Rocky Balboa: Old Underdog has New Tricks

By Benn Schulberg


Rocky Balboa: Old Underdog has New Tricks

There have been many ageing champions who’ve captured public appeal during the twilight of their careers, but no fighter has gained more recognition for his battles in the ring than the immortal “Italian Stallion.”  Forget about the real-life oldies like George Foreman or Jersey Joe Walcott who remarkably won titles at the ages of forty-five and thirty-seven, respectively.  They were young men compared to boxing’s most beloved character, Rocky Balboa, who now in his mid-fifties and far-removed from his glory days, has decided to lace up the gloves one more time against current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). 

The bout is a moneymaking ploy scheduled as an exhibition, but Rocky’s sadness over the loss of his wife drives him to train as if he was contending for the title. (Don’t worry I won’t give away the ending.)  Remember though, this is Hollywood where fairytales are reality.

Appropriately titled Rocky Balboa for delving deeper into the man himself and the psychological battles he’s facing, rather than his blood and guts ring performances, this film succeeds in providing a fresh look at a worn-out franchise.  Similar to the 1976 original in its gritty subtlety, this latest film created a sense of both nostalgia and novelty that allowed it to give off a sentimental, yet refreshing feeling.

Written, directed, and acted as always by Sylvestor Stallone, this sixth (and hopefully last) segment of the Rocky saga that first hit Philadelphia thirty-years ago is without a doubt a vanity piece with even a bit of self-parody mixed in that relates to his own ups and downs in his career  Credit Stallone though for a job-well-done for as much as I tried to dislike this film due to its burned-out character and absurd storyline, I came away realizing that the underdog story never quite gets old no matter how old you are when you’re down. 

Rocky mourns his wife’s death and faces his own mortality as an ex-fighter, suffering quietly as he tells his war stories to adoring patrons at his restaurant.  He’s a lost sole, caught in the past, and unable to find his way back, even with the help of his best friend, Paulie, who grows impatient with his constant grief.  Ironically, getting a fresh start involves going back to the past to find the courage necessary to climb up the steps of the squared circle to once and for all say goodbye.

There are significant flaws of course in the latest Rocky installment that includes Stallone moving more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than a former fighter and the fact that the script never truly resolved the conflict between Rocky and his son.  In terms of dialogue, you wonder what you’re doing in the theatre at times when you hear laughable Rocky-talk that makes you gawk at Stallone’s choice of words such as when he talks to brother-in-law, Paulie (Bert Young).  “I think I wanna, like, fight.  Nothing big.  Just small things, like local.” 

The film sticks to factual details of the boxing event itself, using real-life commentators and journalists to play themselves behind the Las Vegas backdrop, even adding Joe Cortez as referee, Lou Dibella as promoter, and Bert Sugar as an analyst, to make you feel as if you were preparing to watch an actual fight.  The bout itself though takes you back to Hollywood fantasy land as you witness an old man go toe-to-toe with a young champion in typical Rocky-style action.  Don’t mistake the fight scene for any semblance of reality, but do hold on to the symbolic meaning that Rocky portrays in his search to free himself from his pain and suffering by finding the courage to face his biggest challenge in the ring. 

Stallone includes enough wit and authentic melancholy in his script to grab the audience’s attention and take us for a new ride down that same memory lane.  We meet “Little Marie” (Geraldine Hughes) on Rocky’s latest journey, who becomes his confidant along the way, and his son who’s now in his twenties, struggling to emerge from his father’s shadow and deal with the grief over the death of his mother, “Adrian.”  This film somehow found a way around the return of both an ageing star and a long-retired character to make for an entertaining story that played on the basic emotions of our human nature that we can all relate to on some level. 

Considering the sad performance Rocky V gave us it’s no hard task for this latest version to seem like a winner.  Yet, it deserves its own credit and don’t be surprised if you even find yourself cheering on the now arthritic former champion.  William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer summed it up best, “After a very shaky start, the film gradually overcomes our resistance, satisfies our credulity, wins us over and gives us an inspirational high.”


Boxingtalk would like to welcome aboard Benn Schulberg: Benn Schulberg grew up inside the world of boxing and has been a student of the sport for as long as he can remember. He’s been well schooled in the art of boxing journalism by his father, novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who has written about the sport dating back to the 1930’s, becoming one of the preeminent boxing writers of his time.

By the age of 27, accompanying his father to the press section, he’s covered all the biggest and most memorable fights of the last decade, including the Bowe-Holyfield, Tyson-Holyfield, and Lewis-Holyfield bouts, the Hopkins-Trinidad and Hopkins-De La Hoya fights, the all-time great Castillo-Corrales war, and most recently, Pacquiao-Morales III. In 1992, he attended his first fight, following in the footsteps of his father, who at the same early age was taken to fights every week at the Hollywood legion by Benn’s grandfather to see the likes of Henry Armstrong, Archie Moore, and Jimmy McLarnin.

He has written for Fight Game, the International Boxing Digest, The Sunday Herald, and The Sweet Science.  He currently lives in New York City where he continues to cover major boxing events along with other activities.


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