The first sports movie I ever saw was “Rocky”. I remember whenever it was shown on cable, usually as a marathon with all its (mostly unnecessary) sequels following it, I would always find my dad watching it. At a young age, I didn’t like how it ended—and for those of you who haven’t seen it, stop reading now. Because here’s how it ends: Rocky Balboa, our main contender, fights his opponent for the whole fifteen rounds, but he does not win the fight. Instead, he finds his girlfriend, Adrian, and embraces her. To me, that wasn’t exactly a happy ending. But as I got older, and as I started to understand that great films aren’t just black-and-white, win-or-lose situations, and that movie characters are much deeper than what they seem on the surface, I started to watch “Rocky” in a whole new light.
“Rocky” is one of at least four great movies from 1976, the others being (in my opinion) “Taxi Driver”, “Network”, and “All the President’s Men”, the latter two being films I’ve actually talked about on “Reel Christianity”. All these films deal with life in the United States, in one way or another, which was a fitting subject for 1976, the country’s bicentennial year. “Rocky” is no exception—this is a true underdog story about a poor boxing hopeful in Philadelphia who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight the world heavyweight champion. And surprisingly, our main character doesn’t even care about winning. It would be nice, but just by doing well, he would be able to prove something to himself, which has been a sort of recurring theme in our series this month.
Our main character, of course, is Rocky—Rocky Balboa, to be exact, played by Sylvester Stallone, who actually also wrote the movie. Rocky lives in an apartment in Philadelphia in late 1975. He fights sometimes in clubs to make a small amount of money, but his main job is as a loan shark for Anthony Gazzo (Joe Spinell). When people owe Gazzo money, Rocky finds them and threatens to break their thumbs unless they pay. Rocky’s supposed to actually break their thumbs, but he doesn’t because he feels bad for the guys in a way.
Elsewhere, Rocky tries to make a name for himself as a boxer, but he is prevented from even being able to practice in the local gym because the man in charge, trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) doesn’t believe in him. He later even tells Rocky why: because when he was younger, he could have taken a chance to be a great boxer, but he just became Gazzo’s loan shark. But that’s more than Rocky can say for his friend Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), whose sister Adrian (Talia Shire) has sparked an interest in Rocky.
So we see Rocky’s got a complicated life, with a lot of ups and downs—but mostly downs. But outside of Rocky’s personal life, we meet world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), a character who was apparently modeled after Muhammad Ali. Creed was scheduled to fight a heavyweight contender on January 1, 1976, to celebrate America’s bicentennial, but the contender had to drop out, and now Creed has no one to fight. But Creed gets an idea: find an up-and-coming boxer, ask him to fight Creed, and put on the fight as a giant spectacle of giving a hopeful boxer a chance at the title. …Of course, Creed thinks there’s no chance for anyone to beat him, let alone last a couple rounds with him in the ring.
But soon, Creed and the people working for him find Rocky Balboa’s name in a directory, along with his nickname: “The Italian Stallion”. The name sounds epic enough for Creed, and soon Rocky is contacted. Rocky, at this point, has started dating Adrian but has also been practically disowned by Mickey. He assumes at first that Creed is looking for sparring partners, but when he is asked to fight him on January 1, he has a hard time taking up the offer. But the promoter, George Jergens (Thayer David) convinces him that taking the offer would be symbolic of taking a chance in the land of opportunity.
So Rocky accepts, and as he trains, he goes through more ups and downs. He has a final argument with Mickey, but Mickey eventually becomes Rocky’s manager and trainer. Paulie, jealous of Rocky’s success, comes home drunk one night and almost assaults Rocky and Adrian there. And Rocky is tormented by the idea that no one really cares who he is, as he talks to Adrian one night at his apartment:
ADRIAN: You worked so hard.
ROCKY: That don't matter. 'Cause I was nobody before.
ADRIAN: Don't say that.
ROCKY: Oh, come on, Adrian, it's true. I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinking, it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, see, and that bell rings and I'm still standing, I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.
For those of you who know as little about boxing as I did, “going the distance” means lasting the entire fifteen rounds in a boxing match without being knocked out. And by determination, Rocky fights Apollo Creed in Philadelphia on January 1, 1976, and fights him for the entire fifteen rounds. They are both knocked out a couple times, but they both get back up and keep fighting. And once it’s over, Rocky and Adrian embrace, knowing that Rocky has been able to do something so great and make himself more than “just another bum from the neighborhood”.
I’ve always been inspired by this story, but I think also that there’s a spiritual truth beyond what “Rocky” says. Rocky is able to prove something to himself by going the entire match with Apollo—by doing something, he makes a name for himself. But the mystery is what God provides is that we don’t have to do anything to receive God’s grace—we just have to believe and have faith.
Ephesians 2:8-10 is a great passage that describes the balance of faith and deeds that Christians need to have in our lives: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Praise God that we don’t need to do anything by our own will in order to prove something to ourselves—God loves us already, and all we have to do is trust Him! That, to me, is one of the most important things we can do to “run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24b).