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Rocky Balboa Can't Whisper

Why an over the top, ridiculously unrealistic movie franchise will always be an inspiration to a simple guy like me.

Martin Rose

There is no disputing the top five movies of all time.

Films like Shawshank Redemption or The Godfather come along occasionally and wow the masses but the top five remains unchanged. Perhaps one day the stars will align and some prodigal genius yet unborn will create a film magical enough to slide into the fourth or fifth spot, but the top three is impenetrable.

The top 5 films are:

5. Top Gun

4. Boyz n the Hood

3. Rocky IV

2. Rocky Balboa

1. Rocky III

During quiet reflection or while sitting in traffic and thinking about the best movies ever, two things always amaze me: 1) Sylvester Stallone created the top three movies ever and 2) his original creation, Rocky, only comes in at number six all time.

It would be wise for younger generations, or even those that have never properly educated themselves on the Stallone story to take note. The screenplay that later spawned the top three movies of all time was written in 3 1/2 days by a part time actor down on his luck. He blackened the windows in his apartment and wrote what would become an Academy Award winning film.

In 3 1/2 days.

Rocky and the birth of a franchise

From the New York Times in 1976:

A year ago, Sylvester Stallone had $106 in the bank. His wife was pregnant, his bull mastiff was starving and he couldn't pay the rent on his seedy Hollywood apartment. What to do?

Well, one answer was that Stallone, a sometime actor-turned-screenwriter, could sit down and in 3 1/2 days write a screenplay with a meaty starring role in it for himself, persuade someone to film it, and wind up a millionaire. Improbable? Pessimists might say so, and advise Stallone to try something more sure, like the Irish Sweepstakes. Impossible? Well, no, because you see, there's this new movie, called ''Rocky.''

Rocky went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture in 1976 and Stallone's rented tie fell off seconds before he took the stage to give his acceptance speech. And the franchise was born.

Each movie at its core is a simple love story about Rocky and Adrian. From there the formula for success is easy: Mix in a few well choreographed fight scenes, throw in some alternative training techniques and fill the viewers ears with catchy, upbeat music. Someone will usually die in the first third of the film, which causes Rocky to not train really hard and stare into the mirror and think about the person that died. It's a hard reality, but very important.

Then meek Adrian gives ol' Rock a pep talk and he starts chasing a chicken or throwing logs or running in the ocean like a boss and everyone finds happiness. Then the screen goes dark, there's a camera shot of the bell and the crowd, and here comes Rocky and Paulie to the ring trading one liners. Rocky and his opponent meet at the center of the ring to get their instructions. Maybe they'll slap gloves, or maybe not, but about ten minutes later the world is a better place and then Rocky usually has a speech. The final scene is a freeze frame of a triumphant Rocky, celebrating with the masses.


Rocky II

In 1979 Rocky II was released. Rocky was in the hospital for a while after his fight with Apollo. Then he and Adrian got married and some dudes were singing doo wop songs in the street by a burning barrel. Minutes later Rocky tried to whisper. Start at the 7:15 mark to see the only thing that Rocky can't do.

Rocky went on several job interviews in a blue polyester suit but he always got turned down. Adrian got pregnant, went back to work at the pet shop and then went in a coma after the baby was born. Rocky wasn't training hard and Mickey was so mad but then Adrian woke up and told him to win, so he chased a chicken and then beat Apollo in the last second of the fight when he got up just before the ten count. Rocky won the belt and yelled for Adrian again. Other than that Rocky II wasn't memorable. It barely cracks the top ten of all time greats.

Rocky III

Rocky III was released in the summer of 1982 and a little boy about to move to New Deal Texas to start third grade became a lifelong fan. That move to New Deal would be the first of what turned out to be seven moves over the next nine years. My parents tried their best, but it was certainly a decade of uncertainty. I saw Rocky three times that summer and my mom bought me a Foreigner record that I listened to over and over.

More importantly the film cemented itself as the best movie of all time and resurrected the franchise.

In the film Rocky was finally rich and hanging out with the Muppets and Hulk Hogan but there was this young fighter named Clubber Lang that was hungry. When Rocky got his statue on top of the steps, there was Clubber, talking a bunch of smack and it made Rocky mad. Mickey didn't want him to fight but Rocky wanted to fight so they scheduled a fight. Clubber shoved Mickey into the wall on his way to the ring and then he beat Rocky's ass and then Mickey died.

Apollo came over to help Rocky train and they went out to the West Coast so they could run on the beach and swim. Of course Rocky wasn't training hard and he was always looking in the mirror thinking about Mickey.

After a beach race where Rocky just stopped running Adrian walked up to Rocky and really gave him the business on the beach. He immediately decided he was gonna whoop Clubber's ass so he started training like crazy and finally beat Apollo in a foot race, which led to the manliest movie scene ever.

The final fight scene was anti-climatic because Rocky just whooped Clubber's ass in four rounds.

Rocky IV

The website IMBD says it all.

After iron man Drago, a highly intimidating 6-foot-5, 261-pound Soviet athlete, literally destroys Apollo Creed in an exhibition match, Rocky comes to the heart of Russia for 15 pile-driving boxing rounds of revenge.

Rocky was retired but Apollo wanted to fight an exhibition fight against this giant Russian named Ivan Drago. James Brown did a concert before the fight and got everyone all riled up but then Drago killed Apollo so Rocky decided to come out of retirement and whoop Drago's ass.

He went to Russia to train for the fight and his trainers were having him throw logs and climb mountains but his heart just wasn't in it because he was always thinking about Apollo. So guess who came to save the day? Yep, Adrian flew to Russia and gave Rocky the business in the snow. Rocky decided he was gonna whoop Drago's ass for real and he started training like crazy in a barn and he grew a beard.

During the fight Rocky showed so much heart that he won all the Russian fans over and they cheered for him like crazy when he whooped Drago's ass. Then he took the microphone and ended the Cold War all by himself. Rocky IV was released in 1985 and six years later the Cold War was over. Do you really think that's mere coincidence?

My parents were going through a divorce and my dad took me and a few friends to see it over Thanksgiving break. I was 12 years old and struggling to find my way, afraid of what the future might hold. I was searching for something solid and could see promise in a guy like Rocky. I didn't care if it was over the top, it was all I had. I looked up to a guy that always overcame the bad times to whoop some ass.

Rocky V

The penultimate and worst Rocky movie. All Rocky did was street fight with a real life boxer related to John Wayne and his son was always mad at him. It's way down at number 12 on my list of all time greats.

Rocky Balboa

After Rocky V and sixteen years between films, even the most ardent fans of the franchise were skeptical that Stallone could capture lightning in a bottle one last time. But he did.

Rocky Balboa was released in 2006 and critics grudgingly (if not snarkily) admitted to its legitimacy. Again, from the New York Times:

When I first learned of this film, presumably the final episode in the "Rocky" franchise, the idea of the 60-year-old Rocky going at it one last time sounded risible. Reports of audiences snickering derisively at trailers for the movie seemed to confirm my expectations.

Surprisingly "Rocky Balboa," is no embarrassment. Like its forerunners it goes the distance almost in spite of itself. It's all heart and no credibility except as a raw-boned fable. From the very beginning Rocky Balboa was about as lifelike a character as Popeye pumped up with spinach. But that may be the point of a series that peddles the notion that if you dream it hard enough, you can live it.

It was the most poignant film of the franchise.

Rocky is living life without Adrian, whom he lost to cancer three years prior. He's back in South Philly running his restaurant named after his lost wife. A computer simulation says that Rocky could beat the current champ, even though he's 60 (Rocky, not the current champ). So the current champ gets pissed and challenges Rocky to a fight. Rocky doesn't want to fight because he's always thinking about Adrian, but he decides to go for it.

He starts training like crazy and does all the old stuff. He punches meat, throws kegs of beers all over the place and squats about 1,200 pounds. He knows he's gotta be strong so he drinks a glass of raw eggs. Then he takes his dog and runs the steps of the Philadelphia library just like the old days, and inspires old men like me to be better.

He and the champ whoop each other's asses for a full 12 rounds and the champ barely squeaks by with a split decision, but Rocky doesn't care. He's already out of the arena when the final decision is read. He probably would've won if he chased a chicken while training, but he doesn't care. He's finished. Rocky is comfortable in his own skin. My young daughter and I cheered for Rocky Balboa at the end of his last movie.

Cheesy? Yes. Over the top and cartoonish? Sure. Especially for The New York Times. Their film critics may not believe in living out your dreams, but guys like me do.

The success of the Rocky franchise is proof that if you dream it hard enough you can live it. Whether you're Sylvester Stallone, or that little country boy from New Deal Texas, you can live it. I've got a great family and great friends. I love my job and for fun I get to write about the San Antonio Spurs. I get to watch Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as they quietly prepare for a game and then I have dinner with some of the most seasoned journalists in the NBA. I get writing tips from famous and respected sportscasters like Stuart Scott. I get to ask Kliff Kingsbury and Darrin Chiaverini whether they prefer Friday Night Lights over Varsity Blues. I get to watch my son run around in circles on a t-ball field, my baby boy run circles around his mama and my daughter run circles around her competition. And I get to kiss my wife goodnight, every night.

So yes, New York Times, I bought what Rocky was peddling and now I'm living it.

My kids and I never miss a Rocky marathon. I have to explain what a rabbit punch is and we laugh when Rocky says "I shoulda stayed in school" when asked for his thoughts on the fight.

Whatever the circumstance or scene, Rocky is weaved intermittently into the fabric of my life, during both good times and bad. His only visible weakness is his inability to whisper and he whooped a lot of ass. For a little boy growing up under less than ideal circumstances, Rocky was someone to look up to. And now as a grown man Rocky's (and ultimately Stallone's) optimism and grit are traits that still inspire me.

So forgive me if I remain steadfast with my list.