“Why do you wanna fight?
“Because I can’t sing or dance.”
–Adrian and Rocky
Growing up without Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and with just a pedestrian affection for Star Wars (I thought I was a big fan until I went to Welch College and met people who watched the prequels like 15 times on opening weekend), Rocky was as close as my brothers and I got to the geek level of fandom. We watched the movies over and over. We owned boxing gloves and pretended to be the characters. We listened to the soundtracks nonstop.
So I definitely have an opinion on the movies and how they rank against each other, though I would be quick to add that when people ask me my favorite movie of all time, I say “Rocky” and mean the whole story and not just the 1976 original. It is a saga to me divided up seven ways, with tomorrow debuting the 8th piece of this perfect American story pie. Nevertheless, when ranking them I do not want to do the typical American thing and presume that the opinion of one 40-year old man is “definitive”. This is absolutely up for debate. Yet I want to write about how I consider them, from least great to the individual movie GOAT.
But before I get to the main list of movie rankings, here is my personal opinion on the rankings of the climactic fight in each movie. Every movie ends essentially the same because, let’s face it, these boxing matches were what brought the crowds to theaters and inspired people:
7. Balboa—A visually spectacular fight with plenty of drama. The fact that it brings up the rear is a testimony to how legendary the Rocky fights are.
6. Creed—Thanks to cinematic advances it is more realistic than any other fight in the series. Yet the competition is just too fierce. The defining moment in this one isn’t as special to me as most of the others. Perhaps because Adonis, while a brilliant character, isn’t quite Rocky.
5. Rocky V—People did not like this fight being a street fight instead of a ring fight. But I give it huge props for not being derivative and for the quotes that it gave us (see below).
4. Rocky III—Would be higher but it is literally the only ultimate fight in the entire Rocky catalog that doesn’t go the distance, which feels significant given the heart of these films. But Rocky trash-talking Clubber as he whips him is epic.
3. Rocky—Rocky with a stunning knockdown early on, after Apollo had never been knocked down…the look on Apollo’s face when Rocky gets up in the 14th round and begs for more…Rocky going after the ribs in the 15th….there are no English words for emotion to describe it. Of note: Rocky won an Oscar for Best Film Editing for this fight. They put on the 15th round makeup on Stallone and Weathers and shot the fight in reverse as they took the makeup off.
2. Rocky II—I’ve watched this fight at least 30 times and it gets me every time. The ending draws me in as though I were watching a real sporting event. The advantages this one has over Balboa-Creed I, other than the heart-stopping finish, are not only the advanced cinematography and better choreography (not to mention we get to see nearly all of the fight instead of just five rounds as in the first one). But it also wins points for the clever gambit Mick used that ultimately decided the fight: Rocky fighting right-handed before switching back in the 15th. Mick’s boxing acumen won this fight. Well, that and Apollo’s off the charts hubris. Chills on top of chills for this masterpiece.
1. Rocky IV—I don’t think any final match or game in any sports movie touches the war that was Balboa-Drago. When Rocky cut the Russian in Round 2, the entire nation jumped out of its chair, took off its shirt and waved the American flag, chanting “U-S-A!” like Homer Simpson. It was electrifying. It was outrageous. It was beautiful. What a moment! And there is no sports plot twist like the Russians changing their allegiance to Rocky near the end of the fight. If you were alive in the 80s you know how significant this (literally) incredible and ridiculous moment was. It’s like if North Korea or ISIS today sent a basketball team over here and we started cheering for them over Steph Curry and LeBron James. It was as fantasy-level unbelievable as anything that happens in Narnia. And no one cared. Peak American cinema.
Now to the film rankings. Note that my inability to keep the word count down on this, my favorite movie franchise of all time, means I have divided it up into two parts. Numbers 7 to 5 are today. The Top 4 will follow tomorrow.
7. Rocky V (1990)
This movie is so hated, Stallone made Balboa 16 years later just because he was tired of hearing about how hated this movie is.
I confess I genuinely like it. It clearly brings up the rear in the Rocky canon but the other six are all great to exceptional movies. It has great highlights to me: Rocky flashing back to Mick giving him the cufflinks, a hilarious Don King ripoff, Rocky standing up to Tommy at the end, Adrian ripping into Duke over and over, a classic Rocky-Adrian no holds barred conversation (contrast Adrian from this movie to the one in the original—THAT is character development), etc. And this movie is absolutely as quotable as any of the others.
In my opinion, it was panned so universally in large part when it came out because Rocky doesn’t fight in the ring. It broke the formula and people weren’t ready for it. Also, this is the only Rocky movie where Rocky isn’t clearly a boxer or clearly a trainer and that made the plot a bit awkward. It was really too much of a mishmash of Rocky’s role in 1-4 and his role in Creed. And it just didn’t play well. For me, I do not deny it has weak aspects, notably that Sage Stallone and Tommy Morrison were terrible actors (May they rest in peace). Still, it’s a good movie and my wife and I watch it in sequence with the rest. And let it forever be known that having Elton John co-write and sing “The Measure of a Man” (a pretty unknown song that wasn’t played on the radio) over images from all five movies to that point to end gave us the best closing credits of all time.
Large Men at Bar: Hey, Rock, you need help?
Rocky: No guys, this ain’t no pie-eating contest.
Rocky [to Tommy]: You knocked him down, why don’t you try knocking me down?
Duke: IN THE RING IN THE RING TOMMY GUNN ONLY FIGHTS IN THE RING.
Rocky: Yeah? My ring’s outside.
Rocky [repeating Mick]: Yo Tom-my! I didn’t hear no bell.
Mick [in flashback]: Get up…because Mickey loves ya.
6. Rocky Balboa (2006)
This is a safe movie if there ever was one. After a decade and a half of Stallone hearing complaints about V, he finally got his final Rocky chapter off the ground. (Creed nor Creed 2 were both created by Stallone). And he brought about his personal closure playing it as close to vest as he could: making it so similar to the original that Rocky fans would feel like they were taking a trip down memory lane. And unlike The Force Awakens, the obvious similarities were not controversial. After I watched it with my brothers and my dad, my brother Tracy commented, “Now I can die in peace with how Rocky ended.”
There is a walk down memory lane with Rocky and Paulie visiting all the places that meant something in the first movie, to honor Adrian’s death (which Stallone wrote in to give the movie more emotional punch, and it worked). Stallone even brought back little Marie, all grown up now and much more respectful to Rocky, and opening scene opponent Spider Rico.
Still, the movie has some unique personality. Rocky’s passionate speech to his son Rocky, Jr. (played by the inimitable Milo Ventimiglia1) about not making excuses is not something we saw in any previous movie. Same for Rocky’s diatribe to the boxing commission after they rejected him for a license. Stallone’s performance in Creed was better, but he really held nothing back here and nails these character-defining scenes. Like a man who at the time thought this was his last chance to play such an iconic character.
I also adore Max Kellerman’s reaction to witnessing a “Rocky” fight for HBO, whom he works for in real life. I’m sure his reaction was not acting, but instead was a legitimate response of awe as a real life Rocky movie fan, and produced a fascinating moment where life and art collided.
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
–Rocky, to Robert
Italian food made by Mexicans ain’t that special.
You one crazy old man.
–Mason Dixon, to Rocky, before the last round
5. Rocky IV (1985)
Let me say it again: Everything about this movie is over-the-top ludicrous…the cheesy 80s music, the Apollo dance number, Rocky climbing a mountain while training, the amount of steroid-enhanced bombs Rocky takes the head without dying, the fact that the Russians turned on Drago in the fight and began cheering for Rocky…and on and on.
But that really doesn’t matter. This is a breathtaking, sublime 90 minutes of film. I know no other ranking on my list will cause as many howls of protests as putting this one fifth, which again, testifies to the depth of the franchise. And to show how razor thin the difference is in the top five, you could ask me to rank them again in six months and I might have this one #1 or #2.
So why do I have it so low at this moment? Well, as many critics have pointed out, once you take out the training montages and that outrageous ending fight, this movie is like 23 minutes long. That’s barely an exaggeration. There is not much plot or character development to this installment and that is totally fine because this movie had the mammoth shoulders of three prior transcendent chapters to stand on in that regard. We knew the main players so it just fed us rapid plot points and twists like a Red Bull being injected straight into the entertainment veins: Big Russian wants to box, Big Russian kills Apollo, Rocky decides to fight Big Russian in Russia, Rocky wins. That’s it. That’s the movie. And it’s glorious from start to finish. I have watched Rocky 4 more than any of the others. It never ever gets old.
Announcer 1: “He’s cut! The Russian’s cut!”
Announcer 2: “And it’s a bad cut!”
“You cut ‘im!! You hurt ‘im!! You see?!?! You see?!? He’s not a machine!! He’s a man!”
“And a few cheers now for Rocky Balboa…”
–Announcer, somewhere between Rounds 11 and 12
“No TV? What about my Rose Bowl Game?”
–Paulie, adapting to Russia
“He’s not human. He’s like a piece of iron.”
–Drago, about Rocky
So that’s it. That’s the first half of the list. Go here for my ranking of the four greatest Rocky movies of all-time. Comments on these installments are welcomed below.
- And how much it meant to see Sly Stallone guest star on This Is Us and for Jack’s children to rave about how much their dad loved Rocky! ↩