In 1976, Muhammad Ali engaged in what was arguably the last great fight of his career. Although he would soldier on for another five years, Ali won eight of 15 rounds on all three scorecards in his memorable Yankee Stadium battle against Ken Norton that summer.
1976 was also the year of Rocky (or as we are now wont to describe it, ROCKY I), Sylvester Stallone’s uplifting drama about a down-on-his luck pug who implausibly finds himself in a title bout and stuns the world by acquitting himself well, taking the reigning heavyweight champion right down to the wire.
If Ali remains the most recognizable boxing figure of the 20th century, Rocky Balboa, at least in the public consciousness, probably ranks a close second.
Stallone had drawn his inspiration for Rocky, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year (the defeated competition included All The President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver) from a real-life title fight in Cleveland a year earlier, when a journeyman heavyweight named Chuck Wepner lasted until the 15th round against the great Ali. Wepner, who was known for reasons devoid of irony as “The Bayonne Bleeder,” was even credited with a ninth-round knockdown.
On the evening of that bout, The Bayonne Bleeder presented his wife with a filmy blue negligee and instructed her to wear it later that night when, he promised, “you’re gonna be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Much later that night, having been taken first to a hospital to have his face stitched back together, Wepner stumbled back to his hotel room, to find his wife sitting up in bed wearing the filmy blue negligee.
“Well,” Mrs. Wepner asked her husband, “is he coming up here, or do I have to go to his room?”
The success of the first Rocky film begat a regrettable series of sequels, each more preposterous than its predecessor. Over the next 14 years, Stallone appeared to be either dangerously deluded or engaged in the practice of self-parody, as Rocky Balboa won the heavyweight title in a rematch and then went on to engage a series of villainous opponents lifted straight from the pages of superhero comic books.
We could but shudder when Stallone announced his plans for a sixth Rocky movie, and as Rocky Balboa – 30 years after Rocky I and 16 after Rocky V – moved into production in time for a Christmas release, debate raged over which was the worst idea of the year – another ‘Rocky’ film or the O.J. Simpson book.
Just as the initial Rocky drew its inspiration from an authentic Ali episode, so did this latest incarnation.
In 1969, while Ali was serving out his three-and-a-half year banishment from the ring, he participated in the filming of what was advertised as a “computer fight” against the 45-year-old ex-champion, Rocky Marciano. The two spent countless hours sparring at Miami’s Fifth Street Gym, preparing for every possible exigency. (Filming had to be stopped on a number of occasions because Ali repeatedly dislodged Marciano’s toupee with jabs to the head.) Ostensibly neither man knew the outcome, which would be determined by the computer.
In its 1970 theatrical release in the United States, the computer had Marciano (who had been killed in a plane crash the previous August) winning on a 13th-round TKO. Everywhere else in the world, Ali won.
The genesis here involves another ‘computer fight.’ After ESPN airs a virtual video bout pitting a champion of yesteryear (Rocky) against the current heavyweight king (“Mason Dixon,” portrayed by then light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver), both men, egged on by rapacious promoters, are inspired to do it for real.
Rocky, his life barren and empty (Yo Adrian has joined Mick and Apollo in that big ring in the sky) is seeking fulfillment in a return to the ring. Dixon, though undefeated, has come under criticism for his reluctance to face even remotely dangerous opposition.)
Tarver was not the initial choice to portray Mason Dixon, but Roy Jones Jr. proved as elusive in his negotiations with Stallone as he had been with proposed opponents and his television employers alike.
“There were like 31 unanswered phone calls to Roy Jones,” recalled Stallone. “I was talking to one of the high ranking officers at HBO, who said, ‘Don’t feel bad, we pay him and he doesn’t return our calls, so join the family.’
“Antonio,” said Stallone, “proved to be more reliable.”
Alas, Tarver, in real life as witty a boxer as you’re likely to meet, isn’t given many good lines in Rocky Balboa. He reportedly partied so enthusiastically during the Las Vegas filming, which coincided with last year’s Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins middleweight championship fight, that by the time the movie was being edited he’d already lost to Hopkins.
Rocky, circa 2006, lives in the same Philadelphia row house, although over 30 years the turtles have grown somewhat larger. He spends his days pining over Adrian’s grave and his nights telling the same tired old war stories to the customers of his South Philly restaurant.
Although there’s not a hint of sexual tension, Rocky is provided a love interest in Marie, a barmaid he’d known as a girl. Marie has a son by a Jamaican father (“Jamaica,” nods Rocky. “A European, huh?”) and winds up with a job as a hostess at Rocky’s restaurant (which serves, notes the aging Burt Young character Paulie, “Italian food cooked by Mexicans”).
Muhammad Ali is 64, and the notion that he would be allowed to engage in such a fight is utterly ridiculous. But Stallone (and, presumably, Rocky) is, at 60, nearly as old.
Rocky is initially denied a boxing license (at a hearing presided over by the Philadelphia lawyer Jimmy Binns) but somehow prevails. (Whether as a result of his impassioned speech or because he crossed the commissioner’s palm with silver remains unexplained.)
Although the Rocky-Dixon bout is labeled an “exhibition,” nothing about it suggests anything other than a real fight. The participants don’t wear headgear, and it takes place before a sellout crowd at the Mandalay Bay. It is presided over by a real-life commissioner (Nevada’s Mark Ratner), with a real referee (Joe Cortez), and a trio of real judges, and broadcast by a trio of actual HBO announcers, Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman.
It is even presented by a real promoter – Lou DiBella, who in a wonderful stroke of typecasting plays a promoter called Lou DiBella. Other touches of verisimilitude include the artist LeRoy Neiman sketching away at the weigh-in, and Mike Tyson woofing at Tarver from ringside.
The fight itself is every bit as brutal as those in any of the previous Rocky films. (In real life, Cortez would have stopped it at least half a dozen times.)
Both combatants are repeatedly pummeled to the floor. Now, in real life anyone who truly loved a 60-year-old boxer would have been shouting at him to stay down after each of these, but Rocky’s son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) keeps encouraging at his father to get back up and fight some more.
So, incredibly, does Marie. Portrayed by the Belfast-born actress Geraldine Hughes, Marie proves herself to be the bravest boxing consort this side of Cheryl McCullough as she urges the bloodied Italian Stallion back into the fray.
The judges, by the way, should all have been impeached. Despite the multiplicity of knockdowns, all three of them submit scorecards of 95-94 in a split decision verdict, suggesting that each of them ignored all but one of the knockdowns.
When we pointed out this scoring discrepancy to DiBella, the promoter shrugged and replied “Hey, remember, it’s only a movie.”
Rocky Balboa, which opened in American theaters last week, isn’t very good, but it’s probably not among the three or four worst ‘Rocky’ films ever made.
After we attended a screening last week, a few of us repaired to an Irish saloon near Madison Square Garden, where DiBella summarized his acting debut by noting that “the original Rocky was an inspiration and drew me to the boxing business.
“I should be pretty decent playing myself, but I ‘m not planning on quitting my day job,” said the promoter, who added that it hadbeen “an honor” to participate in the making of the last ‘Rocky’ movie.
“And what,” I had to ask him, “makes you so sure it’s the last one?”
(Special thanks to The Irish Times, in which this column initially appeared.)