Remember Rocky 4? Remember when Rocky beat the giant Russian, Ivan Drago, despite being much older and half his size? Remember how his “If I can change, and you can change, EVERYBODY CAN CHANGE” speech after defeating the Russian single-handedly ended the Cold War? Well, I’m still going out on a limb to say that Rocky 2 is the best film in the entire saga. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the series and love all of them (yes, even Rocky 5). Let me explain.
Boxing movies are mostly an acquired taste. I for one can’t get enough of them. I’m not really sure why because I never was a boxer. (Although one of the best Christmas presents I ever received as an adolescent was a body bag and speed bag to hang in the basement so that I could aggressively workout my teenage angst.)
The details of a young, unknown actor named Sylvester Stallone getting the original Rocky film made is an incredible story, but one for another day. It eventually won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1977, so the idea of a sequel no doubt was tempting, but a tall order. Sequels in general are rarely as good as the original with a few notable exceptions: The Godfather, Terminator, Lord of the Rings, etc. That being said, I think Rocky 2 eclipses its preceding and subsequent films.
Why is it Better?
- In the original film Rocky is a no-name, two-bit loan shark who occasionally boxes in basement venues for a couple extra bucks. According to Mickey (his eventual trainer) Rocky squandered whatever talent and promise he had as a fighter by becoming a low-life, thumb-breaker collecting debts around town. So when a championship contender had to unexpectedly drop out of his title fight against the reigning heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, they had to scramble and find someone last minute who’d be willing to step into the ring with the champ.
- No one else wanted to take the fight without adequate time to prepare, so they offered the fight to Rocky Balboa and tried to spin it as a benevolent gesture from the champ to a local unknown from the streets of Philly. Up to that point nobody had ever “gone the distance” with Creed, and that’s all Rocky wanted to do. If he could accomplish at least that much, then he’d be able to prove to himself that he’s not a bum. And that’s exactly what he did. He endured brutal punishment from Creed until the final bell, forcing a split decision by the judges.
- In the second film Rocky had to figure out the direction of his life as a retired fighter who was destined to be known as the guy who gave Creed a run for his money. As a newlywed with a baby on the way, Rocky tried to capitalize on his new, short-lived fame by trying his hand at television commercials. He was fired after several failed attempts because his “relaxed brain” had trouble reading the words off of the cue cards. He tried to get back his old job at the meat locker, but a down-economy offered him no financial security.
- Meanwhile, Apollo Creed is incensed that fans believe he didn’t deserve the winning decision in his match against Rocky. He badly wants a rematch to prove that their first fight was a fluke. He admits that he didn’t take Rocky seriously as a challenger, but this time he is out for blood. Rocky’s trainer Mick initially warns him not to take the rematch because last time the champ hurt him “bad”, but if they meet in the ring again, this time he’s bound to get hurt “permanent.”
- Rocky who is struggling to make ends meet can’t resist the temptation of a rematch as Creed unleashes a trash-talking media campaign aimed at luring him back into the ring. His wife Adrian forbids him to fight anymore and wants him to settle down as they have a baby arriving soon. Mickey succumbs to all the taunting from Creed and angrily urges Rocky to take the rematch and “knock his block off!”
- Her and Rocky cannot agree which causes such a strain on a very pregnant Adrian that she collapses and is rushed to the ER. The baby is safely delivered (a month premature) but because of complications, Adrian slips into a coma. Rocky is torn between training for his upcoming rematch with Creed, and tending to his wife as she lay unconscious in a hospital bed. He chooses love and never leaves her side except to go pray in the hospital chapel.
- After many sleepless hours, Rocky is next to his wife when she finally wakes up. He hadn’t yet seen the baby because he wanted to wait for her to wake so that they could see the baby together. After the elation of finally getting to meet his newborn son, Rocky apologizes to his wife for agreeing to take the fight and promises to find some other way to make ends meet. Adrian unexpectedly has a change of heart and gives one of the most goosebump-inducing lines in cinematic history. She leans over to Rocky and says “There’s one thing I want you to do for me…win! [sound-effect of a ringside bell]…Win!!” Cue the training montage music.
- Aside from maybe the Star Wars theme, I’m hard pressed to think of a more singular, iconic piece of music from a movie soundtrack than the Rocky training montage scenes. With Adrain’s blessing, he’s now freshly inspired to make up for lost time. He’s doing lunges in the park with a wooden log across his shoulders. He’s at the junkyard smashing scrap metal with a sledgehammer. He’s in the gym snarling as he pulverizes the body bag. He relentlessly pounds the speed bag with blinding precision. And perhaps most memorable of all, he is seen running through the streets of downtown Philly as the locals begin to notice their new hero. They show their support by joining in the run with him. He smiles as he’s surrounded by the parade of his adoring fans and eventually pulls away from the crowd with a dead sprint, culminating in his ascent of the steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Part of the strategy to defeat Creed in their rematch, Rocky is going to switch from being a southpaw boxer to fighting right-handed. This did momentarily surprise Creed, but as the consummate professional, he was all business. Round after round, both fighters stand toe-to-toe duking it out. Creed unleashes an onslaught of lightning-quick blows and knocks Rocky down several times throughout the fight, but each time he climbs back to his feet and keeps going after the champ.
- As the fighters briefly rest in their corners before the final round, Mick tells Rocky to execute the final part of their plan and switch back to fighting southpaw. Rocky does so and in the closing minute of the final round, he lands a barrage of punches on the champ that eventually sends Creed to the mat. But the exertion took everything out of Rocky who also fell to the mat in exhaustion. Both fighters are on their backs as the ref begins his countdown. Adrian (watching the fight from home) gasps as Rocky collapses. If neither fighter gets back up, the match will end in a draw and Creed will retain his title.
- As the bloodied, embattled warriors summon their last bit of strength to climb to their feet before the 10-count is completed, the whole boxing world is on their feet. Everything is moving in slow motion. The tension is unbearable. Creed tries to pull on the ropes to help him stand back up, but eventually crumbles back down into the corner as Rocky manages to rise to his feet just as the ref reaches the end of his count. He waves his arms over the fallen Creed and declares “You’re out!” Rocky shocks us all and becomes the new heavyweight champion of the world.
- Pandemonium breaks out as the crowd rushes into the ring to crown a new king. The commentator shoves a microphone in front of Rocky and asks him how it feels to be the new champion. Rocky thanks Apollo for the opportunity to fight him again, then shares the unforgettable words “Most of all I also wanna thank God. Except for my kid being born, [fighting back tears] this is the greatest night in the history of my life. I just wanna say one thing to my wife who’s at home…Yo Adrain! I did it!!!”
Most people I know (myself included) wouldn’t describe themselves as exceptional. Most of us live unheralded lives in relative obscurity. The story of Rocky 2 is for all of us no-names who feel like the odds can be stacked against us. This film illustrates that greatness is possible regardless of pedigree. It shows that hard work and dedication to the craft you love sometimes affords you an opportunity to show the world what you’re made of. And though it might beat you to the ground in the process, sometimes the underdog becomes the champion.
Even though this film is 41 years old, it never gets old to me. Truth be told, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched this movie, yet it never fails to elicit goosebumps and inspire me. Rocky is the champion for all of us nobodies. I don’t know where you’ll have to go in order to find and watch this film, I just know it will be worth the effort.