Across seven films in the sprawling Rocky franchise, the titular boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) faced numerous opponents both inside and outside of the ring. From robot butlers to back-alley boxers, shady promoters to Olympic champions, Rocky contended with it all over the years.Even though he always managed to pull through, some of these adversaries proved to be more formidable than others.
With that in mind, here’s a look at all the enemies Rocky’s faced, and how they rank against one another.
Technically a gift from Rocky to his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), a sentient robot butler (with a mild attitude) seemed wildly out-of-place in an otherwise grounded movie franchise about the life of an underdog boxer-turned-champion, but it was the ’80s so whatever. Every kid had an Alphie and this was technically an action star.
The point is, robots were in. So, why does SICO qualify as an opponent? Simply put, the robot was a distraction. Look at Apollo Creed’s (Carl Weathers) reaction when he sees Paulie’s aluminum love servant.
Mick used to tell Rocky that women are a distraction. Is that not, in some way, also true of robot ladies? Hell, maybe Apollo lost (and died) because he couldn’t get SICO out of his head when he was supposed to be training for his comeback against Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).
SICO might rank much higher if this was a ranking of Apollo’s opponents.
The Commercial Director
Riding his first wave of success after losing a fight to Apollo Creed, Rocky’s chosen as the spokesman for Beast brand aftershave. Trying to cash in on his newfound fame, Rocky was a fighter at heart, and his skillset didn’t quite translate to reading from cue cards in a caveman costume — much to the frustration of the commercial’s director (John Pleshette).
While it’s a mere hiccup in Rocky’s meteoric rise, it was a humiliating ordeal made much worse by the director who was clearly frustrated with the whole thing and, maybe (probably), his station in life. Remember, our own expectations are the toughest opponent of all.
Let’s not make all these characters out to be bad guys. Some of them are maybe a little more complicated than they seem on the surface. There’s some definite angst that is manifesting itself as prickishness in this guy.
Someone take the splinter out of this poor bastard’s paw and let him direct that penetrating character study that’s been sitting in his desk drawer waiting for courage and opportunity to collide and bring it to light.
Mick’s Tough Love
Not to undersell the love that Rocky and his wife Adrian (Talia Shire) had, but the Italian Stallion wouldn’t have gotten nearly as far in life had it not been for the tough love of his trainer, Mick (Burgess Meredith). Through the first three Rocky films, Mick was always in Rocky’s corner, spitting tough love while demanding that he always get back up and fight, no matter what his opponent he was facing.
It was inspiring, for sure, but you have to wonder if Mick could have wrapped the hammer of his love in velvet every so often to soften the blows and up the young southpaw’s confidence a little. Maybe a hug, Mick?
Mason “The Line” Dixon
Alright, now we’re getting into the ring.
In a scenario that mirrored the first film, Dixon (played by real-life fighter Antonio Tarver) was a champion in search of a compelling match when he gave (a then-elderly) Rocky Balboa a chance to fight him. This was due, in large part, to an ESPN video game simulation that showed the former champ kicking Dixon’s ass. Doubts about Dixon and the notion that his worth as a champion existed before the simulation and the eventual fight, however, and there’s no way the situation got any better after Rocky went the distance against him in the sixth film, Rocky Balboa.
Say what you will about the indomitable spirit of Rocky and how his battle with Dixon proved that the heart of a champion can overcome all physical limitations, but Dixon ranks this low among Rocky’s in-ring opponents simply because he almost got destroyed by someone old enough to be his pop-pop.
As Rocky says, “sometimes charity really hurts.”
Thunderlips (played by Hulk Hogan) was a mountain of self-satisfaction and muscle that could have clearly killed Rocky were it not for the fight ending in a draw after their exhibition turned into a chaotic scene. Seriously, recall the size difference. It was David vs. Sexy Goliath.
Thunderlips would rank higher if not for the fact that he was momentarily thwarted by Paulie (and a wooden chair across the back) and later posed for a sweet family shot with the champ and Adrian. Gotta commit to the act even after the fight to be a truly badass opponent, Thunderlips.
Tommy Gunn (boxer Tommy Morrison) was a no-name boxer who convinced Rocky to be his version of Mick (albiet with a lot more affection and a lot less screaming), but he quickly grew tired of living in his mentor’s shadow and wanted to break free. After being coerced by a shady boxing promoter, Tommy challenged Rocky to a street fight, but that didn’t go well. Because despite the years of fine living, commercial shoots, publicity stunts, and toy robots, Rocky was still a straight-up street fighter who couldn’t be stopped by an Oklahoma hayseed in a blue tracksuit.
While Tommy wasn’t a super formidable opponent, he did punch Rocky right in the heart when he betrayed him, causing Rocky to doubt himself. And that ultimately gives Tommy a larger pressence on this list.
George Washington Duke
A crass boxing promoter with no moral scruples, George Washington Duke (Tommy Gant) was everything Rocky wasn’t: loud, obnoxious, and driven solely by his desire to make money. After trying (and failing) to get Rocky back into the ring, he managed to sweep in and steal Tommy Gunn, Rocky’s protege.
Also, you have to figure that if he was a man of his word, he did wind up suing Rocky for putting him on his chinchila fur clad-ass in Rocky V. “Sue me for what” Rocky? I’m sure Duke found a way.
Clubber Lang’s (Mr. T, fool) hunger and fury came across as both undeniable and intense at a time when Rocky was starting to suffer from the fruits of his success. Clubber wanted a piece and kept on coming — even when Rocky decided to hang up his gloves — eventually getting his shot after insinuating that Adrian, Rocky’s special lady, seek him out for sex things.
The eventual fight didn’t go well for Rocky. Clubber sorta killed Mick and then almost killed Rocky.
But in the end (and you may be detecting a theme here…), Clubber succombed to Rocky’s refound magic (thanks to Apollo Creed and the power of beach running) in a rematch.
Paulie’s Fiscal Irresponsibility
In what should’ve been Rocky’s golden years, he came to learn that, thanks to Paulie’s lack of financial acumen, he was not only broke, but massively in debt (though, again, Rocky bought that high-cost robot, not Paulie. So that’s on him). It was a hit so hard that it knocked all the quarters out of Rocky’s pockets and forced him to auction off his home, move back to South Philadelphia, and reclaim a more down-to-earth existence for him and his family in Rocky V.
While it’s clear that family + money = problems 100% of the time and that you should never not ask questions when someone else is holding your wallet, you can’t deny that the Balboa’s made it through alright despite Paulie’s incompetence. Not “different fur every day of the week for Adrian” OK, but they managed.
You can still make the case that the first fight between Rocky and Apollo was the best of the entire franchise. Blow after blow, these two men decimated each other. They’d have two rematches (one official and one not so-much) and later become friends (to the point that Rocky took Apollo’s son under his wing in Creed), but it’s the ferocity of that first match that cements Apollo’s place near the top of this list. Sadly, it’s the person who killed Apollo in the ring that finishes one spot ahead of him.
Rocky emerged triumphant in his battle with Ivan Drago, but to get there he would see yet another friend die at the hands of an opponent, overcome the bitter cold and harsh challenges laid out by the Russian wilderness in what became the best of all the amazing Rocky training montages, and a man who was bred, medicated, and trained to be an outright destroyer. It almost killed him, and that’s why Drago reigns supreme as the most formidable opponent Rocky has ever faced save for one that’s been in his life since the start.
They’re one of the most iconic images from the entire franchise, and often the first thing you think of when you hear the words ‘Rocky.’ For more than 40 years, these infamous steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art were a physical representation of Rocky’s determination.
But in Creed, when Rocky, now an old man and someone else’s “Mick,” struggled to climb up those stairs on his own they took on a new kind of relevance. Old age is the ultimate opponent and Rocky, like the rest of us, is losing the fight against time. Kina bleak? Maybe, but was Rocky ever about winning? Or was it about possessing the heart of a champion, giving your all, and fighting every round like it’s your last? That’s the lesson you can take from Rocky and all his various battles, including the one against mortality.