Between a Rocky and a Hard Place: How Rocky Balboa Taught Your Mom to Fear Black Men and Communism
by Dale Bridges
Every generation yearns to understand the one that came before it, if for no other reason than to publish essays on the Internet criticizing past cultural icons in order to prove to your parents once and for all that you didn’t just “fritter away” six years of college smoking weed and playing Frisbee golf—so there!
There are many respected academic methods of analyzing the social progress of large populations, but most of them are boring and involve math. Therefore, the author would like to propose a theory that can be researched whilst eating potato chips on the couch. The theory is this: One can trace the anxieties that have plagued the Baby Boomer generation by watching all six Rocky movies in succession.
Let us begin.
Movie: Rocky. Year: 1976. Fear: black men.
The author of this essay would like to state for the record that he loves this movie. And not in some ironic, hipstery it’s-great-because-it’s-bad type of way either. His love is sincere and eternal. The dialogue in the original Rocky is fantastic, the cast is perfect, the cinematography is wonderfully understated, and it’s just a damn good underdog story. In fact, if Stallone had stopped here, this author believes snooty film scholars would feel comfortable describing Rocky as one of the best boxing movies of all time without squirming in their seats hoping no one mentions Dolph Lundgren or Tommy Morrison.
As any first-year student of Rockyology knows, Stallone was a struggling actor and screenwriter before he penned the script that made him famous, and the inspiration for that script was a 1975 boxing match between heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and unknown white dude Chuck Wepner. Ali won the fight easily, but the boxing world was shocked that Wepner was able to stay on his feet for almost fifteen rounds before a TKO was declared. (It’s worth pointing out here that by this time in American history black men so dominated the sport of boxing that simply staying conscious through a title fight was considered an accomplishment for a white man.)
Today, Ali is widely considered a sports legend and beloved civil rights leader, but in the 1970s he was one of the most hated men in America. He was a cocky, outspoken black man who converted to Islam, renamed himself after the Muslim prophet who founded the religion, and refused to fight in Vietnam. He was the epitome of what racists call “uppity,” and he appeared to be proud of it. White America couldn’t wait to see Ali get his comeuppance, and since no white man could beat him in real life Rocky provided that catharsis at the theater.
In the movie, Ali is represented by Apollo “The Master of Disaster” Creed, a bombastic black heavyweight champion who speaks in rhyming couplets, taunts his opponent, and is cynical about American patriotism. Wepner may have been the inspiration for the script, but Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa is named after Rocky Marciano, the last great white hope. Rocky surprises Apollo by knocking him down in the first round, and after that it’s an epic brawl that goes the distance, with Apollo barely edging out Rocky in a controversial decision at the end.
Basically, Rocky was culture porn for Baby Boomers in the 1970s who feared the rise of a new generation of strong black men and wanted to see them put them in their place.
Movie: Rocky II. Year: 1979. Fear: black men and feminism.
If there had only been one movie, this argument would be mostly hypothetical. Sure, there’s a direct correlation between Ali and Creed, Marciano and Balboa, but you can’t establish a theory of systemic racial fear based on one precarious example. After all, at the end of Rocky, the white man wins the integrity battle but loses the fight. However, with the second movie, the pattern is confirmed. Integrity be damned; the Baby Boomers wanted to see the black man beaten once and for all.
The anxiety about feminism is a bit more subtle than the racial fear in the first movie but becomes apparent in the second. The only consistent female element in the Rocky series is Adrian. In the first movie, she is so painfully shy she barely even has a voice. She hides her body under sweaters and hats; she seldom makes eye contact with anyone; and she’s powerless against the verbal and emotional abuse heaped upon her by her brother, Paulie. It’s only when she starts dating a man that she learns to stand up for herself.
Rocky helps Adrian find her voice, but Adrian doesn’t necessarily have the same positive affect on Rocky. Rocky’s trainer, Mickey, warns about women in the first movie, advising Rocky not to have sex while he’s training with the famous line, “Women weaken legs.” The implication is that females have a tendency to civilize males, sapping their physical and spiritual strength, and transforming them into emasculated losers.
To solidify the point, the second movie begins with a series of domesticating moments: a marriage proposal, a wedding, clothes shopping, house hunting, and finally pregnancy. Rocky has retired from boxing at the behest of Adrian, so he has basically been castrated. He attempts to get work outside of the boxing ring, but he can’t find steady employment. In order to pay the rent, Adrian goes back her job at the pet shop where they first met, despite Rocky’s claim that, “I’m the one who’s supposed to support.”
Meanwhile, Creed is taunting Rocky publicly, challenging his masculinity in an effort to shame him into a rematch. Rocky, unable to provide for his family, makes the decision to fight Creed again, and when Adrian protests, he tells her, “I never asked you to stop being a woman, you know. Please—I’m asking you please don’t ask me to stop being a man.”
“Being a man” in this case means making more money than your wife and beating the snot out of the guy who’s calling you a chicken.
Rocky starts to train for the rematch, but his heart isn’t in it. He made the decision to fight unilaterally, but he’s not satisfied unless his wife adopts his point of view. Paulie visits Adrian at her workplace and tells her that Rocky is going to get injured in the ring, and it’s her fault because she’s not being a supportive wife. Adrian then tries to lift a heavy bag of dog food, faints, and is rushed to the hospital. The baby is born premature (a boy, naturally), and Adrian lapses into a coma.
Lesson: if you work outside the home and fail to support your husband, you might die.
In the end, Adrian wakes up from the coma having learned her lesson and tells Rocky she wants him to win the fight. His house in order, the white American male is now ready to beat the shit out of the mouthy black guy.
Movie: Rocky III. Year: 1982. Fear: angry black men and death.
One of the most brilliant aspects of the Rocky series is how Stallone is able to alter the formula just enough with each movie to keep pace with the evolution of Baby Boomer anxiety. It’s also important to note that it is essential to the formula that Rocky is always the underdog; therefore, no matter how rich he becomes or how often he defends his title, the audience must feel sorry for him and believe he has to beat the odds in order to win.
By the time the ’80s rolled around, Ali had finally been defeated and he was beginning to show signs of physical and mental decay that would later be diagnosed as Parkinson’s. Furthermore, sports writers and civil rights historians were discussing his legacy in a positive light, and he was starting to be recognized as a global humanitarian rather than a national threat. Therefore, it was necessary to change the Rocky narrative.
But white America wasn’t ready to give up on its fear of black men just yet. During the 1980s, urban squalor created black slums in many inner-city neighborhoods, where the drug addiction and gang violence that existed were exaggerated in the media. The myth of the violent black man was broadcast into suburban homes every night on the news.
In the third movie, Rocky’s opponent, Clubber Lang (a.k.a. Mr. T), is all anger. That’s his entire character. The reason for his rage is never explained, presumably because it doesn’t matter where his anger comes from. All the audience needs to know is that he’s black and he’s pissed.
At the beginning of the movie, Lang is a promising contender who wants a shot at the title, but Mickey keeps putting him off because he fears Lang will seriously injure Rocky. Mickey (clearly the central father figure in the Rocky universe) has been setting Rocky up with easy bouts in order to protect him.
Finally, in front of a large crowd during the unveiling of the famous Rocky statue, Lang insults Rocky publicly, calling him a coward and stating that Adrian needs a real man (i.e. Lang) to please her in bed. Rocky accepts the challenge (of fighting Lang, not of satisfying his wife sexually). However, just before the match, Lang shoves Mickey during an altercation, and Mickey has a heart attack. Rocky goes through with the fight anyhow, but he’s concerned about Mickey and, as we later learn, frightened at the thought of his own mortality. Clubber knocks Rocky out in the second round. Mickey dies.
The angry black man has killed the father.
In an interesting twist on the racial theme, Creed then replaces Mickey as Rocky’s trainer and teaches Rocky how to fight like a black man so that he can defeat Lang. This demonstrates white America’s reluctant acceptance of black icons like Ali who are no longer in positions of power, while maintaining the fear of black men rising up to overthrow the status quo.
Movie: Rocky IV. Year: 1985. Fear: communism and the mid-life crisis (consequently, the author thinks this would be a great name for an indie band).
OK, so the symbolism in this one is so slap-you-in-the-face-with-a-bald-eagle obvious that it’s hardly worth pointing out. From the opening shot where the silver boxing glove with the American flag collides with the silver boxing glove with the Russian flag and the screen explodes in a spray of fireworks, the references to Cold War fear, American patriotism, and fist-pumping Reaganism are not subtle. In fact, this movie is so over the top that it could almost be seen as self-satire if not for the utter sincerity of the rest of the series.
So let’s skip over the communism analysis. If you’ve seen Rocky IV and you’re older than, say, fifteen, the nationalistic propaganda should be clear. If it isn’t, there’s nothing more to say here that will convince you.
(The author would like to make a quick comment on the fact that Ivan Drago is Rocky’s first white opponent, which means that in order to find something the Baby Boomers feared more than black people, Stallone was forced to turn to international politics.)
While the mid-life-crisis anxiety is not as blatant as the fear of communism, it ain’t exactly understated. Numerous references are made at the beginning of the movie about Apollo and Rocky getting old. Rocky drives the type of expensive sports car certain men purchase when they reach a certain age to compensate for certain waning sexual drives. The only things missing are the plastic surgery and trophy wives, but perhaps that was a bit too on the nose for Stallone at this point in his career.
However, the most obvious example of a mid-life crisis is Rocky himself. In the first two movies, Rocky resembles a normal male homo sapien, complete with chest hair and blue-collar muscles. In the third movie, the chest hair is gone and he’s starting to look more like an oiled-up body builder. By the time the fourth movie comes around, he is one of those hairless workout freaks who believes he can reverse the aging process with the right combination of vitamins, exercise, and, of course, steroids.
The Baby Boomers are pushing forty, their bodies sagging, their virility fading, but if they can just do enough hot yoga and find the right organic kale at the farmers’ market, they too will be able to defeat Ivan Drago and save the world from communism.
Movie: Rocky V. Year: 1990. Fear: getting old and being bad parents.
It is common knowledge that Rocky V is the festering boil on the tanned, well-toned ass of the Rocky series. The writing doesn’t have the clear focus of the earlier movies, the characters are inconsistent, the acting is often soap opera quality, and it recycles too many plot devices from the previous films. Also, the gratuitous use of rap and hip hop is borderline offensive in yet another “great white hope” fantasy.
To keep the underdog theme working, Rocky loses all his money to a fraudulent accountant and has to move back to the old neighborhood, and a brain injury from the Drago fight forces him into retirement. He meets a hungry, young white fighter named Tommy “The Machine” Gun and agrees to be his manager. However, Rocky gets so caught up in Gun’s career he neglects his son, Robert, who is struggling to fit in at his new school. (We know the kid is headed for real trouble when Robert starts smoking cigarettes and wearing an earring.) In the end, Gun betrays Rocky for George Washington Duke, a conniving black boxing promoter modeled after Don King.
Rocky V is an obvious attempt by Stallone to bring the franchise back to the beginning. The director of the first Rocky, John Avildsen, is back; Mickey returns in a series of flashbacks; the Balboas leave Hollywood and move back to Philly; and Rocky even starts wearing the iconic leather jacket and wool fedora again. It’s a cheap attempt at nostalgia. The Baby Boomers are afraid of getting old, losing touch with their roots, and becoming bad parents. If the point isn’t clear enough from the plot clichés, toward the end of the movie Rocky and Adrian get into their usual let’s-clarify-the-moral-of-the-story fight and Adrian screams, “Rocky, you’re losing your family!”
At first blush, Rocky V appears to contradict the racial themes of the first movies, but the fact that Rocky fights another white guy in the end is a red herring. The main story is still the fantasy of a white boxer (in this case, Gun) beating up black men. Yes, there is a showdown between the two white fighters, but the cathartic money shot doesn’t come when Rocky defeats Gun in a street fight; it takes place afterward, when Rocky knocks out the black boxing promoter, Duke, in a single blow.
Movie: Rocky Balboa. Year: 2006. Fear: outliving your loved ones and leaving a legacy.
Rocky Balboa is neither as good as the original Rocky nor as bad as Rocky V. It is, however, a nice, clean final chapter in the series and an interesting conclusion to this theory.
Rocky is retired and Adrian is dead. Rocky mourns his wife’s passing almost obsessively, visiting her gravesite regularly and returning over and over to the locations of their courtship. He even owns a restaurant named Adrian’s, where he entertains customers by telling stories of past fights. Rocky’s son, Robert, is a wussy corporate employee who is admonished by his boss in public and yearns to get out from under his father’s shadow.
The current heavyweight champion is a black boxer named Mason “The Line” Dixon (wink-wink nudge-nudge…get it?). Dixon is undefeated, but he gets no respect in the press because he has never faced a difficult challenger. A televised sports show runs a computer simulation of a fight between Dixon and Rocky in his prime. Rocky wins. (The movie also refers to a similar simulation called “The Super Fight” conducted in 1970 that pitted Rocky Marciano and Mohammed Ali. In the simulation, Marciano knocked out Ali in the thirteenth round—which is also a white fantasy, in this author’s opinion.)
After seeing the simulation, Rocky decides he wants to fight again because, as he tells Paulie, “There’s still some stuff in the basement.” We never find out what exactly he means by “stuff,” but it’s clear that Rocky wants to make sure his legacy lives on in both his reputation and his son. Dixon’s manager offers Rocky an exhibition bout, thinking it will put to rest the rumors surrounding the simulated fight. Rocky’s son begs him not to fight Dixon, complaining that he can’t establish his own life when his father is constantly overshadowing him. Rocky then gives Robert a big speech about life being hard and not making excuses for your failures, a speech that many Gen Xers have heard from their Baby Boomer parents at one time or another.
Robert eventually comes around to Rocky’s side, there’s the requisite training montage, and then the fight. Dixon dominates the first round but breaks his hand on Rocky’s hip in the second, evening the odds. It’s an all-out brawl after that with both fighters swinging haymakers until the final bell. Just like the first movie, Rocky loses in a close decision but wins the integrity battle for displaying courage and just generally being so old.
This is the only Rocky movie that gives any perspective to a black opponent (we have some empathy for Creed in III and IV, but only after he’s been defeated by Rocky). Dixon is shown as a great fighter who has never been tested by a strong opponent, and when he finally demonstrates “heart” by going the distance despite his injury, there’s a modicum of compassion for his character, although the bulk is saved for Rocky. Nothing much has changed.
In the end, Rocky remains a Baby Boomer fantasy world in which blue-collar white men dominate athletic competitions, women who work outside the home lapse into comas, communism is KOed by the independent spirit of democracy, age is reversed with pushups and body oil, relationships are restored by schmaltzy speeches, and any obstacle can be overcome with a melodramatic song about tigers and a five-minute training montage.
(The author would like to thank his fiancée, Michelle, for putting up with ten straight hours of Rocky movies. He promises he won’t talk about Rocky for at least a week… Or a month. Two months?)