Keep Moving Forward: Lessons From The Rocky Franchise – PT. I
Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa are indelibly etched in the American zeitgeist; there’s no one that hasn’t at least heard of the Rocky franchise. If you’re like me, then these movies were a part of your childhood and they hold a special place in your heart.
Who didn’t immediately start doing push-ups during the training montages? The soundtrack, especially Survivor’s Eye of The Tiger is on every gym rat’s playlist (and if it’s not, what’s wrong with you?).
Last November marked the 40th anniversary of Rocky. While many people regard these films as mindless popcorn flicks–and they certainly have value in that regard because they are very entertaining–I believe that there’s much more to them.
Because there were so many movies, and so many lessons we can learn from them all, this post will be the first installment of an eight-part series, with new segments being published weekly.
Let’s get started with the original Rocky from 1976.
Sylvester Stallone wrote the first installment, 1976’s Rocky, in three-and-a-half days. He believed in it so much that, that when he shopped it around to movies studios, the broke writer/actor turned down every deal that wouldn’t allow him to play the part of the never-was pugilist. This was his once-in-a-lifetime shot, and he wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers… or boxing gloves.
He made the right decision.
It was a decision that irrevocably changed the course of his life; after this movie, he would go on to become a household name and one of the most beloved action stars of his generation. More importantly, his portrayal of Rocky Balboa would touch the lives of millions of people for decades to come.
Much like its namesake boxer, this movie was an underdog which went on to stun the critics by winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976. In it, we’re introduced to Rocky Balboa, a club fighter from the mean streets of Philadelphia.
Apollo Creed, the World Heavyweight Champion, plans to fight in Philadelphia as a tribute to the U.S. Bicentennial. Five weeks before the match, his opponent has to bow out, leaving Apollo in need of a replacement. After failing to book any of the current contenders for the title, he decided to take a shot on Rocky Balboa, because he liked his moniker, “The Italian Stallion,” and the fact that Rocky was a left-handed fighter; they were mirror opposites, of different races and fighting styles, which Apollo thought would be great for marketing and ticket sales.
“Together We Fill Gaps.”
In addition to the main storyline, we’re also introduced to a few more characters who’ll appear regularly in the series: Adrian, the main love interest; Pauly, Adrian’s alcoholic and abusive older brother; and Mickey, who plays the role of Rocky’s boxing coach and mentor.
I like to think of each of these characters as a representation of the people in our lives. Let’s look at each of them more closely.
On one side, we have Paulie. He and Rocky were friends, and the friendship worked so long as Rocky continued on his path to nowhere. The same was true of Paulie’s relationship with Adrian. Once Rocky and Adrian started improving and wanting more for themselves, Paulie became increasingly bitter. Throughout the entire franchise, Rocky’s continued success was a constant reminder of his own failures.
At the same time, Paulie couldn’t resist being inspired by Rocky; their relationship was chaotic, but ultimately based on mutual respect. Paulie’s life also served as a cautionary tale for Rocky; an ever-present reminder of how he could end up.
Then we have Adrian. She sees something in Rocky that no one else sees, maybe not even himself. In turn, he helps her to come out of her shell. Her support gave him the confidence he needed to take his training more seriously. This is a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship, where both parties benefit equally from their partnership.
“Mighty” Mick Goldmill was Rocky’s boxing trainer. Mick plays the role of the mentor, employing tough love to get Rocky to fulfill his potential. But Mick can only give back as much as Rocky was willing to put in. Once Balboa committed to his training, the value that he was able to extract from Mick was priceless. It’s important to find mentors who believe in us, but they can’t fight for us. Only you can do the work.
Rocky had no family to speak of, so these supporting characters became his family. They all loved Rocky and had his best interest at heart. Having said that, each of these characters tried to talk Rocky out of pursuing his goals for various reasons throughout the course of the franchise. These characters and themes continue to recur throughout the series; no matter what heights Rocky achieved or how old he got, naysayers and supporters were always around.
“Apollo Creed vs. The Italian Stallion… Sounds Like A Damn Monster Movie!”
After five weeks of training, which consisted of running in the streets of Philly before the sun came up, hitting sides of beef in a meat locker, and old-school boxing training, Rocky was ready for the biggest fight of his life.
Rocky emptied himself in the ring. And he lost by decision, lasting 15 rounds with the champ.
In life, sometimes things are out of your control. Apollo Creed was just too much for Rocky this time around.
Sometimes you give it your all and you still lose.
There’s no shame in that.
You might have another chance to redeem yourself, but even if you don’t, you’ll walk away without the what-ifs: “What if I would have trained harder?” “What if I would have dieted better?” “What if I would have worked harder?” Even if you lose, the worst case scenario is that you walk away better than you started. That’s what matters.
Failure can also be a matter of perspective. Rocky’s real goal was to go the distance with Apollo, something no one had ever done before. Losing wasn’t what worried him; his drive came from a deeper place. He had to prove to himself that he “wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood.” And, in that, he succeeded.
He had to become a different person in order just to last 15 rounds with Apollo. It’s not always what you achieve, but who you become in the process of trying to achieve that matters most.
“All I Wanted To Do… Was Prove I Was No Bum.”
The film didn’t have a happy ending; neither does life, sometimes. Rocky was completely satisfied with the results of the fight because he gave it his all.
One of the reasons I believe these movies resonate with so many people is because people can identify with various aspects of its protagonist. It’s my belief that the most important aspect–the one that resonates with everyone–is the common theme across the entire franchise: the desire to prove yourself against all odds and fulfill your potential.
The franchise also strongly highlights the need for community. For most of us, that’s our friends and family. But just because your friends and family love you doesn’t mean that they’ll support your goals. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite; as you chase your goals, you’ll notice that not everyone will happy for you. There are people in your life you just can’t get rid of; instead, surround yourself with people who are like-minded, and will help you be better. You might find these people at your local gym, or even on the internet. Choose your associates wisely.
The Final Bell
Over the last 40 years, we’ve had seven Rocky films, each containing the wisdom of an aging Sylvester Stallone, channeled through the vehicle of an equally aging Rocky Balboa. The lessons we can take from the Rocky franchise are applicable not just in regard to training, but in the boxing ring of life.
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