2019 Film Essays

Fight Like a Man: ‘Rocky III’

Editor’s Note: “Fight Like a Man” is a series by Ross McIndoe about the Rocky franchise and masculinity.

“Well, Rock, let’s put it this way. Three years ago, you were supernatural. You was hard and nasty. You had this cast iron jaw. But then, the worst thing happened to you that could happen to any fighter. You got civilized.”

When Rocky steps on screen for the third instalment of his story, he cuts a wholly different figure than in the previous two. He’s no longer the shuffling, sweet-hearted street tough of the first film, and he’s not the overnight millionaire of the second, wearing his wealth like an uncomfortable costume. The glitzy chains and clunky watches have been replaced by a sleek suit, comfortably tailored to his bulky form. The bulk itself has changed too: the thick, hefty body he built hauling slabs of meat around a warehouse floor has been trimmed down and sculpted into something resembling a Greek statue, or the cover of a men’s health magazine.

In Rocky II, Stallone’s character transports into a new life. Rocky III sees him transformed into a new man.

In the opening montage, an MTV-esque haze of images lets viewers know that all the other aspects of Rocky’s life have been tailored to suit his chic new self. Rocky lives in an elegant home with a manicured green lawn for him to tumble around on with his well-dressed, apple-cheeked young son. After his early struggle to crack the TV game, Rocky now sits debonairly in American Express commercials, peacocking his celebrity status with Kardashian ease. He raises great sums of money in outlandish charity bouts and buys extravagant pieces of pop art to adorn his walls. Rocky’s life is a carefree picture of the American Dream in all its tacky, happy grandeur. The years of blood, sweat and tears have paid off and now he has the money to make everything in his life beautiful. And Rocky takes great pleasure in doing so. After all, that’s what all those skull-cracking left hands and gut-crushing right hooks were for. He gets to be happy now.

But there is another figure, stalking Rocky through the dissolving images of his all-American happily ever after. Clubber Lang (Mr. T) glares from the stands during every fight and press conference, finding the time in between to brutalise other boxers during his own meteoric rise to the heavyweight world’s number one contender. There is a strange synthesis of art reflecting life and life reflecting it back in the Rocky series’ original antagonists. Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed was openly based on the champion of its time, Muhammad Ali — everything from his aesthetic and body type to the fleet-footed way he delivered punches and the eloquent fury with which he shot out punchlines. By the time Rocky III came around in 1982, Ali’s career was beginning to wind down and the controversy around him had dimmed. Rather than pick another current real world fighter on which to base Rocky’s next adversary, the film tapped into the era’s fears more generally to construct a purely fictional boogeyman. Mr. T’s growling, prowling depiction of a young black fighter hell bent on the destruction of everyone before him tapped into the rising fear of the “ghettos,” of “urban youths,” of angry young black men. A few years after Rocky III, this same narrative would be cunningly applied to the rise of Mike Tyson, painting him as the perfect embodiment of all that mainstream America feared.

And so another bout is set up with another outsized figure who stands for all the opposite qualities that Rocky himself represents, a new thematic duality for the film to play out. The central conflict in Rocky III is laid out in plain terms by Mickey in the film’s first half hour: the “civilised,” middle or upper class form of man Rocky has become versus the ruthless, raw grafter he once was. In a way, the third film is the one which asks the question of “what makes a man?” most nakedly. In doing so, Rocky III reverts to a gender dichotomy as old as time: the feminine world of comfort, domesticity and pleasure juxtaposed with its cold, hard, bare masculine opposite.

This idea of man-as-warrior — of his whole worth as determined by his physical strength, violent potential and emotional numbness — has deep, deep historical roots, and Rocky joins a long, long line of conflicted Italian heroes. Julius Caesar spoke of how peace sapped virility and brought weakness, and William Shakespeare wrote a whole play about how the valiant general Mark Antony was enchanted by the lush pleasures of Cleopatra’s soft, feminine realm. Like Rocky, Antony seemed actually to have discovered a much sweeter mode of living away from the battlefield, but his male peers took unkindly to his abandonment of their sparse, violent ways. “Women weaken legs!” Mickey growls  in the first film.

All of which is to say that this idea of a “Crisis of Masculinity” is nothing new. That phrase itself works its way into think piece headlines on a regular basis and is usually now taken to refer to the conflicted role of men brought up in the values of traditional masculinity and then thrown out into a modern world that values coding skills and sales roles over brute strength and warlike valour. This is the crisis which the appearance of Clubber confronts Rocky with — the sense that he has gotten “soft”; that all that time spent relaxing in his hard-earned home life — enjoying the company of his friends and family, taking pleasure in silly things like sports cars and hard abs — had in fact been a trap, leeching away his masculine power while comfort and contentment kept him anaesthetised.

Conversely, Clubber’s whole life is devoted to rage and pain, masculinity’s holy virtues. His training regime is harsh and undertaken in dark, bare rooms. Clubber growls in pain while he trains, building himself into monstrous proportions, a weapon with which he can threaten the world just by walking into a room. Viewers don’t see him take joy in anything or anyone. Clubber doesn’t relax or slow up. He is just rage, powering forward through the world, feeding on everything he sees. He terrifies Rocky and easily defeats him.

Enter Apollo Creed, re-cast from the swaggering, arrogant Ali-esque figure of old into the black buddy, a vision of an African-American made palatable for insecure white eyes. He dresses sharply, speaks well and loves making money. He is the clean-cut, middle class image of respectability to counteract Clubber’s grubby, working class garb. Maybe most importantly, Apollo is happy to play second fiddle to the film’s white hero to help him overcome another black foe.

Apollo teaches Rocky to fight “like a coloured fighter” (in Paulie’s words): learning to bounce lightly on his feet and move with enough speed to counteract Clubber’s superior strength. But this new style is not the key, not the vital thing Apollo must teach Rocky if he is to win. No, to win, Rocky will need to re-capture that fabled, power-chorded “Eye of the Tiger.” He needs to be hungry. He needs to care more about winning than about living after. Rocky needs to be angrier than he is scared.

“Now he’ll outstare the lightning. To be furious is to be frightened out of fear.”

The Bard’s wording might be a little more elegant than Mickey’s gravelly pronouncement that a champion must “Eat lightning and crap thunder!,” but the general idea is a theme — that a true warrior overcomes fear by converting it into fury.

“He’s getting killed out there,” Apollo worries from the corner during the climactic battle, as Clubber batters Rocky with blow after blow.

“Oh no, no. He’s not getting killed” Paulie responds, “He’s getting mad.”

And, once again, it’s undeniably exhilarating to watch Rocky rally, to see him punch his way through fear and find an anger to match Clubber’s fury. And, to be fair to Rocky III, it never allows the hero to become exactly like the Clubber. Rocky temporarily relinquishes his blissful lifestyle to go with Apollo on his quest to recapture that vital tiger eye, but he does so with his family members in tow. Rocky refuses to isolate himself the way Clubber has or to bury himself in anger. He is made stronger by the intimate relationships he retains, with Adrian in particular pushing him to talk through the trauma of the first fight and overcome it. It is only because she knows him so well, because Rocky has allowed her to get so close, that she is able to see the struggle is repressing. Rocky can be so openly vulnerable because Adrian is there for him, supporting him no matter what.

And maybe the most powerful evocation of this paradox, the human need for support and connection at odds with the male preoccupation with stoicism and autonomy, is in the re-invented relationship between Rocky and Apollo. Turning the bad guy into an ally is a classic sequel move. The villain so often gets the best lines and the more complex characterisation that it’s no surprise audiences so often find themselves enchanted by them. Stallone’s fellow ’80s muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger made too compelling a Terminator to keep him on Skynet’s side for long. Spike’s punk rock style and acerbic British wit made him too fun a character for Buffy to dust. Darth Vader’s entrance alone was so iconic that he was destined to one day bodyslam a bigger bad. The trick to a good heel-face turn is making it feel coherent for the characters, and Rocky III achieves that with aplomb.

This is kind of incredible because, for two whole movies, all of the screen time Rocky and Apollo have shared together has either been spent kicking the shit out of each other, talking about how they just kicked the shit out of each other or preparing to kick the shit out of each other again. And yet it only really takes one brief scene, one short conversation, to reverse their relationship completely. And maybe that tells the audience something too.

In his exploration of masculinity through boxing, Amatuer: A True Story About what Makes a Man, Thomas Page McBee writes about how men “touched each other as much in love as in violence” in the ring. I interviewed a Scottish boxer-author last year, and he spoke of much the same thing, the mutual respect and visceral compassion that was generated by stepping into the ring with another fighter and laying yourself bare before them: “You fight as hard as you can and then at the end you hug, you embrace each other and you say ‘well done, brave warrior.'” Many other great writers have spoken of boxing in the same terms, as a kind of brutal romance.

“Come, sir, come, I’ll wrestle you in my strength of love,” Mark Antony says to Caesar, pulling him into a hug as they prepare to part, “Look, here I have you, thus I let you go, and give you to the Gods.”

When working with a paradigm that forbids physical tenderness and emotional vulnerability, it makes sense that some men can only communicate honestly with one another when their feelings are dressed up in violence. The cliché about men who only emote while watching sports is a cliché for a reason. In Amateur, McBee quotes psychologist Niobe Way’s explanation for this dynamic: “In a messed up society that doesn’t offer them (men) opportunities for healthy connections, they go into unhealthy connections.” So, in a sense, it is not strange that Rocky and Apollo’s friendship is forged within the ring. In a sense, it could not have been made anywhere else.

It is imperfect because the two men are working within a deeply imperfect culture, pushing its boundaries at times but mostly working within its limitations. As we mostly do. There are things about Rocky III that definitely raise eyebrows — its racial dynamics and maybe even its class politics — but ultimately it shows a fighter overcoming his opponent by reaching out to those around him and confronting the problems within. In the simplest terms, for all its talk of tiger eyes and the fear of becoming civilised, the final fight is about a fighter rooted in love versus one rooted in hatred. The love between a man and the wife who knows him well enough to call him on his bullshit. The love between two men who pushed themselves to the boundaries of their physical abilities together twice over and grew affection out of mutual respect. And, ultimately, love prevails.

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.