming odds to succeed—even in losing—and finding self-respect are universal and timeless."
Rocky dramatizes the hope that success is possible despite obstacles and the fear that circumstances, self-doubt and bad luck are insurmountable bricks in the wall of failure.
It's in the gap between what Rocky Balboa craves as a man and as a fighter, and what the insular world he lives in tells him is possible, that audiences are pulled into the journey.
Balboa symbolizes dreams deferred or never chased after, and by projecting humility and a quiet dignity despite his lowly stature, he wins over even the most cynical moviegoer with simple human decency.
Inspiring Real-Life Boxers
Emotional connection aside, Rocky also provided inspiration to kids who found a role model and hero.
Frank Kubach, the owner of Front Street Gym in Philadelphia, where Rocky is set, says that his boxing gym has benefited from the entire series, beginning with the original. There were four Roman-numeral sequels between 1979 and 1990, then Rocky Balboa in 2006 and Creed in 2015.
"Every time Rocky comes out, I get 50 kids in the gym," Kubach said in an interview with Thomas Urbain of Agence France Presse that appeared on Yahoo News.
At some point, some of those eager kids turn into young fighters who choke down raw eggs for breakfast and dream of their own iconic race up the steps of a museum, with a world title waiting at the summit.
Former two-time world champion and Showtime Championship Boxing analyst Paulie Malignaggi says he drew inspiration from Rocky years before he turned pro.
"The underdog story is common in boxing, and every fighter dreams to be part of the big night to fight in front of thousands of people with the chance to change their life in one night," Malignaggi says. "I felt these things when I first saw the movie, even though I was not yet boxing. Rocky makes the average Joe dream, and the character reaches deep inside many people's hearts. I still respond to the film even today.”
Rocky exerts a powerful pull on the hearts of boxers because the act of stepping into the ring signifies a person who is willing to risk physical devastation for a shot at glory.
Top super welterweight contender Julian "J Rock" Williams says that though the film was made before he was born, it still resonates with him.
"I love the original Rocky, and I watch all of the Rocky films literally every single time they're on TV," Williams says.
Williams, who is scheduled to fight Jermall Charlo for the IBF super welterweight world title December 10 on Showtime, says the film's themes are still relevant and emotional.
"I can still remember how I felt the first time Rocky fought Apollo," Williams says.
Forty years is an eternity when it comes to a film's relevance, especially in today's social media culture.
That makes the enduring popularity of Rocky even more amazing, given how many other films it has spawned since its release.
"It inspired a genre," veteran boxing commentator Barry Tompkins, the voice of Showtime's ShoBox series, says. "To me, The Natural was 'Rocky hits a homer.' Seabiscuit was 'Rocky wins a horse race.' Rudy was 'Rocky plays football.' Like everything else, the original is always the most memorable. Rocky was the original."
And the original has had quite a run when it comes to recognition as one of the best films in its genre.
Empire, a well-respected film site, ranked it as "one of the finest ever sporting movies, a celebration of the can-do spirit."
And Entertainment Weekly ranked it first on its list of best boxing movies in the history of cinema, ahead of even Raging Bull, a cinematic masterpiece in its own right.
For Brian Custer, play-by-play analyst for Showtime Extreme, which features the next generation of boxing talent, Rocky holds a special place in his heart.
"The movie still pumps me up every time I watch it, and my six-year-old watches it often," Custer says. "It not only motivates me to work out hard, but stay ready and put that same energy into every goal I'm looking to achieve, even if people are counting me out. Because success happens when preparation meets opportunity."
Sounds like something Rocky Balboa would tell a young kid at the Front Street Gym.
All quotes obtained firsthand except as noted.