Rocky opens with two fighters bathed in smoky light at the center of a boxing ring. On the wall above them is the word ‘Resurrection’ and a painting of Jesus Christ. This promise of transformation and rebirth haunts the match between Rocky Balboa and Spider Rico and defines every Rocky film. When Don King promoted the fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975, he declared, “People have been known to transcend their earthly stature in the middle of the ring. We could have a miraculous happening!” And Rocky Balboa’s transcendence would have been impossible without his foe and friend Apollo Creed.
Rocky Balboa’s story begins with Sylvester Stallone’s, a man underestimated and “made to feel like an imbecile” as a teenager, seemingly doomed to be typecast as a mugger — until the moment he entered a movie theater to watch Ali vs Wepner. It was proclaimed “one of the biggest long shots in the history of boxing.” Ali was 33, the world heavyweight boxing champion, and Chuck Wepner was 41, overweight, a liquor salesman by day and club fighter by night nicknamed “the Bayonne Bleeder” because he’d accumulated over 300 stitches in his early career. Muhammad Ali was guaranteed $1,500,000, Wepner only $100,000.
Although Ali was the clear winner of that fight and Wepner only knocked down Ali because he’d stepped on Ali’s foot, the drama of Ali vs Wepner inspired Stallone to write his own David and Goliath story about an underdog given the opportunity to fight a champion. Rocky admires Apollo Creed from the beginning of Rocky: he defends Apollo against the barkeep at his local tavern who calls Creed a “clown,” countering, “This man is the champion of the world. He took his best shot and became champ. What kinda shot did you ever take?” But Apollo doesn’t take Rocky seriously, only fighting him because Mac Lee Green broke his hand and Apollo needs a replacement for his Bicentennial Super Battle in five weeks. Apollo chooses Rocky because he likes the sound of his nickname “the Italian Stallion,” and because he’s a “snow-white underdog.” Don King used the same reasoning to explain why Muhammad Ali chose Wepner, claiming Ali was “an equal-opportunity employer,” and “it’s about time a white man got a break.”
Rocky was a composite of many underdog fighters — Wepner, Joe Frazier, Rocky Marciano, and Joey Giardello. But Apollo Creed was unmistakably Muhammad Ali, The Greatest, a consummate showman and gifted self-promoter, the heavyweight who fought like a bantamweight. Stallone knew Carl Weathers was Apollo Creed when the former Oakland Raiders star insulted him during his audition. Weathers read for the part with Stallone and explained to director John Avildsen, “I could do a lot better if you got me a real actor to work with.” When he discovered Stallone was Rocky, he said, “Maybe he’ll get better.”
Rocky and Rocky II chronicles Rocky’s journey to earning Apollo Creed’s respect. Apollo only knows who Rocky is because he needed someone to fight, and because he wanted to show that “American history proves that everybody’s got a chance to win.” Apollo doesn’t even need to see Rocky fight, ignoring his trainer Duke’s (the brilliant Tony Burton) warning of Rocky’s skill when he sees him punch raw meat until his knuckles are bloodied on television. The fight is just an exhibition for Apollo, who enters the ring dressed like George Washington, throwing money, flanked by women dressed as Statues of Liberty. He represents the American dream: underneath his Washington costume is an Uncle Sam costume, with his iconic American flag shorts, exclaiming “I want you!” Rocky’s robe is too big for him and has a meat factory logo embroidered on it. Although it’s a split decision in favor of Apollo Creed, Rocky “goes the distance,” lasting all fifteen rounds with the champ, defying the odds and disproving anyone who’d ever believed he was a bum.
At the start of Rocky II, Apollo wants a rematch after all, challenging Rocky in the hospital even though both men are in wheelchairs. Rocky still doubts his fighting prowess and visits Apollo in his hospital room to ask, “Did you give me your best?” Apollo replies, “Yeah.” He arrives at the rematch with Rocky in his red-white-and-blue shorts, but there’s no costume, no performance, now that Apollo takes winning — and his opponent — seriously. Both men fall in the fifteenth round, and Rocky is the first to get up, winning him the heavyweight title. Apollo underestimated Rocky when they first fought, and then jarred Rocky’s pride in Rocky II to the point that Rocky came out of retirement, but despite their bad blood, Apollo tousles Rocky’s hair affectionately and wishes him good luck at the end of their rematch.
In Rocky III, unbelievably tough newcomer Clubber Lang (Mr T.) takes the title from Rocky and Mickey dies, leaving Rocky at rock bottom. It’s Apollo who finds Rocky mourning alone at Mickey’s gym and insists that Rocky fight Clubber again. Apollo knows Rocky must get his killer instinct back, his Eye of the Tiger, and suggests they “go back to the beginning. Maybe we could win it back together.” A training montage, so essential to the franchise, illustrates Rocky’s and Apollo’s newfound friendship as they train together in Los Angeles, Apollo’s hometown — Clubber trains alone, but Rocky is stronger because he has Apollo, Duke, Adrian, and Paulie by his side. Adrian always inspires Rocky to fight, but this time Rocky needs Apollo to go the distance. When Rocky forgets his fear and can finally keep up with Apollo running on the beach and the two glistening men hug in the waves — that’s the moment we know Rocky will win. Apollo seals their bond by giving Rocky his red-white-and-blue shorts to wear during the rematch with Lang. Rocky’s and Apollo’s secret fight at the end of Rocky III illustrates their unique relationship, which is equal parts rivalry and friendship.
With nostalgia, Apollo tells Rocky in Rocky IV: “We held the greatest title in the whole world, babe.” Rocky and Apollo watch their old rematch together, and Apollo grieves his loss of relevance since his retirement, which prompts him to fight Soviet superman Ivan Drago. Apollo regrets that they can’t be born again — and tragically, he tells Rocky just before he fights Drago, “God, I feel born again.” During this “exhibition bout,” a euphoric Apollo dressed as Uncle Sam enters the ring as James Brown sings “Living in America,” a spectacle that parodies his first fight with Rocky. When Drago knocks him down, Apollo twitches on the floor, still a fighter even as he dies, and Rocky cradles the bleeding Apollo Creed like the Pietà. Rocky fulfilled the American dream alongside — and with the help of — Apollo Creed, so Rocky fights on behalf of both when he takes on Drago in Russia. Rocky IV’s stakes are so high it’s like a superhero movie: when Rocky beats Drago he wins the Cold War, but more importantly, he avenges the death of his friend.
The fight between Ali and Wepner may have inspired Sylvester Stallone to write Rocky, but Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed took on a life of their own to become American mythology. After Apollo’s death, Duke tells Rocky that Apollo was like a son to him, and that Rocky must keep Apollo’s spirit alive, to make sure he didn’t die for nothing. These words echo in Creed as Rocky, who’s lost everyone, and Adonis Creed, who never knew his father, become each other’s family. When speaking of Rocky’s redemption in interviews, Stallone has quoted the saying, “No man is an island.” To succeed, to transcend your earthly stature, you can’t do it alone. Rocky does not exist without Apollo: his foil, his trainer, his friend, his brother.