Rocky loses, but he wins. It’s the most crucial part of the overall story of Rocky Balboa, and one that often gets overlooked. At the end of the original “Rocky,” Balboa stands battered, having battled through 15 rounds of hell against the world champion Apollo Creed, and is declared the loser by split decision. But what’s most important to him is embracing the woman he loves. That’s where the final notes of triumph really hit home. Here is a man who refused to go down, who took the world champion the distance, and who has love and happiness in his future.
The later films would make sure that Rocky rose above and triumphed, becoming world champion by beating Creed in the rematch, but the heart of the Rocky series lies in that one moment. Winning through losing. Stallone specifically called back to that in “Rocky Balboa” thirty years later, in a monologue where Rocky states, “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”
The original film was a cinematic phenomenon when it was released in 1976. Made for less than a million dollars, the movie would go on to gross over $220 million at the box office, or in the neighborhood of a billion dollars in today’s money. It even won the Oscar for Best Picture of that year, putting Stallone on the map as a legit movie star.
Watched again today, the original “Rocky” still has a motivational power that few sports movies— or movies in general— can match. The film takes place on ground level, a working-class view of life in Philadelphia that still makes it one of the city’s great cultural touchstones. It may feel cliche nowadays in its rags-to-riches sports story, but that’s only because “Rocky” set the template for what was to follow.
“Rocky” is available for streaming on HBO Max.