By Ronan Keenan
Photo © Mary Ann Owen/FightWireImages.com
Cut to animal shelter:
(Rocky and Steps walk along a magnitude of cages)
Rocky: Now that’s a good one
(he points to an ugly, mangy mutt)
Steps: Think so?
Rocky: Yeah, got good head structure. (bends down) C’mere, boy, come on.
( the dog, Punchy, barely moves)
Steps: Get a younger one. He can’t move.
Rocky: No. This guy’s clever. See what he’s doing? He’s conserving energy. He’s smart.
Steps: He’s dead.
Some metaphors are just blatantly obvious, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.
In Rocky Balboa the decimated dog Punchy is used as a tool to represent the state of Rocky’s enthusiasm for life, while in reality it’s a metaphor for the acting career of 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone, which, coincidentally, is in a similar state to the sport of boxing.
These four figures – the dog, Rocky, Stallone, and boxing – are all related by the fact that they are approaching the end of the line. The dog can hardly move, the poignant depth of the Rocky character has long been forgotten, Stallone hasn’t headlined an acclaimed blockbuster in decades, and boxing is, well, boxing.
Nobody needs to be reminded that the sport bears little resemblance to the one that inhabited society’s consciousness when the original Oscar-winning Rocky was released in 1976. Even though boxing was relatively more popular, the lovable character of Rocky surprised audiences by tugging at their heartstrings, while also inspiring countless young men to turn their attention to the suddenly glamorous art of pugilism.
The ingenuous Philadelphian brought the exaltations and tribulations that constitute the sport to the masses by showing that fighters are really just normal human-beings after all. Rocky symbolised boxing.
Ironically, as each subsequently more ridiculous Rocky sequel emerged, the sport itself gradually began its disturbing descent. Admittedly, the lighter weight-classes were packed with legendary talent, but the division upon which boxing is judged became a circus with corruption and unrequited greed becoming the now-familiar stigmas.
When Rocky debuted, Muhammad Ali was king of the world having survived Armageddon with Joe Frazier. However, by the time Rocky II was released in 1978 the golden era of heavyweight boxing had all but petered out and Larry Holmes was defending the championship against the pitiful Ossie Oscasio in a dreadful mismatch. As the years passed and Rocky III arrived in 1982 the heavyweight championship had begun its plunge into alphabet madness as rival versions of the title emerged, with Holmes claiming one and John Tate the other.
When the absurd Rocky IV came out in November ’85, boxing fans were still trying to recover from the stench left by Holmes’ dubious points loss to Michael Spinks. It was a travesty that a great champion like Holmes had his reign ended in such controversial fashion. Five years later the integrity of the undisputed heavyweight title suffered immeasurably during the release of the sorry Rocky V when an apathetic Buster Douglas virtually handed the championship to Evander Holyfield in 1990.
Now Stallone has dared to make a Rocky comeback at a time when the sport is in an even worse state, with many media-types initially labelling him crazy to think a boxing-themed movie could be a mainstream success in the 21st century.
Well, the ‘Italian Stallion’ has proved the cynics wrong…again.
Attendances for Rocky Balboa have been higher than anticipated and the movie that was supposedly doomed to failure has impressed even the sternest of judges.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times wasn’t looking forward to yet another Rocky return, but the sight of the old champ running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a revived Punchy was enough to remind the film critic of those old ‘glory days’.
“At first the idea of a 60-year-old Rocky going at it one last time sounded risible, and reports of audiences snickering derisively at trailers for the movie seemed to confirm my expectations.” Holden said. “But ultimately [Rocky Balboa] made me happy to relive the good old days.”
Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times shares Holden’s nostalgic sentiments.
“It's actually the best Rocky movie since the original,” said Roeper. “It’s a fitting and triumphant final chapter for one of the most iconic characters in the history of motion pictures.
“I remember seeing the original Rocky multiple times as a teenager, and seeing Rocky reconnect with some of his old associates and revisiting the familiar haunts was a multi-layered serving of nostalgia. It was like a class reunion where past conflicts are forgiven and everybody remembers the good times.”
Evidently, Rocky still has the ability to connect with people who aren’t necessarily fans or even admirers of boxing. Unlike in 1976, today Rocky is not opening up the sport to the public, but instead he is a reminder of the human side of what many consider to be an inhumane activity.
However, is the latest movie an eye-opener or just a vehicle that triggers off fond memories from the past? Can an old character who’s seen better days really encourage the masses to look at boxing today, or will he instead motivate viewers to simply dig out the old Rocky movies?
“No, Rocky Balboa won’t bring new fans to today’s sport,” stressed promoter Gary Shaw. “[The original Rocky] was a new fresh movie that appealed to a different demographic at that time.”
Still, if Rocky Balboa can’t bring new followers to the sweet science then maybe it will rekindle the fire in former fans that’ve been turned off by the countless alphabet champions and expensive pay-per-views. To ensure it’s survival as a relatively major sport, boxing doesn’t require more hardcore supporters; it needs to entice the old ‘fair-weather’ viewers back to the big events. Boxing always made its money from people who were only interested in seeing the best fighters square-off, not fans who worry about what opponent Rafael Marquez will face in March.
Today, there’s not many folks walking the street who have the slightest interest in seeing May’s De La Hoya-Mayweather superfight. That bout is tipped to be one of the highest grossing in history and it may achieve that distinction, but only because boxing’s already-established fanatics are willing to hand over $55 to see it on TV.
In recent years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has apparently gained momentum by luring fans who would traditionally have followed boxing. The UFC has enjoyed this success because it’s been marketed as a trendy, bright new product. Its chief promoter, Dana White, is a hip straight-talking guy who’s just entering middle-age – a direct contrast to elderly veterans Don King and Bob Arum, who are basically one step away from the grave.
There was a time when it was actually quite cool to stay in on a Saturday night and witness Tyson demolish somebody on pay-per-view. And, as with the UFC today, it wasn’t necessary to be a true boxing fan to watch the big fights. But boxing still has more diehard fans than the UFC as indicated by the ratings for both sports’ recent reality shows. The Contender 2 finale on ESPN garnered a rating of 1.9, while the conclusion of the UFC’s Ultimate Fighter 4 peaked at 1.1. Nonetheless, the UFC draws a younger, more volatile audience, while boxing holds on to a more dependable, yet older demographic.
Nonetheless, the masses still consider boxing old hat. It’s stale. But in ’76 it became a refreshing alternative to the arduous political strife dominating the headlines. Everything Rocky did in the first movie became iconic. Suddenly, sprinting up a long flight of stairs turned into a symbolic act. It made you a man. It made you like Rocky. That was cool. As was consuming raw eggs, whacking slabs of meat, and ultimately, watching the fights.
So, can the modern Rocky Balboa become a celebrated figure that will subconsciously seduce people into viewing the latest heavyweight championship debacle?
“Today’s Rocky will have nowhere near the same impact,” said Eric Raskin, Contributing Editor of The Ring magazine. “The reason is that boxing was more popular when the original film came out, due in large part to the sport being shown on network television with regularity and to the heavyweight division being extremely healthy.
“Another part of the reason is that the storyline – a nearly-60-year-old ex-champ attempts a comeback – doesn't capture the imagination of America's youth anywhere near as well as the original storyline – a reasonably young nobody gets his shot at the heavyweight championship of the world.”
Still, even if Rocky Balboa doesn’t manage to convert today’s 15-30-year-olds to boxing, it must surely have the potential to revive the sport in former fans.
“I rather doubt that the movie will appeal to a youthful audience at all,” said George Kimball of the Boston Herald. “Rather it will appeal to an older audience who nostalgically recall the original Rocky. It may, on the other hand, bring back some of those who were subsequently turned off by the terrible sequels, particularly III, IV, and V.
“I don't underestimate the impact of the original Rocky in 1976, but it wasn't single-handedly responsible for reinvigorating the sport, either. Five US Olympic gold medals and the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ had something to do with the resurgence as well.”
True, Rocky alone wasn’t wholly responsible for the golden era of boxing that was the 70s, but the wholesome values displayed by the ‘Italian Stallion’ certainly helped make the sport more attractive.
But was the movie an accurate reflection of the sport? The qualities necessary to become a top fighter were displayed in all their glory: the determination to get out of bed at 4am on a freezing morning to do miles of roadwork; the perseverance to stay focused on a goal even when the world and its mother write off your chances; the mental resolve to put up with the incredibly annoying rants of Paulie…
Even though the ingredients of being a champion were elegantly explored, the actual fight scenes in the film were so flawed they must have damaged the movie’s otherwise robust credibility. The climatic bout in Rocky was ignorantly choreographed with both ‘fighters’ refusing to even acknowledge the art of defence while absorbing countless thunderously loud blows. While the intention was obviously to make the scenes dramatic and continuously exciting, this effect was only partially realised, with the action ultimately taking on an air of comedy.
Moreover, many boxing observers felt the exaggerated hamming by the actors served to disrespect the craft and intelligence fighters require to compete at the highest level. Obviously it would be too much to expect actors to convey the skill levels associated with great boxing, but they could have at least displayed some sort of poise to show that elite-level fighters employ a thought process and not just mindless violence.
Ultimately, fans expecting to see the senseless aggression of the fight scenes in Rocky and its four subsequent sequels were left more than a little disappointed when they realised the sport’s practitioners actually use their brain.
It’s not surprising when boxing insiders get angry when the barrier between boxing and Rocky gets blurred.
“[The fight scenes] in the Rocky movies probably both hurt and insult boxing,” Kimball said.
“They insult the intelligence of actual boxing fans, who would know better than to believe this crap. And they could be harmful to viewers who know nothing about boxing and are led to believe that a fight like that one would not have been stopped by the referee.”
Kimball isn’t alone in feeling that what takes place on the big screen has little in common with what transpires in the ring.
“There's never been a realistic fight scene in any fight film,” said William Dettloff, Senior Writer of The Ring magazine. “Fight scenes are exaggerated, almost cartoonist, even in the best fight film, Raging Bull.
“Still, it doesn't hurt whenever boxing is featured in a major film,” he added. “But there's been a glut of those over the past several years - Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, Ali, Hurricane, Annapolis - and boxing hasn't thrived from their combined effect.”
The original series of NBC’s The Contender was another boxing-related spectacle aimed at an altogether mainstream audience. Ironically, Stallone was also involved in that project and the genuine boxing matches were so heavily edited it was forgivable to think they were directed by him. The show has been deemed a failure by many insiders, with NBC wanting no part in a second season.
“The Contender carried the potential to impact significantly on boxing,” explained writer Thomas Hauser to BoxingScene. “But it failed to do so because of the business and financial models it followed and the poor quality of the shows.”
However, Rocky Balboa vies to differ from the aforementioned fight-based endeavors and produce an authentic representation of a boxing match by using a relatively intuitive formula – film the fight as if it were a legitimate HBO pay-per-view production.
The producers believed that shooting the fight scenes around an actual boxing event would give the Rocky Balboa climax an air of authenticity, so they headed to the Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas to film in conjunction with the Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins December ’05 bout.
And the results do not disappoint.
Everything boxing fans would normally expect from a big-fight broadcast is there. Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman call the action; Michael Buffer does the introductions; HBO graphics are used during the bout; recent light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver is the opponent; a legitimate fight crowd provides the atmosphere; and, notably, ‘real time’ camerawork captures the combat.
The ringwalks, introductions, and opening sequences of the fight are all relayed using camera angles and motion-speed that would accompany a live sporting event. The authenticity value these techniques bring to the boxing scenes is immeasurable.
And, as Rocky Balboa cinematographer Clark Mathis explained, the movie’s unique sense of realism wasn’t easily achieved.
“We wanted to emulate the exact camera positions and vantage points of a pay-per-view fight. It really brings an element of reality. We mixed high definition and film with an amazing Photosonics camera. It creates this completely different perspective on the movement, really time extended.
“It’s almost like you are watching this huge sporting event and you are subconsciously cued by the video to think this is something that is not rehearsed and is transpiring before your very eyes.”
With the use of such a unique filming process, the movie is effectively transformed into an HBO broadcast. Such a stamp of authenticity results in the actual boxing techniques of actors becoming less scrutinized. The underlying impression is that the Rocky movie enters the world of boxing, rather than a cockeyed version of the sport being dragged into a motion picture.
Nonetheless, Sly really does manage to follow the example of George Foreman and produce an admirable late-career display. The back-and-forth slugging between Rocky and Mason Dixon is arguably the most realistic cinematic representation of boxing, and it’s helpful that Tarver knows a thing or two about the sport. Well, helpful for everyone except Stallone.
“It was rough because Antonio is a real fighter who doesn't really follow staged choreography,” explained the actor.
“Ultimately, we decided to throw the choreography out the window. That was fine, but it meant that I had to catch a lot of shots. A few of those knockdowns in the film were for real. At one point, I thought I'd be in a wheelchair by the time I finished this movie.”
Admittedly the circumstances surrounding the fight aren’t entirely credible, but that’s what Rocky is all about – letting go of inhibitions to follow a fanciful dream.
“Filmmakers take liberties in many areas in order to increase drama,” said Dettloff.
“There's never been a realistic fight scene in any fight film – except for those in this latest Rocky movie, which are more realistic than any I've seen. But, I still don’t see Rocky Balboa having much effect on the fight game.”
Sometimes when we’re heavily involved in our passion we eventually begin to look on it with overly-critical eyes. Maybe it takes the voice of someone with a pugilistically uncontaminated mind to summate the impact of Rocky Balboa from a broader perspective.
“I think a film like this is good for boxing,” esteemed movie critic Leonard Maltin told BoxingScene.
“It’s beneficial simply because it presents the sport as a vehicle for someone to prove and even redeem himself. Even if one impressionable young person in the audience takes that to heart and thinks about pursuing the sport, for whatever reason, the movie has made an impact.”
And the chances of it achieving this effect seem good with attendances generating nearly $70 million during its first month in the US alone. Furthermore, a sign that Rocky’s latest incarnation might be relating to the American youth lies in the most popular item of the franchise’s merchandise. Rocky action figures have been selling like hot-cakes, making them one of the most sought-after items on ActionFigs.com according to Editor-in-Chief Steve Comenzo.
But, as any seasoned boxing follower will tell you, don’t believe the hype.
Comenzo dashes the notion that boxing-related items can connect with the modern youth when he revealed the figures are predominantly being snapped up by kids aged between 20 and 40.
Yet even if the movie fails to ignite the sport among a new generation, Rocky Balboa has clearly done something just as important – revive jaded fans with a youthful passion for the sport, as Clint Mathis will further attest.
“When filming the movie at the Mandalay Bay the cheapest seat ringside was about $800 but when Rocky made his entrance these dressed-up high rollers turned into eight-year-olds screaming for him.
“They cheered twice as loud for Sly than they did for the actual fighters at the match that they paid $800 to see. You didn’t even have to say anything, 12,000 people without having to be prompted over the PA system were screaming ‘Rocky’! It was unbelievable.”
That the weathered, familiar face of Rocky can turn back the clock of fans like he did Punchy’s reveals one feature about boxing – there’s life in the old dog yet.
Ronan Keenan can be contacted at: email@example.com