16 Rounds With the Fights of the Rocky Cinematic Universe
by Lou Hare, Guilty Pleasures Host
I’ve seen all of the Rocky films more time than I can remember. As Creed II nears, re-watching the series or even its last entry, Creed, seems at best perfunctory and at worst a poor excuse for neglecting my family for a week. So in the interest of spicing things up, I thought it to be an interesting exercise to watch the entire series, with one caveat: I would watch ONLY the fight sequences. The RCU is mainly known for its climatic fight sequences, but what, if anything can be gleaned from watching those famous fights devoid of any context? Let’s find out:
Fight 1: Rocky Balboa vs. Spider Rico
Winner: Balboa (TKO – 2nd Round) | Length of Screen Time: 3:00
Pretty uninspiring start, but to be fair, that’s clearly by design. Rocky’s fighting style could be most charitably described as brawler. He even veers into dirty territory, with an illegal head butt. Certainly no glimmer of the boxer Rocky would become.
Fight 2: Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed
Winner: Creed (Judge’s Decision) | Length of Screen Time: 10:00
Crude camerawork aside, this is every bit the classic it’s celebrated as today. It also sets the template for pretty much every movie boxing match ever. Round 1 is dominated by one guy, Round 2, the other guy fights back and the round ends in a flurry, yadda yadda the next 12 rounds, final round. Yet there are a few surprises and gems along the way. Rocky’s surprise knockdown of Creed is an adrenaline shot punctuated by the cheering Philly audience in the local bar (remember
when Philly fans were endearing? OK,
me neither, but I digress…). Technically speaking, the fight tells a great story, with Creed sticking and moving, focusing mainly on head shots (a recurring theme in the series), while Balboa attacks Creed’s body. It’s also remarkable how much of the film’s story is captured during the fight sequence thanks to its many character moments, the best of which is Rocky getting up from what should be a final knockout. Rocky’s motioning to Apollo/cut to Apollo shaking his head in disbelief is the possibly the best moment in the entire series. Every character gets a moment like that, showing that fight scenes work best when they remember the characters that inhabit the sequence.
Fight 3: Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed II
Winner: Balboa (KO – 15th Round) | Length of Screen Time: 13:00
Rocky famously learns to fight right-handed for this fight, in an effort to protect the eye that was damaged in the first fight (“Cut me Mick”). This doesn’t really impact the rest of the fight, except at the end, when Mick encourages Rocky to return to fighting left-handed and Rocky refuses. The fight, much like the film itself, is content following the beats of the original fight, with a few role reversals (Apollo scores the 1st round knockdown this time). Watching this fight immediately after the first, the
sameness of the fight really brings the viewing experience down, with two exceptions: the introduction of slow motion during the round montage (a future staple of the franchise) and the final moments, which sees a double knock-down in the closing seconds, only for Rocky to get up at the count of 9.
Fight 4: Rocky Balboa vs. Multiple
Winner: Balboa (all KO) | Length of Screen Time: 4:00
The first of many fight montages, this is merely to show Rocky successfully defending his Heavyweight Championship while up and comer Clubber Lang waits for his shot. Not much else here, but shout-out to Big Yank Ball, possibly the best named character in the series.
Fight 5: Rocky Balboa vs. Thunderlips
Winner: Draw | Length of Screen Time: 5:00
Rocky agrees to participate in a charity exhibition with Professional Wrestler and Ultimate Male, Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan). What is unsure is whether or not Rocky did so thinking it would be a staged pro wrestling match (or “work” for us wrestling nerds) or an actual fight with a 300-lb psychopath (or “shoot”). The fight starts out with Rocky thinking the former then quickly going to the latter. Rocky is subject to Powerslams, Judo Throws and the dreaded leg drop, but somehow walks away unscathed. Not much as an
actual fight, but kudos to Hogan for show more offensive moves in these 5 minutes than his entire WWE run.
Fight 6: Rocky Balboa vs. Clubber Lang
Winner: Lang (KO – 2nd Round) | Length of Screen Time: 3:00
Rocky was a fool to step in with Clubber Lang, and thus he was pitied. Rocky is quickly and unceremoniously defeated thanks to non-stop bombs from Lang. Rocky is distracted by Mickey’s failing health, but mostly he is outmatched.
Fight 7: Rocky Balboa vs. Clubber Lang II
Winner: Balboa (KO – 3rd Round) | Length of Screen Time: 9:00
The first fight where context really matters. Rocky is almost a completely different fighter in this one, drawing Lang in and absorbing his blows until Lang is tired and ripe for the picking. Rocky also learns to trash talk, in what feels like an off-brand moment for the normally humble character. But the most shocking element of this fight? Rocky blocks! It took him a few films and a dozen or so fights to get there, but he finally figures out that by putting ones hands up, you can protect yourself from repeated blows to the
head, something that boxers typically avoid. Fans of CTE rest easy, it the last and only time we’ll see it.
Fight 8: Apollo Creed vs Ivan Drago
Winner: Ivan Drago (Murder – 2nd Round) | Length of Screen Time: 4:00
For years, I thought proceeding Apollo’s brutal in-ring death with a live James Brown performance was tonally off-putting. After watching this fight without it, it’s somehow even worse. The fight is quick and brutal, with Drago ignoring the referees attempts to break up the action (although he could’ve just rang the bell) and Rocky honoring Apollo’s wishes to not throw in the towel. But devoid of context, it feels more like a snuff film, proving the old adage true: everything is better with a little James Brown.
Fight 9: Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago
Winner: Balboa (KO – 15th Round) | Length of Screen Time: 13:00
The longest fight of the series is the one that looks least like an actual boxing match. Clearly thinking that blocking punches is for weak anti-patriotic cucks, Balboa lets the man that murdered his best friend tee off on his face at will for 15 rounds. Rocky is somehow able to absorb the punches of a man who creates more force than some compact cars. Rocky is able to cut Drago in the 2nd round, a sign that he is not as indestructible as once thought. This keeps Rocky in the fight until he is able to chop down his
foe like a tree in the mountains of Russia. As a boxing match, its trash, but as an action movie fight, it’s the best kind of trash.
Fight 10: Tommy Gunn vs. Multiple
Winner: Gunn (KO) | Length of Screen Time: 11:00
While I could never recommend Rocky V, if one must subject themselves to it, watching only the fight sequences might be the way to go. This 11-minute stretch of the film gives us the first fight of Rocky’s protégé, Tommy Gunn, 2 montages showing his ascension and scouting by the film’s villain, and best of all, none of the bullshit that weighs down the rest of the movie. It tells the story efficiently and with the best kind of generic early-90s hip-hop. Guys, do I like Rocky V now?
Fight 11: Tommy Gunn vs. Union Caine
Winner: Gunn (KO – 1st round) | Length of Screen Time: 2:00
Nope, I still don’t. Gunn wins with a Mike Tyson-esque performance against a paper champion while Rocky acts like a dope celebrating the win of the guy who just dumped him while his son is sitting right there.
Fight 12: Rocky Balboa vs. Tommy Gunn (Street Fight)
Winner: Balboa (KO) | Length of Screen Time: 6:00
I almost skipped over this one since it’s not technically a boxing match, but neither is the Thunderlips fight, so here we go (damn you, Hulk Hogan). Without the structure an actual boxing match provides, Director John G. Avildsen pulls every trick short of CGI to make something compelling out of this mess. (Slow-motion! Fast-motion! Flashback montages! Fever dreams! The ghost of Mickey!) Rocky has a few new tricks too, with drop-toe holds and leg sweeps that one must assume he picked up from Thunderlips. He still
hasn’t remembered how to block, which is odd for a man recently diagnosed with brain damage, but you do you, Rocky.
Fight 13: Rocky Balboa vs. Mason “The Line” Dixon
Winner: Dixon (Judge’s Decision) | Length of Screen Time: 12:00
HBO showcase it would be in real life. With that realism, however comes the commentary team that is almost unbearable with the scripted dialogue given to them. Jim Lampley does the best here, with Max Kellerman in the fanboy role and the always obnoxious Larry Merchant inexplicably moved from interviewer to color commentator. Still, considering the last real boxing match we’ve seen is in Rocky II, for boxing to be treated like an actual sport again feels like a revelation.
No fight on this list probably needs more context than this. How we go from Rocky being unable to fight to taking on the champ at age 60. It's quite the leap and I can’t imagine anyone walking into it cold without a few questions. The fight works way better than it has a right to, with Dixon breaking his hand early in the fight giving us a somewhat plausible reason as to why Rocky is able to hang with someone almost 40 years younger than him. It’s also the best looking fight, shot in HD and presented as the
Fight 14: Adonis Johnson vs. Unnamed
Winner: Johnson (KO – 1st Round) | Length of Screen Time: 40 seconds
The shortest fight of the franchise, a swift, efficient way of showing Adonis’s potential and rage.
Fight 15: Adonis Johnson vs. Leo “The Lion” Sporino
Winner: Johnson (KO – 2nd Round) | Length of Screen Time: 4:00
Easily the most visually impressive fight of the series. Ryan Coogler presents Adonis’ first major fight in a single, unbroken take. Story-wise, it covers the same ground Tommy Gunn’s first fight covers, but part of what made Creed great was its ability to take old tropes and present them in a way that made them feel new. The fight itself is necessary, if not outstanding, but in Coogler’s hands, it’s exhilarating.
Fight 16: Adonis Creed vs. “Pretty” Ricky Conlan
Winner: Conlan (Judge’s Decision) | Length of Screen Time: 11:00
Watching this final fight (of the film and the series, so far), Ryan Coogler’s talent as a filmmaker is as obvious as his love for the franchise. Yes, we follow the structure we’ve grown accustomed to in this series, but Coogler has a few more tricks up his sleeve. Namely, to focus more on the conversations taking place in between rounds. This fight scene has more dialogue that any other, harkening back to the character moments of the original film. While still presented as a real fight ala the Dixon fight, the
commentators’ roles are reduced here (and Larry Merchant is exiled from commentary, praise the Lord) and the main characters get the focus they deserve. But for everything Coogler brings to the fight, he saves the best for last. After an emotional scene between Rocky & Adonis we hear – for the first time in the film – “Gonna Fly Now” as Adonis steels himself for the last round. Despite (or maybe because of) sitting through 16 fights today, this moment still incites goosebumps. And despite losing the fight the same way Rocky loses his first fight with Apollo, Adonis knocks Conlan down at the last second, teasing the notion that Creed might actually pull out the win. He doesn’t, of course, but there’s plenty of time for that later.
Fight Rankings (montages excluded):
1. Balboa vs. Creed I
2. Creed vs. Conlan
3. Johnson vs. Sporino
4. Balboa vs. Dixon
5. Balboa vs. Creed II
6. Balboa vs. Drago
7. Balboa vs. Lang II
8. Balboa vs. Thunderlips
9. Johnson vs. Unnamed
10. Balboa vs. Lang
11. Creed vs. Drago
11. Balboa vs. Rico
12. Balboa vs. Gunn
13. Gunn vs. Caine
Lou Hare is an adjunct professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. Lou is the host of Guilty Pleasures on the Front Row Network and a regular on many other FRN shows. His greatest joy in life is making his friends watch terrible movies and talk about them..... and being a GIF.