For many, the story of Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa Sr. began in late 1975 with a victory in a converted church over fellow-journeyman ‘Spider’ Rico. But if you look closer, the backstory is right before your eyes and runs much, much deeper than that.
Born in Philadelphia in 1945, Balboa had toiled his whole life to find a calling, ending up becoming embroiled in the mean streets as a loan shark enforcer whilst pushing his obvious boxing talent and eventual destiny to one side.
Balboa had lost his way, a familiar tale of the wasted talent and a man who had struggled to fit in to the slog of working 9 to 5, along with not having that security of a stable family life to keep him on the straight and narrow.
It wasn’t until a massive stroke of luck landed in Balboa’s lap that the 30 year-old part-time fighter’s fortunes finally changed. The alteration was mainly due to scheduled world heavyweight title challenger Mac Lee Green breaking his hand in training.
Undisputed, undefeated and much-loved champion Apollo Creed was feeling sentimental as there were only a few weeks to fight night and ‘The Master of Disaster’ wanted to avoid taking up the option to cancel the fight completely, solely to Balboa’s benefit.
A flick through the encyclopaedia of active professional boxers led Creed to Balboa and an offer for ‘The Italian Stallion’ to jump in at just four weeks’ notice to battle the number one fighter on the planet was born.
With 20 losses on his record, Balboa was a massive underdog and highly expected to be swept aside by the slicker Creed as the pair traded blows on January 1, 1976 at the famous Philadelphia Spectrum.
Unbeknownst to Creed, his opponent was a rough diamond waiting to be polished, and with the help of trainer ‘Mighty’ Mickey Goldmill – a former fighter himself, Balboa headed into the contest with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
A first round nobody predicted ensued as Balboa amazingly put Creed down for the first time in his career with a sickening blow. It was already apparent Creed’s overconfidence and lack of serious training was going to be a hindrance to him in the fight.
Although he did brake Balboa’s nose for the first time, the writing was on the wall for Creed who knew he then faced the prospect of fourteen more rounds of slugging it out with a highly determined challenger.
A back and forth battle of brutality ensued until the final bell tolled, with Balboa just falling short of claiming the sport’s biggest prize via split decision – despite reaching his only pre-fight goal to go the distance.
In the immediate aftermath, both fighters were taken to hospital nursing several injuries – and after a meeting in the reception area where many media were gathered – the seeds of a rematch were firmly planted.
Balboa had planned to retire but was only able to stick to his guns for a few months as Creed’s desire to prove the first effort was a fluke due to complacency on his part was just too strong.
Monetary issues were also coming into play for Balboa, who married his sweetheart Adrian and was looking forward to the arrival of his first child.
During the birth of Robert Junior, Adrian suffered complications and slipped into a coma, hampering early preparations for the return fight with Creed considerably. After a long stint waiting by his wife’s side, Adrian awoke and told Rocky he needed to win for the sake of the family despite initially being against a return action so soon after her illness.
Spurred on by his now recovering wife’s wishes, Balboa trained like a demon to get in the best condition of his life for the second helping with Creed, set to go ahead on Thanksgiving weekend in 1976.
As Creed plotted a quick knockout, many expected more fireworks and duly witnessed another gruelling fifteen-rounder that would mimic the first with all but the finish.
As time trickled towards the scorecards, and with Balboa staring another points loss in the face, both fighters landed a knockout blow simultaneously and referee Lou Filippo began a steady and agonising count.
Creed was scrambling to his feet in the corner as Balboa used the ropes for leverage, and whilst it looked as though the champion would make it to his feet first and retain, Apollo looked over at Rocky, saw how much more he wanted the victory before slumping back to the canvas in an exhausted heap.
Filippo reached the nine-count, and just a ten was on his lips, Balboa amazingly made it up in what was one of the most dramatic endings to a world title fight you could imagine.
Balboa had made it to the top against all odds, but the question now remained…could he stay there?
Now a superstar with the love of boxing fans worldwide, Rocky was steered by manager and trainer Goldmill away from some of the more dangerous opponents in a bid to keep his fighter active as long as possible and making money for his small family.
Balboa’s two fights with Creed would have retired a huge percentage of boxers in any generation and Goldmill knew the veteran would be unable to withstand any another encounter of a similar magnitude.
A few defenses in, including a successful European tour, one such contender was emerging in Clubber Lang – a rough, tough Chicago slugger who was intent on claiming his rightful shot at Balboa and taking his title in the process.
With a tenth title victory behind him, Balboa had been persuaded, through a combination of Goldmill and Adrian, to hang up his gloves at the age of 35 to enjoy his now comfortable life.
A statue was erected in his hometown of Philadelphia to celebrate his achievements and marked the occasion Balboa chose to announce his decision to the world.
Things didn’t go smoothly though as opportunist Lang used the situation for his own gain and goaded Balboa into one final mandatory title defense. Goldmill also agreed to this ‘final bow’ wish of Balboa’s but obviously knew the outcome wouldn’t be good in the back of his mind.
Taking place in late 1980, Balboa v Lang was shrouded in controversy as Goldmill was taken ill in the moments before the contest due to being pushed by the challenger as he attempted to scuffle before the first bell.
As Goldmill fought for his life suffering cardiac arrest in the dressing room, Balboa opted to fight rather than postpone in order to follow his trainer’s instructions but was badly beaten in two bruising rounds.
Making it to the dressing room moments before Goldmill passed away, Balboa’s world was rocked by the double whammy which would constitute the worst way to leave behind a sport he’d given so much over a five-year period.
A period of mourning turned into self-pity as the top division followed a new king in Lang and Balboa attempted to find a new place in civilization away from the spotlight of being the people’s champion.
Walking around his old gym reminiscing about happier times spent with Goldmill, lead to a meeting with old foe Apollo Creed who had sought out Balboa to pitch a masterplan to ‘get it all back’ from Lang.
Creed persuaded Balboa to train under his guidance for a rematch with the big-punching brute, and despite some doubts along the way, ‘The Italian Stallion’ whipped himself into tremendous shape both physically and mentally.
Knowing Balboa couldn’t take the punishing nature of a twelve-round fight, Creed’s tactics were to take Lang out early and were duly followed through in fine style through a short burst of warfare.
Balboa was once again on top of the pile, although it wouldn’t be too long until the new champ and now trainer Creed would face a horrible tragedy from the ultimate in challenges.
A few years later, and on the back of a period of tranquillity and satisfaction for the pair, a Russian thunderbolt by the name of Ivan Drago flew into the United States to shake up the division.
Drago’s team would single out Creed for an exhibition match in order to showcase the ex-world amateur title holder’s progress since ditching the vest. The unsuspecting Creed knew nothing of what was to come.
It was known Russia had some problems with doping, which Drago had been participating in for some time giving him a super-human physique and punching power to match.
Having agreed to be the first professional to face Drago, albeit in what was effectively a charity bout, Creed was walking into a freight train at full speed and would suffer the ultimate fate for his trouble.
Two painful rounds trading with the ‘Siberian Express’ proved too much for Creed’s aging body to deal with, and as stand-in cornerman Balboa contemplated throwing the towel in, his hesitation would sadly lead to the death of a legend.
Racked with guilt, Balboa vowed to exact revenge and signed up to fight Drago in Moscow on Christmas Day of 1985.
Going right back to basics, Balboa was holed up in a Russian cabin to focus solely on putting his own life on the line in order to avenge the passing and secure further legacy for Creed’s memory.
Heading into the fight knowing his own existence hung in the balance, Balboa’s steely determination would ensure he’d come out on top after a battle that would end up scarring him for the rest of his days.
Balboa being able to overcome adversity to defeat a force much greater than him had brought two enemies in Russia and the United States closer together and signalled the end of a professional career that captured the hearts of fans the world over.
A firmer retirement followed for Balboa, who would soon become the victim of a scam that meant the millions he earned in the ring would be taken away from him.
Forced to sell his mansion and move back to Philadelphia broke, Balboa saw the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ in a young man that would entice him back to the squared circle in a trainer/manager capacity just like his old mentor, Mickey.
Tommy Gunn, a fledgling Oklahoma heavyweight with raw talent, had begged Balboa to guide him and together the pair embarked on a run to a heavyweight title fight.
Neglecting his own son in a bid to relive the glory days, Balboa soon saw Gunn’s head being turned by a more flamboyant promoter in George Washington-Duke. A mentor who promise ‘The Machine’ millions should he sign on the dotted line.
Previously warning his son about the dangers of deception, Balboa became a victim himself as the accolades that would come with any heavyweight title victory for Gunn fell away with Duke’s closer involvement. Leaving Gunn behind staying away from the corner as he protégé won the sport’s ultimate prize, Balboa would then be challenged by the man he’d earlier helped to drag out of the gutter.
Facing annoying questions about being in Balboa’s shadow despite in the midst of celebrating his greatest night, Gunn saw no way out but to call on his former trainer to be his first challenger.
As Balboa passed up the opportunity, Gunn antagonised the legend into a street fight and the pair brawled through a Philly neighbourhood in a battle that would be captured by TV on hand to cover the initial call-out.
Experience of several such fights during his days as an enforcer, Balboa battered Gunn into submission and once again walked away a hero of the people.
That was until a final return to action came calling some years later.
Two decades went by, and in 2006 – four years after the death of his wife Adrian to cancer, Balboa was again in the spotlight due to a fantasy match-up talked about on ESPN.
A version of a console boxing games pitting old fighters against new brought up the debate of who would win between Balboa and the current heavyweight ruler Mason Dixon.
Despite being 60 years old, Balboa had always taken care of himself and was still in fantastic shape, which lead to the granting of a boxing license (at the second attempt) in order to participate in an exhibition with Dixon.
Those witnessing wanted to see if Balboa was still one of the most iron-willed fighters on the planet and if he could relive the glory days one final time. This proved to be the case as Balboa was able to last the full twelve rounds with Dixon, even managing to split the judges in the process.
Just like his fight with Creed thirty years previously, a defeat felt more like a win as Balboa finally closed the book on his boxing career.
The passing of another decade and subsequent loss of yet another of those close to him in Adrian’s brother Paulie, Balboa was now 69 years old and going through the motions of being a retired legend.
Along comes Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky’s greatest friend Apollo Creed through an affair around the time of his death, another young buck who was already making his own waves in the light-heavyweight division.
Undefeated and learning his trade in Mexico’s underground scene, Johnson asked Balboa for help in guiding him to bear the name of his famous father. Rocky agreed, and with the Balboa-Creed link-up eventually becoming common knowledge, it wasn’t long before a huge offer to fight for the world title arrived.
Ricky Conlan, the ruler at the time, needed a replacement opponent for a fight in his home country of Liverpool in the United Kingdom and Johnson – know labelled Adonis Creed, was drafted in to take up the challenge.
With Balboa – by this time suffering from cancer – acting as his personal motivator, Creed stepped out of his father’s shadow with a performance Apollo would have been proud of.
Despite dropping a decision in a competitive reverse, Creed was recognised as a warrior in his own right and to this day embodies the heart of both Balboa and Apollo combined moving into the present as the new flagbearer for the Rocky saga.
Time will only tell if more history is to be written….
Phil Jay is Editor of World Boxing News. Follow on Twitter @PhilDJay