“Fight Like a Man” is a series by Ross McIndoe about the Rocky franchise and masculinity.
Over the course of four films, Rocky Balboa proves himself repeatedly by stepping into the ring as an underdog and stepping back out a champ. He weathers the blows and keeps moving forward, he tires and comes back harder, he punches and punches and punches until the opponent, the audience and the world at large are forced to acknowledge him. He overcomes fear, doubt and grief by fighting, proving time and again that he really is the man he wants to be. That he is man enough.
But time moves on, and time really doesn’t care how you are. There is no masculine energy flowing through the body that can preserve it against the slow onslaught of age; muscles weaken, joints stiffen, organs slow.
“Time takes everybody out” Rocky will one day tell his young protégé, Adonis Creed, “It’s undefeated.”
Across the first four movies, Rocky rings up a heavy debt on his body, and now those debts have to be paid. So what is a man when can’t fight any longer? What does a fighter do when he finally finds the opponent that he can’t beat? How does he accept that he is not the champ anymore? Years before Apollo’s offspring arrives on the scene, Rocky tried to reckon with this in both Rocky V and Rocky Balboa.
Five years after its wildly successful fourth instalment, the Rocky series picks up once again from the climactic battle of the previous entry. After Balboa lays Drago out once more, it’s apparent what Rocky’s victory has cost him — he shivers in the locker room, heart pounding and hands shaking, curled in a ball as a terrified Adrian tries to comfort him. The doctors confirm that he has brain damage and his boxing days are over.
Rocky’s fighting spirit and fearlessness have allowed him to overcome all manner of opponents and obstacles over the years, but he has finally arrived at a barrier which no amount of willpower will allow him to push through. It’s not a matter of heart, guts or ball, but of damaged brain cells that cannot be repaired. No metaphor, however motivational, can push a man beyond his physical reality.
As he eases into his retirement years, Rocky tells his teenage son how happy it makes him to see his boy enjoy all the things he didn’t get to have. Now that his own glory days are over, he gets to live vicariously through his son. Then, when a promising young fighter named Tommy Gunn turns up at his door and asks Rocky to train him, he offers an even better conduit for all Rocky’s unfulfilled desires.
We’ve all seen those fathers, bawling from the side-lines as their sons bleed and sweat to live their dreams out for them. Rocky gets so wrapped up in the second go-around Tommy gives him that he begins to neglect his son and his duties as a father. He’s too busy living through the younger man to work out how to be an older one.
For a whole host of reasons, Rocky V is the critical punching back of the series. Its unpopularity almost made it the killer blow for a series that had already waded through way more rounds than anyone would have predicted back when the original film took off.
But going out like a chump was never the way for Rocky, or for Sylvester Stallone. They might not always win, but they never went down easy.
“There’s still some stuff in the basement” Rocky tells his brother-in-law in Rocky Balboa, as he contemplates a return to the ring. Sixteen years after Rocky V, both Rocky and Stallone are both left with a sense of unfinished business. They are still beloved — Rocky is stopped for photos and autographs everywhere he goes, the Rocky franchise is still held dear by millions — but as has-beens, not heroes. Though he smiles politely, the pain of being admired for who he was rather than who he is can be seen in Rocky’s face every time he talks about one of his famous bouts or poses for a picture.
Rocky’s restaurant is doing well, though he seems a little tired of telling the same old stories. His son is doing well, though they don’t see each other as much as Rocky would like. All told, his life is pretty good, but he lacks something. As Rocky ambles from home to work to the local bar in a semi-interested haze, there is a tangible lack of purpose to his days. He has aged out of the spotlight and been relegated to the wings, watching on as other actors star in stories of their own.
This time around, rather than find another surrogate to live through, Rocky goes into full midlife crisis mode and acts in pure defiance of his age. Rather than buying a sports car or dating a younger woman, Rocky decides to return to the ring and take on the heavyweight champion of the world. With no clue how to be an older man, he will try to act as a young one again, to simply do whatever he would have done a decade ago and to hell with anyone who says he can’t.
The whole idea of a midlife crisis essentially suggests that men reach a certain age and have no idea who to be anymore, so they reach frantically backwards to who they once were. Our whole concept of masculinity is so wrapped up in virility, sexual and physical prowess that it is treats the gradual, natural ebbing away of these qualities like an existential threat.
Think about the film and TV trope of the buzzkill dad, furiously trying to prevent his daughter from hooking up with a guy. He’ll pass it off as protectiveness, but the truth is that he doesn’t really believe that any harm will come from a girl screwing around with someone she likes (true religious zealots aside, no-one really does). He’s mad because the situation confronts him with the fact that he is no longer the swaggering young man, laughing at authority figures and having a good time. He is no longer taking wild risks in his pursuit of sex and glory, he’s holding down a job and trying to keep a house in order. His days of id-driven exuberance have long passed, but his ego is still rooted in that adolescent worldview.
A problem many women face when they become mothers is that this is now expected to be their whole identity and occupation. Female artists and athletes are barraged with questions about their kids and the career/family balance because of this. Motherhood is expected to eclipse everything else because it is seen as the zenith of traditional femininity — women as nurturers and angels of the domestic sphere. Although the status of “father” fulfills some of the ideas about authority and strength which fuel traditional masculinity, the requirement to take a step back and prioritise supporting someone else is utterly antithetical to the values which men are taught to build themselves around from childhood.
Conservative talking heads roast millennial dads for donning a papoose or taking paternity leave because they see it as emasculating, a failure to conform to traditional gender roles. As crazy as it is to suggest that being more of a parent makes you less of a man and as goofy as it is to imbue a baby-sling with so much ontological importance, this is basically the crisis at the heart of many father and son stories.
How to be a man once you are no longer THE man is the thematic core of Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. They are about Rocky learning to be a father rather than a fighter, a teacher rather than a student. And he struggles because our stories don’t have much room for fathers, at least not as active participants. The Lion King’s Mufasa is a cinematic archetype because he embodies all the symbolic values associated with paternal figures — pride, strength, honour — and because he dies nice and early, in a highly motivational way. Fathers make sense when we can reduce them to symbols, but the actual business of parenting is so defined by “feminine” qualities — emotional openness, compassion, gentleness, patience — that we often struggle to correlate them with a father figure.
A couple of years after Rocky Balboa, Darren Aronofsky won big with The Wrestler, a film about a down-on-his-luck fighter that owes a lot to the original Rocky. It’s hero, Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), has a similarly fraught relationship with his grown-up kid, having spent her formative years soaking up applause inside the ring instead of being present as a father. He tries to reconcile and makes some headway, but then — at the vital moment — bails on his daughter to relive his own glory days. Racked with guilt, Randy takes to the ring, pushes his aging, ailing body beyond its limits and ascends the turnbuckle as the crowd rises into ecstasy all round him, and he prepares to take flight one last time, offering up his body in one last act of glorious self-destruction.
“You and me, we don’t even have a choice. See, we’re born with this killer instinct that you can’t just turn off and on like some radio. We have to be in the middle of the action ’cause we’re the warriors. And without some challenge, without some damn war to fight, then the warrior might as well be dead, Stallion!”
Those are the words Apollo speaks to Rocky before he allows his ego to drag his too-old body into a fight with an opponent he will never beat. He loses his life, widows his wife and abandons his children, because he simply does not know how to be anything other than the centre of attention, the hero of the story. The Ram goes down the same way, preferring annihilation before a baying crowd to the unassuming role of fatherhood.
Neither of the later Rocky films plays out like that because to go so dark simply isn’t in the series’ DNA. The goofy, popcorn charm it runs on always allowed for Rocky to win (or at least go the distance in) fights even when it made no sense. He can whoop Tommy’s ass outside a bar and survive 10 rounds with a champion 20 years his junior because the rules of the Rocky universe have been softened by movie magic, and this allows a compromise ending, one where Rocky both learns to put his past behind him and gets to relive it. He learns to step aside while still getting to be the hero.
Although it would take a decade and a new wave of talent to fulfil the potential, these movies lay the groundwork for the Creed movies by getting Rocky to dig all the stuff up out of the basement and burn it up in one final, glorious blaze. It burns but he remains, ready to step aside an usher in a new generation. To be a father means being the guy in the corner rather than the guy in the ring, knowing that you’ll work your ass off but will raise the belt when the last bell rings. And being okay with that.
Rocky V is a bad movie and Rocky Balboa is far from the series’ best, but it’s a pleasure to watch Rocky making this journey, all the more so for knowing the wonderful things that lie in store once he gets to the final destination.
Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.