My friend Kris Jenson reviews films and video games for the Weekly Dig, a Boston-based entertainment magazine and newspaper. He might very well know more about movies than I know about sports. His ongoing project is to tackle the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movies” list. When he reviewed “Rocky” earlier this week, I thought it might make for excellent cross-bloggery if I did the same.
“Rocky” (1976) is the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a past-his-prime boxer almost arbitrarily given a title shot against reigning champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). The film wound up being the start of a six-film journey that would see Rocky become world champion, make Mr. T look so foolish he’d pity himself, single-handedly end communism, and take part in possibly the worst sequel ever made.
A Work of Fiction More Honest Than Most “True Story” Sports Films
As much as I love sports, I don’t care for most sports movies. For every “Miracle,” a true story well-made and faithful to the real event, there’s a “The Blindside,” a “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” or a “Remember the Titans.” The first film was so sappy it could cover pancakes. The second was plain-old stupid. The third was well-written and well-acted, it just has nothing to do with the actual 1971 T.C. Williams football team. The real Titans outscored their opponents 338-38 in their 13 games, shutting out their opponents nine times. Their state championship game was a blowout, and star linebacker Gerry Bertier was paralyzed two months after they had won the championship, not before. Lovely movie, but it has nothing to do with reality. I can’t stand cheese, stupidity or fabrication in sports films, leaving very few good ones.
“Rocky” is one such good one. The story may be fiction, but the portrayal of the life of a boxer rings true. There’s a moment of triumph over adversity, of course, but first comes a brutal portrayal of exactly how much adversity the professional athlete faces. Rocky’s life is crap. He lives in crappy apartment. He has a crappy job, and he’s not even good at it. He has one friend, a drunk (Burt Young). He’s attracted to a pet shop employee (Talia Shire, whose character is the sister of Young’s), but he at first he only likes her because she “fills gaps.” Rocky gave his youth to a sport and got nothing out of it. Only “The Wrestler” (another sports-movie favorite) presents a bleaker take on the life of a professional athlete, and that’s just because Mickey Rourke’s character actually achieved superstardom, then lost it.
Proving Oneself, but to Whom?
More than any other sport, boxing is littered with stories like Rocky’s. The massive profligation of amateur boxing clubs, coupled with the massive corruption of the professional world, created generations of small-time boxers with big-time dreams. And in pursuing but never achieving those dreams, hundreds of would-be professional athletes washed out into the world, disheveled and dejected. Their passion burns strong, but the realization that their passion brought them nothing leaves them broken and depressed.
Rocky is such an athlete. He doesn’t believe he can beat Creed (whose frontal shot in the dressing room before the fight is one of the more subtly unnerving moments in the film, since before then he’d only worn loose-fitting and fancy clothes). All he wants is validation that, given better breaks in his career, he could have had what Creed has. His goal is just to finish the fight, to not get embarrassed, to make a good accounting of himself.
Sports movies are almost always about someone proving something to someone else. “The Fighter” is about Mickey Ward proving his value to his own family. “Any Given Sunday” is about an old coach proving his coaching style can still work with modern media-savvy athlete. And countless sports films boil down to black people proving things to white people that white people probably should have already known. Rocky is about a boxer proving something to himself, and that difference is why it stands out from both the majority of sports films and the five other “Rocky” films.
What Happened to Boxing?
In his review, Kris mentions that all three sports films to make the AFI’s list are boxing films: “Rocky,” “On the Waterfront” and “Raging Bull.” Oddly enough, my professors at BU say that the best sports writing is always boxing writing. There’s something about boxing’s fusion of athleticism and strength – the dance and the war – that makes it appealing to Americans. Baseball may be the most nostalgic, and basketball the most glamorous, but boxing is the most romantic. Or at least it used to be. The one thing “Rocky Balboa” gets right (also the only thing “Rocky V” comes close to getting right) is the death of boxing in America. So what happened?
Three things killed boxing’s popularity: corruption, bad competition, and Muhammad Ali. A system as rife with mob influence, as clearly built to keep a few fighters at the top and prevent the majority from ever advancing, could’t hope to survive. Too much money changed hands under the table, and people lost faith in every athlete’s actual prowess. No one could win a match without people assuming, “well, boxing’s fixed, right?” The boxing commission became a snake eating its own tail, and eventually it devoured itself.
Adding to the problem was the lack of quality heavyweight competitors. Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier, and the results were the “Fight of the Century,” the “Rumble in the Jungle,” and the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Three of the greatest boxing matches ever, only made possible because two transcendent boxers existed at the same time. There have never been two top fighters in the heavyweight division at the same time since then. Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield – no heavyweight champion since Ali has had a true competitor to battle against. That might have meant easier fights, but it also meant less interesting viewing. And with the increasing costs of Pay-per-View boxing matches, no one wanted to shell out for a match that could not provide enough bang for the buck.
Ali’s boxing career marked its peak in popularity, but what happened to Ali after began its death spiral. You think concussions are affecting how fans view football? How do you think people felt watching the degeneration of the greatest boxer that ever lived? People realized that every blow to the head they cheered for caused a bit more brain damage, erased a few more memories and took a few more years from the recipient’s life. America realized it was watching people kill each other, not fight each other. And they weren’t going to die with honor. Boxing reduced its athletes to brain-damaged, amnesiac, emotionally depressed wrecks who were fated to suffer through decades of retirement, all in the name of entertainment. Very few people can stomach watching an execution, and many realized that boxing was just a very slow execution. America couldn’t watch anymore, so they simply turned it off.