Rocky Balboa: There ain't nothin' over till it's over. Mason Dixon: Where's that from, the '80s? Rocky Balboa: That's probably the '70s.
— Rocky Balboa
A series of six movies set around boxing's favorite underdog, "The Itallian Stallion" Rocky Balboa.The idea for the first film was inspired when Sylvester Stallone, then a down-on-his-luck-actor, went to see a Muhammad Ali bout against Chuck Wepner. Wepner was a tough fighter with a lot of heart but little skill and a bad record, and he was most famous for frequently bleeding profusely during his bouts. The bout was intended to be a breather — an exhibition for Ali after his unbelievable (and hardfought) victory over George Foreman less than six months earlier — but to the astonishment of all, Wepner managed to knock Ali down in the ninth round (video replays showed it was actually more of a trip; Wepner happened to be standing on Ali's foot when the blow landed, which caused Ali to lose his balance when he tried to move). Although an incensed Ali made Wepner pay dearly for that — and eventually knocked Wepner down and out for the only time in his career — the roar of the crowd as an Everyman knocked down the greatest athlete in his sport inspired Stallone, who went home and spent the next few days writing furiously nearly around the clock. The end result? Rocky was born. (Though that's slightly mythologized too. When Stallone was asked how he managed to write the screenplay in three days, he replied "I didn't write the screenplay in three days, I wrote a screenplay in three days," the shooting script was heavily workshopped.)
List of Films
The first film opens with Rocky "The Italian Stallion" Balboa as a Dumb Is Good hero in Philadelphia, trying to make a living by boxing in seedy clubs and collecting money for a Loan Shark (although he seems rather more gentle about it than most mob enforcers). He has nothing else on his mind other than trying to inspire some kids from the neighborhood to set themselves straight and being a Dogged Nice Guy suitor to a real-life Meganekko girl, Adrian.Everything changes, however, when reigning heavyweight champion Apollo Creed sees his next opponent back out of an upcoming match and has to pick a replacement on short notice. He ends up picking Rocky just because he liked his nickname "The Italian Stallion", giving Rocky a chance to make it to the big time for the first time in his life. No-one seems to treat him as a serious contender, but Rocky is determined not to let this opportunity go to waste, to show the world that he "ain't some bum from the neighbourhood".Viewers who have come to associate the Rocky films specifically with the action-packed fights might be surprised to learn upon viewing this film that it focuses mostly on the characters, their relationships and lives, and the sudden possibility to make a new and better life. The film was a box-office smash and an underdog movie that ended up winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing in 1976.Notably, Rocky loses the climactic boxing match. But he proves his determination by remaining on his feet all the way through the final round.
After the success of the first film, sequels naturally began to come along. In Rocky II, Apollo Creed isn't happy about leaving the ring with a guy like Rocky going toe-to-toe with him, and he demands a rematch to prove his superiority. Rocky declines, however, as he already felt he accomplished what he set out to do with the first fight. Much of the film deals with both the benefits and drawbacks to the fight — Rocky is unable to manage his newfound fame and loses most of the money he earned from opportunities afterwards, and Apollo's career is in turmoil from backlash against his win against the underdog. Ultimately, both men need the fight for personal and practical reasons, and they eventually schedule a rematch. Another subplot shows Rocky marrying Adrian and the troubled birth of their son. This film also contains the famous scene in which Rocky, repeating his iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is followed by a growing crowd of fans and onlookers (a scene that in real life took 800 extras). Unlike the first film, Rocky defeats Apollo this time, either a Crowning Moment of Awesome or a Lost Aesop depending on who you talk to.
At this point, the series had become less about the characters and more of a showcase of an interesting or unique opponent for Rocky to fight. Five years after the fight at the end of the previous film, Rocky has become the heavyweight champion and a major celebrity. Another young up-and-comer, Clubber Lang (played by the inimitable Mr. T) wants a shot at him, though, and the film contrasts Rocky's newfound cockiness with Clubber's intensity (a reversal of Rocky and Apollo's roles in the first film). Rocky loses his fight against the better-trained Lang just as his beloved mentor, Mickey, passes away — which leads to Apollo Creed offering to become Rocky's trainer. Apollo initially makes the offer just to get back at Lang, but over the course of their training, he and Rocky bond and become close friends. Rocky wins against Clubber in a rematch, and the film ends with a final match between Apollo and Rocky, though now only as a friendly spar. This film also spawned the legendary song "Eye of the Tiger", performed by Survivor.
Rocky is pitted against Russian super-athlete Ivan Drago in a heavily Cold War themed film, which mostly revolves around the two fights with Drago. In the first, the once-again retired Rocky coaches Apollo for an exhibition match with Drago that leads to Drago killing Apollo in the ring. In the second, Rocky uses good ol' fashioned patriotism to beat down the cold-hearted Russian as an act of revenge. While the film is not as well regarded critically (or by the fanbase) as the previous three, it is the highest grossing film in the series, and numerous fans and critics consider this film's Training Montage to be the best directed one of the series. It also spawned a pair of Crowning Music of Awesome songs — namely "Burning Heart", performed by Survivor, and "War", performed by Vince Dicola — though neither of them quite managed to surpass "Eye Of The Tiger" in the public consciousness.
In the final numbered film in the series, which picks up directly from the previous film, Rocky is forced to retire when he learns he has brain damage from the fight with Drago; additionally, the manager put in charge of his fortune lost most of the fortune Rocky had accumulated over the years, thus leading to him retiring to his old working-class neighborhood (again) and his wife returning to her job at the pet store (again; notice a pattern?). Working at a local gym, Rocky tries to train a young up and comer named Tommy Gunn, which ruins his relationship with his own son Robert. Tommy quickly turns to The Dark Side, however, when he becomes frustrated at being seen only as Rocky's student and not as a fighter in his own right; Gunn falls in with a Don King ersatz who takes over his management, giving him the title bouts and money he's been craving. The film leads into Rocky having a street fight with Tommy, which Rocky wins despite his age and lack of practice. The film, expected to be the centerpiece of the holiday season of 1990, was knocked out early by sleeper hit Home Alone and was the worst reviewed (and worst performing) film of the series. The franchise appeared to have effectively ended on a low note, and stayed that way for sixteen years, until...
Finally, in a largely successful attempt to salvage the original story and resolve any hanging threads (and because Stallone likes revisiting his old movie franchises), the sixth and final film — Rocky Balboa — was released, thirty years after the first. Despite the cynics joking about "Rocky Five... Thousand", the film was more of a return to the original film's focus on an engaging character story — and it ended up being a surprise hit.Despite losing Adrian to cancer some years prior and having a strained relationship (at best) with his son, Rocky has something of a good life — he has become a living landmark in Philadelphia, running hisown restaurant and telling boxing stories to his customers. Over in the boxing world, current reigning heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon is disliked by pundits and fans alike for his easy fights finished in the first round. When a realistic computer simulation pits Dixon against an in-his-prime Balboa — with Dixon losing — publicists see a goldmine of an opportunity in an exhibition match between Rocky and Dixon to improve their client's image. Rocky is unsure of accepting the challenge because of his age and his relationship with his son, but he eventually accepts out of a desire to have one last great fight and rid himself of all of his inner demons. The film was intended to be the true ending to the franchise, serving as a coda to the series — it even ended with a tribute to the longtime fans of the series by showing them running up the famous steps themselves. Rocky Balboa found critical and commercial success, and between it and Rambo, the film briefly revitalized Stallone's lagging career.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!: Rocky's signature colors are black and gold, not red, white, and blue. Apollo lent him the American flag trunks for his rematch with Clubber, and Rocky wore them against Drago because he was representing his country. This led to some people being confused when Rocky showed up at the fight in Balboa wearing black and gold instead of "his normal colors."
Blood Knight: Ivan is revealed to be one when he knocks his Soviet handler on his ass. As this is the first time Drago has shown something resembling respect for an opponent, this is something of a Pet the Dog moment.
"I fight to win for me! For ME!!"
Break Up to Make Up: Rocky is strongly discouraged from fighting again by Adrian, especially once she becomes pregnant. One coma later, and Adrian is now his biggest supporter. What did they put in those meds?
Book Ends: The series begins and ends with Rocky technically losing, but still winning a moral victory.
Broad Strokes: Rocky V is the only film not referred to in Rocky Balboa, but some light elements such as concern over Rocky's health and his return to poverty remained.
Except for the brief, almost too fast to see flash on "Get up, you son of a bitch, 'cause Mickey loves ya!"
And there's the reference to Rocky and his son being the "home team", which is the only explicit Call Back to Rocky V.
Both Rocky V and Rocky Balboa have a joke where Rocky and Robert play fight, only for Rocky to make a joke about being brittle.
Paulie is missing a tooth in Rocky Balboa, likely because it was knocked out when Tommy Gunn decked him in Rocky V.
California Doubling: At least in the first movie, what's portrayed as The Spectrum is actually the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
This trope is largely averted though. The vast majority of the first movie was filmed in Philadelphia and the city and movie are still synonomous with each other in many ways.
The Cameo: There are a truly astounding number of cameos from boxers or people involved in boxing. Just a few examples include Joe Frazier being introduced before the fight in Rocky (and he and Apollo trade insults and threats just as Frazier and Ali did), the legendary Roberto Duran having a brief appearance as a sparring partner in Rocky II (where he seems to thoroughly enjoy pushing around and bullying Stallone), sports announcer Brent Mussberger in Rocky II, artists known for painting boxing pictures have appearances as ring announcers, boxing commentators play well, boxing commentators, and nearly all of Stallone's family have had at least cameos, and sometimes actual roles. Mike Tyson even got a cameo before the climactic fight in Rocky Balboa!
Clubber Lang = The young George Foreman. He is sometimes viewed as a Mike Tyson analogue by contemporary audiences, given the similar personalities, but the third movie hit theaters several years before Tyson first turned pro.
Mason Dixon = a combination of Mike Tyson and Middleweight/Light Heavyweight/Heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. Stallone tried to convince Jones himself to play Dixon, but negotiations with Jones fell through. Eventually Stallone enlisted Antonio Tarver, another boxer and a Light Heavyweight champion. Funnily enough, Tarver also defeated Jones in real life when Jones returned to fighting as a Light Heavyweight after capturing the Heavyweight title.
George Washington Duke = Don King.
Tommy Gunn = Mike Tyson. Both were young and talented fighters who came from rough upbringings and abandoned the men who made them successes in favor of greedy businessmen. Although in Tyson's case, Cus D'Amato died instead of being abandoned.
Ivan Drago = Max Schmeling. Schmeling was a German boxer who fought Joe Louis in two fights that were seen as conflicts between the United States and Nazi Germany, the same way Drago's fights with Apollo and Rocky were Cold War conflicts. And like Schmeling, Drago dramatically won the first fight and received a vicious beating in the second, the major difference being Joe Louis was avenging his previous loss instead of the death of a friend. Max Baer, another fighter from the same era as Louis and Schmeling, may have been another influence, as Baer killed a man in the ring in a rather similar manner to how Drago killed Apollo.
Career-Ending Injury: Rocky's eye injury in Rocky II and his brain damage in Rocky V. Both injuries were supposed to retire him, but were ignored by subsequent movies.
The Cast Showoff: Burt Young is a successful painter in his spare time, which is why Paulie is shown painting while on break in the meat-packing plant.
Color Motif: III puts a twist on Rocky's signature colors. In the previous movie, he wore black trunks with gold stripes. After he becomes champion, finds success, and loses his edge, he switches to flashy gold trunks with black stripes, as well as gold gloves and yellow shoes.
Combat Pragmatist: The southpaw trick. Subverted in II: Despite having only three minutes to go and Apollo about to retain his title, Rocky refuses to switch up his moves. "No tricks." Rocky then ignores his own rule when he finishes the fight with a string of huge lefts to knock out Apollo.
Death Seeker: An interpretation of Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. He's fed up with retirement and growing old gracefully, and wants to go out fighting like a warrior.
Sadly, this seems to be Truth in Television way too much. There are far too many boxers who either make ill-advised comebacks long after they ended their initial career, or fighters who simply refuse to retire and continue fighting far past their best. Apollo's comeback is based in part off of Muhammad Ali's tragic comeback fight after nearly two years out of the ring to face champion Larry Holmes, who was at the peak of his own powers. That fight saw Ali take a beating so savage that by the 10th round, Holmes (himself a former Ali sparring partner) was begging the referee to stop the fight. Although Ali showed some early symptoms of Parkinson's before that bout, many believe that the Holmes fight may have accelerated the progress and added to the severity of his condition.
Defictionalization: Rocky Balboa is treated as one of the icons of Philadelphia sports, to the point of building statues of him (the same statue from the movies). This may have something to do with real-life Philadelphia sports being the collective Butt Monkey of professional athletics, at least up till the Phillies won the World Series in 2008. Also, Stallone has all but been adopted as a native son of Philly.note Although that definition of Philadelphia holds true today, during the heyday of the Rocky series Philadelphia was at a high water mark for professional sports: the 'Broad Street Bullies' era of the Philadelphia Flyers was in recent memory with the team winning back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 (and, incidentally, literally chasing the Soviet Red Army team off the ice in a 4-1 exhibition victory over the world champions in 1976). The Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series against Kansas City in 1980 and NL East titles in 1976-78. The 76ers would win their most recent NBA championship in 1983 (they made playoff runs in every year from 1976-83, taking the NBA Eastern Conference in 1977, 1980, and 1982—the 'Dr. J' era). The Eagles took their first NFC championship in 1980 (after making playoff runs the two previous years) although they fell to the Raiders in the Super Bowl that year. Boxing was probably the only sport that didn't have a champion associated with Philadelphia during this era, and even with boxing Philly had Joe Frazier, an adopted son of the city, who had been Heavyweight Champion just a few years earlier (1970-1973) and had his last hurrah where he almost defeated Ali for a second time in late 1975, less than a year before Rocky was first released.
Early-Installment Weirdness: For Mr T. While his persona and well known "Pity the fool" catchphrase were first popularized in Rocky III, the movie as Mr T hitting on Rocky's wife to antagonize. Far removed from the Mr T who would become well known for telling kids to stay in school and don't do drugs.
Enforced Method Acting: One of the reasons for Talia Shire's shy and reserved performance in the first film is due to the fact that she was suffering from the flu at the time of filming.
Fake Shemp: All of Rocky's flashback footage to his fights against Creed in Rocky Balboa used a stand-in for Carl Weathers; while Mr. T & Dolph Lundgren gave their permission for Stallone to use archive footage of them from their movies, Weathers apparently wanted to be in the movie (despite his character dying in Rocky IV. Stallone refused, so Weathers wouldn't allow his likeness to be used, forcing them to use a lookalike.
Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: in the first movie, Rocky's collecting for a local loan shark. In the fifth movie, he's making ends meet at a gym.
It was actually Mickey's gym, which Mickey had given to Rocky's son in his will (effectively giving it to Rocky, as Robert is still a minor in V; the arrangement also shielded the gym from Rocky's creditors as it is property being held in trust for a minor). So Rocky wasn't entirely out in the cold — he owns a business directly suited to his talents and is in a position to market it very effectively just on his name alone. He's not as rich as he was, but he's not exactly back to square one either.
Flanderization: In Rocky, Apollo Creed's patriotism is for show. He denies that his "underdog" idea is patriotic and insists that it is intelligent. In Rocky IV, he puts on a similar song-and-dance routine, but this time, it is a genuine expression of extreme patriotism, a quality not before seen in Apollo.
Funny Background Event: In IV, at the end of the first round of the fight between Rocky and Drago, you can see Duke fighting Drago's trainer.
In III, during the pre-fight interview, Paulie is peeking out over Rocky's shoulder and waving at the camera.
Fur and Loathing: Not III, which was made in 1982, but V, where the only furs were worn by the corrupt manager, and a woman who seemed to be a gold digger.
Genius Bruiser: Rocky himself, though not particularly well-educated, is extremely streetwise (he wouldn't have lasted long as Gazzo's collector otherwise) and has a natural talent for assessing a boxer's strengths and weaknesses during a bout. He's able to successfully throw off Apollo's rhythm to win the title in II by switching from right to left-handed punches; and in III he notes that Clubber, while more physically powerful than Rocky, tires quickly and can't go more than a few rounds. These achievements are even more remarkable considering that Rocky is usually getting the crap knocked out of him when he's making these assessments.
Mickey also qualifies. Although we never see Mickey actually fight, he is a good judge of boxing talent and has enough business savvy to recognize when Rocky is getting played (or when he's been able to seize the main chance).
Good Old Fisticuffs: Mentioned in the fifth movie; despite being a trained boxer, Rocky was also a former mob-enforcer and knew how to act as a street fighter. Tommy Gunn's new manager even berates him for expecting to use the same skills in a street fight.
Rocky and his opponents usually have massively swollen eyes or are badly cut and pouring buckets of blood by the end of a fight. In real-life boxing, if swelling or a cut interferes with a boxer's sight and isn't able to be controlled by the boxer's cornermen, then, depending on the severity, it may well result in a technical knockout. That said, the decision to stop the fight is often made by the referee and/or ring doctor, and some will let the action go for longer than others.
Then there's the actual boxing, which is less of a boxing match (they might want to try keeping the gloves up, for a change) and more of a take-turns-getting-clean-roundhouses-to-the-face matches. (Aside from the final film, which does strive for realism.)
The fighting after the bell type mayhem which may even involve the cornermen of both fighters does happen on occasion when things get too heated or a referee loses control of the fight. See the mid-fight skirmish during the Floyd Mayweather/Zab Judah fight for an example. That said, you're generally less likely to see it in a high profile real life bout than what one would assume from watching Rocky fights, and in real life it will generally result in the boxers being penalized and losing points. Losing said points can cost a fighter a match that goes the distance, or result in a disqualification.
Heterosexual Life-Partners: Rocky and Paulie's relationship grows into this over the course of the series. By the final movie, each one is really the only person left whom the other can truly open up to.
Hey, It's That Guy!: Rocky II features an appearance by then-CBS sportscaster Brent Musberger. CBS-TV New York Sportscaster Warner Wolf appears briefly in Rocky III.
And Balboa goes full ESPN/HBO, with appearances by Woody Paige and Skip Bayless in First And Ten, Sportscenter anchors Brian Kenny and Dana Jacobson, and ringside commentary by Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman.
Drago's wife once battled alongside Schwarzenegger as Red Sonja and dated Flava Flav in real life, I shit you not.
Historical In-Joke: A blink and you'll miss it one in Rocky V: when trying to recruit Rocky to come out of retirement and fight current champ Union Cane, George Washington Duke (a Don King Captain Ersatz) mentions that he wants to set the fight in Tokyo. In real life, Mike Tyson's first defeat at the hands of Buster Douglas came in a bout promoted by Don King and took place in the Tokyodome a mere 10 months before the film opened.
I Am Not Left-Handed: Played straight and subverted in Rocky II. Rocky is right-handed, but he fights left-handed by preference. The 'secret weapon' he spends a lot of time practicing is learning to fight right-handed until the last round, when he switches back and upsets Apollo's rhythm enough to win the fight.
Also, the entire training sequence in Rocky IV. Rocky has to train for his fight without the benefit of sparring, so instead, he hardens himself up in the Russian winter as best he can instead.
The Russians also "improvise" a bit of training. With juice.
I Need a Freaking Drink: After Paulie teases Rocky about having sex with Adrian, Rocky responds by beating the crap out of a side of beef while Paulie looks on very nervously. When Rocky leaves, he pulls off his flask and has a drink. Stallone said it was the first time Paulie saw that his buddy wasn't just a sweet guy and could be a very dangerous person to anger.
His last name, Goldmill, might be a hint, but a Jewish surname is not necessarily an indication of being an active Jew either religiously or culturally.
Invincible Hero: Mason Dixon in Balboa. The exhibition fight against Rocky goes down largely because Dixon's winning streak against perceived weak opposition has boxing fans bored.
Apollo Creed before fighting Rocky. Nobody had gone the distance with him or even knocked him down.
Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Apollo Creed. Though cocky and arrogant, he's also an awesome badass and gradually becomes more likable and protagonistic throughout the series without losing his edge, culminating in a sympathetic tragic death.
Mason Dixon shows this, particularly towards the end of Balboa. He's a jerk who only fights weaklings and has a large ego, but during (and especially after) the fight, he shows the utmost respect for Rocky.
To be fair to Dixon, it's not like he hand-picks easy opponents; in fact, he's kind of depressed because he thinks there's no-one out there to fight except weaklings. Until he met Rocky, he'd never really been challenged in the ring. Having a large ego is acceptable under the circumstances.
Karma Houdini: Ivan Drago's karma for killing Apollo is to... lose a boxing match.
But then again, it's not like Drago purposefully killed Apollo; he's just that strong, and Apollo spent more time training his ego rather than his retired skills.
Rocky's crooked accountant (unseen in the movie) who squandered all his fortune on bad business deals, disappeared, and left him broke in Rocky V.
An unfilmed scene written for Rocky Balboa would have shown Ivan Drago crippled in a respirator after years of steroids abuse.
In in an interview, Stallone gave his preferred fates for several characters, including Drago sinking into alcoholism in his disgrace, and ultimately killing himself.
Kingpin in His Gym: Rocky's major opponents got their own Training Montages, which often told viewers something about their character: Clubber Lang's dungeon-like basement emphasized his monstrosity while Ivan Drago's almost clinical routines (and his steroid use) showed his lack of "heart."
Lonely at the Top: Mason Dixon. He's without a doubt the most talented boxer in his generation, but gets no respect from his fans, the media, or even his publicists and managers. He has no real friends or peers other than his entourage and his former manager, whom he left behind after making it big.
Manly Tears: Sure to be found on any list of top "Guy Cry" movies.
Master-Apprentice Chain: Mickey Goldmill > Rocky Balboa > Tommy Gunn (who later turns on Rocky in one of the classic plotlines associated with this trope).
Meganekko: Adrian, Rocky's love interest. Even after she loses the glasses and starts doing her hair, she retains the sweet shyness inherent in the character type.
Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Literal example with a variation in Rocky IV where most of Rocky's training is done against the harsh Russian rural winter while Ivan Drago uses a modern, confortable gymnasium.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: In IV, Apollo's showboating and attempted intimidation of Drago by exposing him to a ridiculously overblown introduction — complete with James Brown — arguably results in the Russians intimidating Rocky during the match in Russia, with the incredibly dramatic Soviet anthem and portrait of Drago being unveiled.
No Antagonist: The first two films. Sure, Apollo is his opponent, but the fight in the first film is never a personal one — he dreamed up the "give a title shot to a nobody" fight simply as a gimmick to sell tickets after his original opponent had to back out. In fact, Apollo could be considered likable even this early in the series. The movie is more about Rocky's moral fight, not winning the final `bout.
Balboa returns to this formula; Mason Dixon isn't an extraordinarily likable guy, but he holds no ill will towards Balboa and never makes any really villainous moves. The movie is, again, about the characters' moral fights; Rocky to prove he still has one great fight left in him, and Mason's to prove he's not just a one-note joke who is only where he is due to the weakness of the competition.
Oh Crap: Apollo does a somewhat understated version of this towards the end of his fight with Rocky in the first film, when he gets up for the last time in the 14th round. Apollo's already celebrating, and Rocky drags himself to his feet and is all "Come on!" Apollo looks at Rocky like "You've got to be kidding me."
A subtle one right before Apollo fights Drago, where he tries to intimidate him by slamming down on his fists from above and Drago's hands don't move an millimetre.
The same thing happens in IV after a Drago knockdown, when Rocky sulks into the corner, gets to his knees, puts his mouthpiece back in, and stands up. Drago's face says "What else do I have to do for him to stay down?!"
Happens almost the exact same way again, in towards the end of the final film; after Rocky takes a particularly hard fall, he rises with the support of everyone who's backed him (including the memories of both Adrian and Mickey) ...when he gets up bearing a picture perfect "I'm not done yet" face, Dixon backs up a step with an equally perfect "how the hell did you get up" look.
Old Master: Mickey is the boxing equivalent of the classic martial arts film sensei to Rocky.
Once Mickey dies, Apollo steps in as the Big Brother Mentor version for Rocky III and IV. Apollo may or may not be older than Rocky (Carl Weathers is actually about a year and a half younger than Sylvester Stallone), but he is certainly more experienced as a professional-level boxer, so the trope holds.
Opposing Sports Team: All of Rocky's opponents except Apollo Creed and Mason Dixon fall into this — and even Creed seems to show some of the traits in Rocky II and Rocky IV (towards Drago).
Dixon is arguably an example of playing with this trope. In-universe, he is seen as such, as his extreme talent has made him an unsympathetic wrecking ball whose fights are never even close - yet put up against Rocky, with a broken hand and completely out of shape, he proves as much a Determinator as the titular underdog and wins the respect of the crowd in doing so.
Our Founder: Philadelphia unveiled a Rocky statue on the museum steps, which was seen in IV. Paulie later comments on the statue being taken down, which also happened in real life (it was moved to the base of the steps).
Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh...: In the first round of their fight, Rocky can't seem to even faze Drago, who actually smiles at Rocky after letting Rocky pound away at his midsection to no apparent effect.
Rocky himself is on the receiving end in the climax of his rematch with Clubber Lang in part III's CMoA as he no sells the increasingly panicking and frustrated Lang's devastating blows. Unlike many other examples of this trope, though, it's not a result of Rocky being tough enough to No Sell Lang's punches, which are clearly shown to be devastating; Lang was just too tired at this point to swing with full force.
Real Life Writes the Plot: the simulated match between Rocky and Dixon was based on the "Super Fight" between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.
Reality Subtext: The unexpected success of the first movie, which made a star out of Stallone, mirrors the actual plot of the movie, and subsequently winning the Best Oscar.
Also, Rocky Balboa centers around a retired Rocky who still wants to fight but is simply laughed at by most people due to his age and is called "overrated" by an analyst. He has to fight to get his license, and when he actually gets in his last fight and starts to kick a little ass, his son says "Everyone thought this was a joke, including me. Now nobody's laughing." This could be seen to mirror Stallone's own troubles in his character, as he's grown old and become something of a joke for his cheesy movies to many people, who may have forgotten that he once made a great movie. Rocky's struggle to get his license mirrors Stallone's struggles to get the movie made, and his attempt at making another Rocky movie was seen as a joke by most people until they saw the movie and (mostly) realized it was a good movie.
Stallone's son not playing Robert Jr. as he had in Rocky V was done to avert this trope. Robert Jr. makes a big deal about how he's only ever had a career because he's Rocky's son, and nobody looks at him as anything else. Stallone did not want audiences to think this of his son, and refused to let him reprise the role.
Rocky III opens with Rocky becoming a rich and famous celebrity, appearing on magazine covers, doing commercials, meeting presidents, and going on The Muppet Show(!), just like Stallone in real life.
In fact, the Muppet Show clip shown was actual footage from Stallone's own guest appearance on that series. Jim Henson redubbed Kermit's voice to say Rocky's name instead of Stallone's.
Much of the merchandise shown in the opening montage was in fact available in real life, most notably the pinball machine bearing Rocky's name.
Stallone has generally said that every film was written to parallel some period of his life, just with acting switched out for boxing.
Rocky II features the comedown from his moral victory. He quickly burns through his money and he has nothing to fall back on. In the end he is forced to go back to one sure thing he has, which could possibly cripple him. This mirror's Stallone's inability to maintain the momentum from the first movie and develop a stable career outside of Rocky, leading to him creating a sequel.
Redemption Quest: The premise of both Rocky and Apollo in numerous films. Apollo's own quest ends with his death after his match with Drago.
In a sense, the first three films are Mickey's quest as well: he was a good fighter, but not good enough to win a title in his own right. He sees Rocky's natural boxing talent and feels Rocky is throwing away a gift Mickey never had by not pushing hard enough. Rocky doesn't take too well to Mickey's criticism but ultimately comes around and fulfills his mentor and father figure's quest:
Rocky (to Mickey): "At least you had a prime! I never had no prime!"
Apollo becomes one after losing the title; his trainer, Duke, is also a retired boxer.
Ripped from the Headlines: The franchise has never been shy about borrowing from real life boxing and translating it to the screen. For example:
Real life: A journeyman boxer named Chuck Wepner (who has never made enough money from the game to train full time for a bout) gets picked for a fight against controversial, charismatic, and overconfident champion Muhammad Ali. Wepner shocks audiences when he scores a not quite legit knockdown against Ali, who proceeds to extract revenge by knocking Wepner out in the last round.
Rocky I: Rocky Balboa, a journeyman boxer who has never made much money in the game (to the point where his main job is a mafia debt collector) gets picked to fight against controversial, charismatic, and overconfident champion Apollo Creed. Rocky immediately does better than expected, knocking Creed down in round 1, Creed almost knocks Rocky out in the next to last round, and wins a close decision victory.
Real life: Joe Frazier, a tough champion from Philadelphia famous for his left hook and riding high after his victory over Muhammad Ali, decides after the death of his beloved trainer/manager Yank Durham to defend his title against hard hitting slugger George Foreman, despite Durham objecting to the match before his death. Overconfident and believing that Foreman is too slow and clumsy to pose a threat, Frazier's management team overlooks the fact that Frazier has never really been the same physically since defeating Ali 2 years earlier, and sign the match, only for Frazier to be annihilated in 2 rounds. A year later Foreman faces Ali, and in that bout Ali makes a tactical decision mid-fight to stop using his famous Hit-and-Run Tactics, and instead stands in front of Foreman, defending against everything Foreman throws while taunting Foreman about how George is unable to knock out or hurt Ali. A furious Foreman tires himself within a few rounds of attempting to pound Ali, and Ali then knocks him out. (Link)
Rocky III: Rocky Balboa, a tough champion from Philadelphia famous for his left hook and riding high after his victory over Apollo Creed, decides against the objections of his beloved trainer/manager Mickey Goldmill to defend his title against hard hitting slugger Clubber Lang. Among the reasons that Mickey cites is that "The beatings you got from Apollo should have killed you" and he doesn't believe Rocky is the same man physically or mentally since. Rocky goes into the fight overconfident, and is knocked out in two rounds. Mickey dies as a result of heart complications during the fight. Afterward, Apollo Creed, (who is the analogue for Muhammad Ali) trains Rocky to fight in a different way, mirroring Apollo's own style. Rocky begins well with boxing, Hit-and-Run Tactics, but when Lang finds a way to start getting to him, Rocky makes a mid-fight switch, starts using Stone Wall defense to defend against the worst of Lang's punches while taunting Lang to just knock him out already. Lang tires after a few rounds, and is knocked out by Rocky. (Link)
Real life: Mike Tyson, a young delinquent from a broken home, shows boxing talent and is taken in by legendary trainer Cus D'Amoto, who eventually goes so far to adopt Tyson. Tyson begins cutting a swath through professional boxing, gaining notice because of how quickly and brutally he knocks out his competition, but D'Amoto dies before Tyson captures the heavyweight title. After D'Amoto's death, sleazy and unprincipled promoter Don King gets Tyson to break with the management team D'Amoto left behind to look after Tyson by convincing Tyson that he'd make more money with King and that Tyson's management team was stealing from him. (They weren't, they were investing for his retirement.) This begins leading Tyson down a road to ruin.
Rocky V: Tommy Gunn, a young delinquent from a broken home, seeks out legendary retired boxer Rocky Balboa, and eventually gets Rocky to be his trainer. Eventually, Tommy is taken in like a member of the family. Tommy soon gains media attention by cutting a swath through the heavyweight ranks with quick knockouts, but he also gains the attention of sleazy and unprincipled boxing promoter George Washington Duke. Tommy, frustrated that Rocky insists on progressing Tommy's career at a slow and steady pace rather than going for the title shot, is seduced away by Duke, who promises him a title shot and more money than Rocky could get him. This sets Tommy up to go down the wrong path.
Just compare these speeches from Cus D'Amoto, Mike Tyson's trainer, and adoptive father, (link) and Rocky's flashback of Mickey from Rocky V. (Link)
Robot Buddy: Paulie gets one for a birthday present in Rocky IV "because he doesn't have any friends" (ouch). He later teaches it to sound and act like a devoted Robot Girl (ew). Pretty much a rolling Big Lipped Alligator Moment throughout the whole movie. Roger Ebert has some fun making light of the fact Rocky is somehow in possession of some advanced artificial intelligence.
Rule of Pool: In Rocky III, Balboa pulls a full clothed Paulie into the pool during the training montage.
Second Place Is for Winners: In the first film, Rocky loses the match. His victory comes from lasting as long as he does against a seasoned champ, and moreso considering the previous record against Apollo was three rounds. He also loses in a split decision to Mason Dixon, but even Dixon seems to acknowledge that Rocky was the real winner of that match.
Shout-Out: Numerous ones to real boxing, including various boxers (including Roberto Duran) being part of various training sessions or having cameos.
Simple Yet Awesome: Duke's gameplan for Rocky's training. Since Rocky can no longer match an opponent's speed, and his body's no longer fit for his previous hard-running cardio, then the focus of training and beating Mason is simple: pure, raw power.
Special Guest: James Brown singing "Living in America" before the bout between Apollo and Drago in Las Vegas.
Tantrum Throwing: In a fit of anger, Rocky throws a helmet at his statue. Paulie impotently throws a liquor bottle at a "ROCKY" pinball machine during an drunken fit of resentment, feeling like Rocky has left him out in the midst of his success.
Theme Tune Cameo: A high school marching band plays "Gonna Fly Now" at Rocky's statue unveiling ceremony in Rocky III. Later on a lounge band performing at Rocky's public training plays the theme. An annoyed Mickey yells "Shut up back there! Change your tune."
Throw It In: Several genuine prop mistakes in the first movie, such as Rocky's robe being too big and the colors of his shorts being inverted on a poster were referenced in the dialogue to look like intentional mistakes. The former is even mentioned in the second movie.
While preparing for Rocky II Stallone tore his right pectoral muscle which had to be operated on. This necessitated a change in the script where Rocky switched from fighting "southpaw" to fighting right-handed through most of the fight and using his left hand to jab.
Training from Hell: The films are some of the most famous users of the training montage of all time, so it's natural there'd be elements of this. Most notable are Rocky IV, where Rocky toughens up doing heavy work in a rural Russian winter, and Rocky III, where Lang is shown to do his training alone in a dim, slightly-hellish basement, using his own rage to increase his drive.
Underdogs Never Lose: Averted in the first and last movies where a moral victory is deemed to be more significant (in the first, Rocky going the distance with Apollo, in the last, Rocky ridding himself of his demons), but aside from that, if you're an in-story underdog, it's physically impossible for you to lose in the Rocky universe. Even the antagonist benefits from this in Rocky III.
No such luck for the challengers Rocky knocks out before meeting Lang; they also avert the trope.
Apollo vs. Drago arguably plays it straight and subverts it at the same time. Drago had imposing height & reach and was clearly in better shape than the long-retired Apollo, so any objective viewer would back him to win the match. Most Americans, though, (including Apollo himself) would instead peg the beloved ex-champion for an easy win against the amateur foreigner.
Whenever someone tells Rocky in a movie "You can't win!", he's going to win. Sometimes not the first fight (as the case in III), but he will.
Wearing a Flag on Your Head: Apollo's trademark ring getup, and the one he's wearing when slain by the Russkie from Hell, Drago. Rocky wears his friend's boxing shorts to symbolically avenge him — and the U.S.A.
Rocky (upon seeing Apollo's outfit for the first time): "He looks like a flag!"
"Well Done, Son!" Guy: Robert feels that Rocky sees him this way and resents his father; in reality (ultimately acknowledged by both men), it's a consequence of Rocky's difficulties in communicating with his son (possibly as a consequence of Rocky's less-than-desirable upbringing, hinted at in the first movie).
Sylvester Stallone originally wanted to use "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen for Rocky III', but couldn't get the rights. Instead, he contacted the band Survivor to write a new song, which became "Eye Of The Tiger". It's safe to say it turned out better than Stallone could have hoped.
One version of the script for Rocky Balboa had Mr. T reprising his role as Clubber Lang as a commentator for the Balboa/Dixon fight.
Carl Weathers wanted to have a cameo in Rocky Balboa as Apollo Creed. This would have removed his death in Rocky IV from continuity. Stallone didn't agree, and Weathers refused permission to use any footage of him in the opening montage.
"World of Cardboard" Speech: Rocky Balboa has two, one given by Rocky to the athletic board after they refuse his boxing license despite passing all the medical tests they put him through. The second was given to his son when Rocky Jr. calls him out for supposedly seeking the spotlight, where Rocky explains that we can't and shouldn't blame others for our problems.
Worthy Opponent: There are shades of it in many of the films, often with Rocky being the Worthy Opponent in question. It's most apparent in Rocky Balboa, where the current champ, Mason Dixon, is suffering from this; he's so talented at boxing that he made rising to the championship look easy, and his popularity is suffering because the public won't believe he's not being handfed easy fights when he steamrolls everybody dumb enough to climb into a ring with him.
Written By Cast Member: Believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone has credit on the first Rocky film as one of the people who contributed to the writing of the story that ultimately became the script for the first film.