James Stafford on why “Rocky” is more than just a boxing movie.
Sylvester Stallone got it absolutely right with his 1976 tale of washed up “ham and egger” Rocky Balboa, leg breaker for the local loan shark who gets one last chance at redemption. What makes Rocky one of the greatest sports films of all time is that the Italian Stallion’s redemption occurs as much outside of the ring as in it.
Over the past 35 years I’ve watched Stallone’s only Oscar winner countless times, and each viewing has exposed some unspoken truism about being a man. As a kid what I took away from the film was that I needed to eat raw eggs and work on my one-armed push-ups, but as I’ve aged Rocky’s more meaningful life lessons have made themselves known to me. Here are a few of them:
There’s always hope. Your manager, boss, wife, etc., might give up on you, take away your locker and call you a bum, but you know what? You’re going to be okay. Rocky is loosely based on two fights: The Ali-Wepner 15 rounder; and Stallone’s career battle. Sly was pushing thirty when he wrote the script for the film, and his career amounted to a handful of small credits. He refused to sell Rocky unless he could star in it, and that gamble made his career. It also paved the way for Rhinestone and Over the Top, but that’s okay.
Bad guys aren’t always bad guys. Rocky is a tough guy on the wrong side of town, barely educated and qualified for little more than making collections for a loan shark. But beneath that cliche exterior he’s a real guy with real problems, real feelings, real dreams. Sometimes you just have to get to know a guy to see past the façade.
You can be a tough guy and love animals. How many guys out there talk to their cats or hug their dogs? If Rocky’s love of Butkus the dog and his turtles Cuff and Link is any indication, a lot. Don’t assume that grouchy bastard in front of you at Starbucks has no feelings.
The prettiest girl is the one you love. Adrian is a little frumpy in her cat-eye glasses and her knit caps, but Rocky sees the most beautiful girl in the world. Find the woman who fills your “gaps,” as Rocky tells Paulie, and you’ll always be with the most beautiful woman in the world.
Take care of your friends and family. Whether it’s selling space on his robe for Paulie or giving his real-life brother Frank a gig in the street corner band, Rocky reminds us to share our success.
It’s okay to be scared… If somebody told me I had to strap on a pair of gloves and square off against Apollo Creed, I’d pee my pants and blow a snot bubble. Rocky isn’t too thrilled by the prospect, either. He’s a tough guy, but the notion of getting his face caved in keeps him up the night before the big fight.
…but you still have to do what you promised to do. Scared is natural, but when you’ve made a commitment you have to see it through. Courage isn’t lack of fear, it’s getting the job done regardless of fear.
Cover your face. What the heck, Rock? Watching that poor guy get his face caved in because he wouldn’t put his guard up is an object lesson in proceeding wisely. We have to take the shots that life throws at us, but that doesn’t mean we have to take them directly on the chin. Whether this means tucking money away for a rainy day, keeping your resume up to date, or not further antagonizing that road rager, this is sound advice.
You only lose if you don’t try to get up. I actually borrowed this one from Evel Knievel, another childhood hero, but it fits Rocky perfectly. The scene that gets me every time is Rocky struggling to get up while Mickey tells him to stay down. The effort is the thing, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t try to get up when life knocks you on your ass.
Sometimes you win when you lose. Going the distance means more than being world champion. There might only be one Super Bowl trophy, but there are lots of “World’s Greatest Dad” mugs. Be there, do the work, go the distance. Earn your mug.
When it’s all said and done, life is a love story. Rocky doesn’t end with the Italian Stallion raising his hand in victory, but with him wrapping his tired arms around the woman who loves him. Which would you rather have?
The last and perhaps most important lesson I learned from Rocky is this: quit while you’re ahead. When you make a good thing give yourself a little time to appreciate what you’ve done and then move on. If you don’t, you might end up making a sequel or five starring Mr. T.
What did you take away from Rocky? I’m listening.