With the wonderful Creed being released this weekend, I’ve been asked a few times some version of the question, “If I can only watch one Rocky movie before I see Creed, which one should I watch?” Up until today, I’ve been taking the easy road and just saying Rocky — because the original film is legitimately great and deserves its Best Picture Academy Award. Now, I don’t think that’s the right answer to that question. Creed is all about Rocky’s relationship with Adonis Creed, the son of his fallen friend, Apollo Creed. And no film captures the relationship between Rocky and Apollo better than Rocky III.
Rocky IV is a legitimately insane movie — highly entertaining, but insane. It’s so insane, it completely overshadows how crazy Rocky III actually is… I mean, this is a movie in which Rocky fights a character played by Hulk Hogan and no one at all suggests that professional wrestling isn’t real. At one point, Thunderlips (Hogan) picks Rocky up and throws him out of the ring into the audience. This is supposed to be a charity event and no one seems to think this is all that abnormal.
There’s also a temptation to answer the “Which Rocky movie?” question with Rocky IV, because Creed delves into the death of Apollo, which happened in the fourth film. But this answer is incorrect because Apollo dies so early in Rocky IV, that’s about all he does: Get himself killed. Afterwards, Rocky starts the long journey of ending the Cold War without Apollo’s help. My point: You’re not going to get much of a sense of who Apollo is from just watching him be punched by Ivan Drago.
On Monday, I watched Rocky III again for the first time in a few years. In my piece on Creed, I mentioned that Rocky III was a childhood favorite of mine, but doesn’t hold up as an adult. That’s sort of true, but this time around, I found myself enjoying it more – the final fight is not good and, the last time, it kind of ruined the movie for me. This time, it wasn’t really what I was focusing on. Anyway, I’ll get to all that.
So, if this is really your only Rocky movie before Creed, one of the best aspects of the film is that Rocky III starts with the ending of Rocky II, with Rocky barely beating Apollo after both fighters went down at the same time. After that, the movie blasts Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Pretty good start!
We then see a montage of Rocky defending his title against boxers with names like Big Yank Ball and Glass Joe. (That first name is real.) Anyway, the point is Rocky is winning, but isn’t taking this super seriously anymore. After one fight, he takes a bow. We then see Rocky on the cover of GQ and hosting The Muppet Show. (In 1979, Sylvester Stallone did host The Muppet Show. Here he is as a gladiator singing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”)
Rocky III was released seven months before Mr. T would become a legitimate sensation on The A-Team. But by the time I had seen Rocky III on home video, I was already an avid watcher of The A-Team, making it weird to watch Mr. T as the villain, even though I maybe found him a little more sympathetic than I was supposed to – I mean, this was B.A. Baracus. And while Rocky is getting lazy, Clubber Lang was training. Sure, he seemed to have a temper, but Clubber was putting in long hours while Rocky was hanging out with the Muppets.
The charity match between Rocky and Thunderlips is sort of hard to watch now. Mickey (Burgess Meredith) is soooooo worried about Rocky’s safety, warning him about how dangerous it is to fight a wrestler, even in an exhibition match for charity. In what alternate reality do the Rocky movies take place? When Rock and Thunderlips are introduced before the match, Rocky asks if they can get a Polaroid together. Thunderlips shoves Rocky, then tells him he’s in trouble. By the time the match is over, Thunderlips has punched a police officer in the face and put Paulie (Burt Young) in a headlock before punching him in the face, too. It’s quite a night.
Mickey dying was one of those traumatic childhood movie events for me. And the scene is set to make the viewer hate Clubber Lang – which makes some sense, because the two Balboa-Creed matches were spread out over two movies, here we get both Balboa-Lang fights in the same film, and I suppose the stakes have to be raised somehow. And, sure, Lang kind of pushes Mickey out of the way, but it’s Rocky who makes the first physical move at Lang backstage. And this is a fight Mickey didn’t even want Rocky to fight, warning him, “This guy will kill you to death inside of three rounds,” which sounds serious. Despite that warning, Rocky never takes Lang seriously – he trains to the sounds of a live orchestra playing the Rocky theme song – and he loses the fight and Mickey. (This sets up two of my favorite moments on the movie. The first: During the introductions, Lang looks at Rocky and simply says, “Dead meat.” The second: After Lang wins, he celebrates by making a noise that sounds like, “ehhhhhhh, ehhhhhhhh,” over and over. I am going to start making that noise when nice things happen to me.)
But this all sets up Rocky’s new relationship with Apollo Creed, which is everything that’s important about Creed. Rocky wants to quit; Apollo wants Rocky to fight. Apollo uses the phrase “eye of the tiger” over and over again, which I’m sure made Survivor very happy. Apollo takes Rocky to Los Angeles to train, a city that plays a role in Creed. We meet all of Apollo’s old sparring partners and trainers, the same people who wind up rejecting Adonis Creed.
The final fight against Lang is anticlimactic. There’s no way Rocky is losing two fights in the same movie. Even the pre-fight exchange of words can’t live up to the first one. This time, Clubber Lang tells Rocky, “Bust you up,” which, let’s be honest, is no “dead meat.” Rocky responds, “Go for it,” which isn’t very clever and sounds like something I would say in that situation when I couldn’t think of a good comeback. Clubber does try to start a fight with Apollo – Lang pushes him, after earlier calling him “chicken” — which makes us like Apollo even more.
Rocky’s plan during the fight is to get punched by Lang – often lowering any kind of defense, yelling, “Knock me out!” — which doesn’t seem like a particularly smart strategy or one that he and Apollo had practiced. Anyway, Rocky wins, but we knew he’d win. The fight scene ends on a freeze frame of Rocky flexing a muscle… ladies and gentleman, Rocky III.
But the fight doesn’t matter. What matters is the relationship between Rocky and Apollo, which becomes fully formed during Rocky III. They have a race on the beach! When Apollo isn’t talking about the eye of the tiger, he’s screaming things like, “There is no tomorrow!”
Rocky III ends with Rocky and Apollo fighting for a third time, this time in private – a favor to Apollo for his services. The film ends with both men throwing a punch, but it freeze frames before either fist lands. As we hear Survivor – again! – the two men turn into a painting. This is a nice scene. Even though the two fighters have respect for each other and a newfound friendship, they remain competitive. All of this plays into Rocky’s relationship with Adonis Creed – and we even find out who won this secret fight. Creed almost works as a direct sequel to Rocky III. So, again, if you’ve never seen a Rocky movie – also: who are you? – and you only have time in your life to watch one, the answer is still the first Rocky. But if you only have time to watch one Rocky before watching Creed? Rocky III is the movie for you.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.