Rocky is one of the most enduring characters in all of cinema – if not all of sport. Starting in 1976, the character has been around nearly four decades at this point, and is as synonymous with the name “Sylvester Stallone” as “Rambo” or “mumbling.” With him now appearing in his seventh film, and already having been the lead in six, the character is the most well-known boxing character in cinema history. With Creed coming out this week, it’s time to take a look back at the history of Rocky, and either remind or catch up viewers on what happened in the earlier films.


Directed by John G. Avildsen. Produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Written by Sylvester Stallone. Release date: December 3, 1976.

The Characters

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A loan shark enforcer and semi-pro boxer who is given an unlikely shot at the World Heavyweight Championship.

Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire): Rocky’s love interest. Returns in the next four Rocky movies.

Paulie Pennino (Burt Young): Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend. Returns in future movies.

Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): The current World Heavyweight Champion. The film’s antagonist. Returns in future movies.

Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith): A former boxer. Owns the local gym. Becomes Rocky’s trainer. Returns in future movies.

The Plot

Rocky Balboa is going nowhere in life. Despite making a bit of money boxing, and working as an enforcer for a local loan shark, he’s drifting through. However, he’s about to be given the shot of a lifetime when the opponent for World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed, is unable to compete. Creed decides to give an unknown a shot at the title. Rocky is the one on whom he decides.

Rocky then has to train harder than he ever has before. When not training, he begins to date Adrian and befriends her brother, Paulie. Rocky does not believe he can win the fight, but will be content to not be knocked out. After weeks of training, the New Year’s Day boxing match begins.

The match goes better for Rocky than anyone – including himself – expected. He not only survives in the first few rounds but is dominant. Creed learns from this and starts taking the fight more seriously. As it progresses, it becomes a fight of skill vs. guts. The match goes the distance, ending after 15 rounds of hard-fought action. Creed wins by split decision, but Rocky captured the hearts of the audience and gained some self-respect and dignity for himself.

Is It Any Good?

Rocky is one of the boxing movies of all time, which is kind of funny as, looking at it in retrospect, its boxing scenes aren’t actually that good. A limited budget and the 1976 release date couldn’t have helped these. It’s also incredibly hokey at times, especially in the cynical times in which we live. In spite of this, it tells a compelling underdog story that thankfully doesn’t end with a complete victory for its hero; it instead finds a moral victory at its core, something arguably more important. Sylvester Stallone, who also wrote the film, turns in what’s probably the best performance of his career. It’s not the best boxing movie ever, but it may be the most iconic.

Rocky II

Directed and written by Sylvester Stallone. Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Release date: June 15, 1979.

After making more than 200x its budget worldwide, it only made sense for Rocky to get a sequel. So, just three years later, Rocky II was released, this time With a bigger budget and the primary cast returning. Like with real boxing, it was promoted as a rematch between two men who put on a show for the ages. Rocky vs. Apollo Creed #2 was about to be shown…

The Characters

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A previously unknown boxer who went toe-to-toe with the World Heavyweight Champion.

Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire): Rocky’s love interest, who now becomes his wife. Returns from Rocky and continues to appear in the next three films.

Paulie Pennino (Burt Young): Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend. Returns in future movies.

Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): The film’s antagonist. The current World Heavyweight Champion. Won by split decision against Rocky in the first film. Returns in future movies.

Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith): A former boxer. Owns the local gym. Becomes Rocky’s trainer. Returns in Rocky III.

The Plot

After a grueling match against Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa finds himself so injured that he decides to retire from the world of boxing. With his take of the fight, he marries Adrian and lives in relative luxury – at least, for a little while. His earnings eventually run out, and he struggles with finding employment. Meanwhile, Creed attempts to goad him into a rematch, which Rocky begins to seriously contemplate thanks to his recent woes with money.

Despite doctors suggesting against it, and Adrian not wanting him to, Rocky begins training for another fight. Adrian, now pregnant, finds herself into a coma after having a fight with her brother and having her child prematurely. Rocky stays at her bedside the entire time she’s in the coma. When she awakens, and sees her child, she gives Rocky permission to have a rematch with Creed. Rocky trains, but knows that he has to fight by leading with his weaker hand in order to protect his injured eye.

Creed has made it clear that he wants to knock out Rocky instead of winning on points. He tries to do so for 15 full rounds, just like the first time, but Rocky refuses to give up. In the 15th round, Rocky lands a solid blow that knocks Creed off his feed, but Rocky falls, too. Both men try to reach their feet before the 10 count. Rocky manages to just at the last second, winning the fight and becoming the new World Heavyweight Champion.

Is It Any Good?

Rocky II is an improvement over the first film in one area: the boxing scenes. The fight is more impactful, the cinematography is crisper, and they do a much better job of actually boxing than in the first film. Sylvester Stallone took over as director for this film – and would remain so for three of the next four installments – and he proved a major success in the most pivotal moments. The story is, at times, kind of lame, and much of it feels like a retread from the first film, but it’s still quite fun, and it’s not like anyone would have gotten tired of Rocky as a character yet. That comes later.

Rocky III

Directed and written by Sylvester Stallone. Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Release date: May 28, 1982.

Rocky II, like its predecessor, made a ton of money, still captured the hearts of millions – although, like, some number fewer than the original – and was overall pretty solid, so, three years later, Rocky III was released. Still written and directed by, and also starring, Sylvester Stallone, and bringing back several of the main cast, it felt like the franchise had a formula down and was going to stick to it.

The Characters

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A previously unknown boxer who went toe-to-toe with the World Heavyweight Champion in his first match against him, later winning the title in the rematch.

Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire): Rocky’s love interest, wife, and mother of his child.

Paulie Pennino (Burt Young): Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend. Returns in future movies.

James “Clubber” Lang (Mr. T): The film’s antagonist. A ruthless up-and-coming boxer who wants to defeat Rocky for the championship.

Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): The former World Heavyweight Champion, he becomes Rocky’s trainer in Rocky III.

Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith): A former boxer. Owns the local gym.

The Plot

After beating Apollo Creed in the 15th round of their second match, Rocky Balboa became the World Heavyweight Champion. In the three years since then, he’s had several title defences and now enjoys both fame and wealth. But after being taunted by a man named James “Clubber” Lang, a match between the two is scheduled. The day of the match, Mickey, Rocky’s trainer, has a heart attack. An unfocused and cocky Rocky fights Lang and loses in the second round via knockout. Mickey then passes away.

At ringside was Creed, who offers to train Rocky for the rematch – in exchange for a favor. The training doesn’t initially go well, as Rocky is still distraught by Mickey’s death, but after some help from Adrian, he snaps out of it and continues on with his training.

During the rematch, Rocky shows off a new strategy: wearing Lang out by taunting him and taking his abuse. After Lang falls for it, Rocky lands a series of shots which knock out his opponent. Rocky once again becomes champion. Some time later, Rocky and Apollo have a rematch in private, which was the favor that Apollo wanted in exchange for his help. They’re now friendly with one another, instead of the enemies they once were.

Is It Any Good?

Putting Rocky in the position that Creed was in the first film, as well as adding on the emotional drama that comes from Mickey’s death, allowed Rocky III to be still worthwhile, although it’s a film that is only moderately successful. It’s harder to become invested, largely because it still winds up being more of the same. Even though Rocky starts as the overconfident champion, the crux of the film still puts him in the underdog role, which is where he always is. He wins by taking a lot of abuse, something else he often does. And I, for one, really wanted Rocky/Creed #3, which the film teases but then fades to black before it commences.

Rocky IV

Directed and written by Sylvester Stallone. Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Release date: November 27, 1985.

1985 was right in the middle of the Cold War, and movies were not immune from discussing the subject. Rocky IV, therefore, pit its hero, Rocky Balboa, against a Soviet, Ivan Drago, in a fight for the international superiority. It’s a good idea, although the execution wasn’t exactly the greatest. Still, it continued the trend of the Rocky franchise making a ton of money, and it remained the highest grossing sports movie for more than two decades.

The Characters

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A two-time World Heavyweight Champion who is married to Adrian and is now best friends with his former rival, Apollo Creed.

Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire): Rocky’s love interest, wife, and mother of his child.

Paulie Pennino (Burt Young): Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend.

Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren): The best boxer out of the Soviet Union who challenges Rocky in an attempt to prove Soviet superiority.

Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): The former World Heavyweight Champion, he is now Rocky’s best friend.

The Plot

In the Soviet Union, a boxer named Ivan Drago has been making huge waves. He is being called the best in the world. Apollo Creed, a patriot at heart and still believing that he’s a great boxer, challenges Drago to a match. Rocky Balboa, now best friends with Creed, agrees to train him. The match takes place, and Drago decimates Creed. Creed refuses to let his team throw in the towel, which proves to be a fatal decision. One large punch knocks Creed to the ground and kills him. Drago shows no remorse, angering Rocky to the point where he agrees to an unsanctioned match against Drago that will take place in the Soviet Union.

Their training and dietary regimens are completely different. Rocky trains with low-tech methods, while Drago has a team of doctors and trainers, who give him steroids and the greatest equipment available. Rocky has good old-fashioned determination, bolstered by an appearance from Adrian, who flies to the Soviet Union to show her support.

The match eventually takes place, which goes the full 15 rounds and ends with Rocky knocking out Drago. He gives a speech about how everyone should respect each of them, which the Soviet home crowd applauds. If only an actual war could be settled so easily.

Is It Any Good?

It’s impossible to make Rocky IV be anything other than a predictable and insufferably patriotic movie. It’s an American movie in which a Cold War metaphor is being played out in a boxing ring; you know exactly who’s going to win. Even with Drago being made out to be the threat that he is – and killing Creed certainly makes him credible – you know Rocky’s walking away from this one victorious. Add in a lot of silliness and cheese – more than usual – and Rocky IV becomes the first film in the series that isn’t actually worth seeing. It’s still a ways away from being downright bad, but if you stopped at III and skipped a couple of entries, nobody’s going to be too upset.

Rocky V

Directed by John G. Avildsen. Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Written by Sylvester Stallone. Release date: November 16, 1990.

The movie that killed Rocky – figuratively speaking – Rocky V was released five years after the fourth film and saw the return of director John G. Avildsen, who directed the first film in the franchise, winning an Oscar for the effort. Well, it turns out that may have been a fluke, because Rocky V was so bad that it ended the series for a decade and a half. It’s a pivotal film in the franchise only because of how it almost killed it, and because it’s so laughably bad that it’s the type of movie that you watch with friends and make fun of it for its entire running time.

The Characters

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A two-time World Heavyweight Champion who is married to Adrian.

Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire): Rocky’s love interest, wife, and mother of his child.

Paulie Pennino (Burt Young): Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend.

Robert Balboa (Sage Stallone): Rocky and Adrian’s child.

Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison): An up-and-coming boxer whom Rocky takes under his wing.

The Plot

After beating Ivan Drago in Moscow, Rocky returns to America and learns that his accountant had squandered all of his money on bad real estate deals, and had failed to pay his taxes. Rocky and his family are, once again, broke. He is told he can fix this by boxing a few more times, but doctors inform him that he’s sustained permanent brain damage and cannot fight. Rocky retires, auctions off most of his possessions, and finds himself back in his old neighborhood.

One of the only things he keeps is a gym – Mickey’s (his former trainer) old gym. He begins to train a young man named Tommy, who becomes his sole focus. His son feels neglected and starts acting out as a result. Tommy eventually leaves Rocky, winning the World Heavyweight Championship, but receiving little admiration from the audience. Rocky begins to heal his life at home, but is taunted into a street fight by Tommy after Tommy punches Paulie at the local bar.

Tommy almost wins the fight, knocking Rocky down, but not out. Rocky gets back up and knocks out Tommy. The next day, Rocky and his son take a jog, because their relationship has been mended. Rocky is now done fighting forever, or so he thinks.

Is It Any Good?

So, with terrible writing, Sage Stallone being an awful child actor – although the adult acting isn’t much better – and taking the series in a direction that nobody wanted, Rocky V is ultimately pretty terrible. Whose bright idea was it to have Rocky never have an actual boxing match? It continues to be overly sentimental and cheesy, but this time without at least the promise of a big boxing match at the end. The family drama doesn’t work because these characters are paper-thin – even after four previous movies – and it’s all laughable. I wasn’t kidding when I said it’s something to watch with friends and laugh at.

Rocky Balboa

Directed and written by Sylvester Stallone. Produced by Charles Winkler, David Winkler, Billy Chartoff, and Kevin King Templeton. Release date: December 20, 2006.

Despite Rocky V existing, Sylvester Stallone isn’t one to let his franchises die. So, 16 years later, he wrote and directed Rocky Balboa, the new promised conclusion of the franchise – until, of course, Creed was announced. Balboa sees an older Rocky come out of retirement to take on the current champion, because if there’s anyone who could do that, it’s Rocky.

The Characters

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A two-time World Heavyweight Champion who now owns a restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian.

Paulie Pennino (Burt Young): Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s friend.

Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia): Rocky and Adrian’s child, now an adult.

Marie (Geraldine Hughes): A woman Rocky befriends, and whom he met over 30 years earlier.

Stephenson (James Francis Kelly III): Marie’s son.

Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver): The film’s antagonist. A cocky World Heavyweight Champion.

The Plot

Picking up with Rocky Balboa enjoying his retirement as the owner and operator of a local restaurant, a computer boxing simulation shown on the television puts him against the current champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon. Rocky is declared victorious. This inspires him to take up boxing again, completely ignoring the irreversible brain damage he was told he had in the last film. Meanwhile, Dixon’s camp sends out feelers in an attempt to see if Rocky will fight him, as Dixon has never faced a real challenge. Rocky reluctantly agrees.

Rocky’s son, Robert, is now a mid-ranking corporate employee and continues to feel like he’s living in his father’s shadow. He’s not okay with his father’s comeback, initially, but eventually concedes, quitting his job to be in his father’s corner. Despite being given very little chance by anyone, Rocky trains hard and gets ready for an exhibition match against the World Heavyweight Champion.

The match comes and is billed “Will vs. Skill,” as Rocky’s skills have clearly diminished with age, but his will has never been called into question. Rocky and Dixon go the distance, and the match ends without a clear victor. Rocky leaves the ring before the result is announced, happy enough that he was able to stand his ground – mirroring that of the first film. Dixon wins by split decision, but nobody cares.

Is It Any Good?

Rocky Balboa is the second best movie in the franchise, which is astounding given that it takes place over a decade and a half after its predecessor, and because it’s basically just telling the same story we’ve seen over and over again, but this time with nods to the earlier films in the series – while completely ignoring Rocky V, for obvious reasons. But with some really solid boxing and by making Rocky feel like a genuine underdog again, it’s actually pretty entertaining. The father-son relationship is still terrible, but this is a more thoughtful Rocky movie, and it turns out that giving the character time and space to breathe was enough to make him feel fresh again.

Creed (Preview)

Directed by Ryan Coogler. Produced by Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Sylvester Stallone, and Kevin King Templeton. Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington. Release date: November 25, 2015.

Creed is perhaps the smartest idea one could have when wanting to continue the Rocky franchise. The character is too old to realistically continue his boxing career, so instead of that, we get to follow him as a mentor to the son of his former best friend, Apollo Creed. We get to re-live that relationship, but with the younger Creed. Directed by Ryan Coogler, reuniting himself with Michael B. Jordan after Fruitvale Station, this actually isn’t a bad idea – something I never thought I’d say upon hearing that yet another Rocky movie was coming.

The Characters

Adonis Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan): A talented boxer and the son of Apollo Creed.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone): A former two-time heavyweight boxing champion. Now retired and running a restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian.

Bianca (Tessa Thompson): A singer who becomes Adonis’ love interest.

Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad): Apollo Creed’s widow and becomes the foster mother of Adonis.

“Pretty” Rick Conian (Tony Bellew): A British boxer whom Adonis wishes to defeat.

Why Should You Care?

Assuming you’ve been following the Rocky franchise since the beginning, you likely care about the relationship that Rocky and Apollo Creed formed. Their rival-to-friends story was one of the best subplots of the original four films. Getting to explore that further in this film is one of the key selling points, at least for me. We’ll get revelations about its past history through some of the dialogue, while also getting to see Rocky and Adonis forging their own relationship.

Ryan Coogler’s first feature-length film was Fruitvale Station, a film which turned Michael B. Jordan into a legitimate star. They re-team here for Creed, which will hopefully allow Jordan to move past a couple of unbelievably awful movies. Jordan is certainly talented, and this will be a film in which he can show off that talent. It also might serve as the first real acting Stallone has done since … probably Rocky Balboa, actually.

Finally, the boxing genre might be predictable, but when done well produces some of the best sports movies we have. The first Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Fighter are all great, and Creed certainly has the talent behind the camera to sit among them. It promises to have throwbacks to the previous movies, more than a few heartfelt moments, and hopefully some great boxing scenes. It takes a lot to get someone like me genuinely interested in a sports movie, but Creed looks like one that you shouldn’t miss.


If you want more of Matthew “Marter” Parkinson, you can follow him on the Twitter @Martertweet and check out his weekly movie podcast.

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