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Friday, December 7, 2001
Updated: June 3, 10:03 AM ET
A movie of blood, spit and tears

By Royce Webb
ESPN.com

"Rocky" is a movie for everyone.

Rocky Balboa
Rocky Balboa loved the job where others hurt him, and he hated the one where he hurt others.
For everyone who ever wanted to kiss someone. For everyone who has bled. For everyone who has cracked wise, or cracked heads, or cracked eggs -- and for everyone who would like to have the guts to gulp down five of those eggs, raw, at four in the morning.

For everyone who has ever held a dead-end job.

When the movie opens, Rocky Balboa has two gigs: he fights people, and he hurts people. He loves the job where others hurt him, and he hates the one where he hurts others.

In his heart, he's a boxer -- but only a club fighter, a "ham-and-egger." When he wins, he nets $40.55. When he loses, he makes barely enough to buy turtle food.

To pay the rent on his tiny row-house apartment, Rocky breaks bones for Gazzo, whom Rocky's cheap, second-rate trainer, Mickey, calls a "cheap, second-rate loan shark."

"It's a living," Rocky replies.

"It's a waste of life!" says Mickey.

It's a movie for everyone who has ever spit.

Rocky soundtrack
It's a movie for everyone who has ever wanted to go for a run at 4 a.m.
One guy after another spits in this movie. Gazzo spits on the sidewalk. Mickey spits, and tells Rocky about a fight 50 years earlier where he had "spit shootin' out of my cheeks." The fighters rinse their mouths and spit, so much they need a spit bucket.

But the spittle that matters the most is projected by Rocky. As he's heading out on his first date with Adrian, he spits right in front of her, even as he opens the gate for her (and then, when she hesitates, he goes through first himself).

Spitting is a macho act, an anxious act, a violent act. It's ejaculation by other means. It marks territory. It throws down the gauntlet. It's a bad habit, of men unsure of themselves, of men who are restless, of men who need to do something and feel something. Men at peace with the world do not spit on it.

It's a movie for everyone who has ever shaken someone's hand.

The handshakes in this movie tell the story by themselves. Rocky encounters Gazzo four times in the film. The first three times, Gazzo has ample opportunity to shake Rocky's hand. But Gazzo patronizes him instead and almost conspicuously avoids shaking Rocky's hand -- he chews Rocky out, he gives him money, he gently lectures him, but he doesn't shake his hand, even though each scene shows them talking, then departing. But when Rocky is no longer Gazzo's employee -- when he walks toward the ring on the night of the big fight -- Gazzo eagerly shakes Rocky's hand to wish him luck. Things have changed.

Rocky Balboa
Rocky and Mickey didn't have a "handshake relationship" at the beginning of the film.
Likewise, Mickey and Rocky don't have a handshake relationship at first. Mickey looks down on Rocky, and at age 76 isn't the type to show respect to his fighters. But when he crawls to Rocky asking to be his manager, and then crawls out of Rocky's apartment and down the street after Rocky rejects him, the balance of power in the relationship changes. Then, as Rocky relents, and asks Mickey to train him, he offers Mickey something that Mickey wouldn't offer him -- his hand. A train passes overhead, and under the street light the two men shake on their shaky peace.

It's a movie for everyone who ever misquoted the Bible.

When Mickey is in Rocky's apartment, trying to persuade Rocky to let him be Rocky's manager, Mickey says: "You gotta be very careful about this shot that you got at the title, because, like the Bible says, you ain't gonna get a second chance."

For everyone who ever had a locker. For everyone who has lived in a too small apartment. For everyone who has had a pet. For everyone who's been in a smelly bathroom.

For everyone who was ever 30 years old, and wondered if life was starting or ending. For everyone who has looked at a photo of himself as a child and wondered what happened.

For everyone who has practiced a speech -- or a one-liner -- in front of a mirror. For everyone who has known a girl prettier than she thinks she is. For everyone who has ever been turned down for a date. For everyone who has been on a date. For everyone who has skated. For everyone who was ever proud of a bent finger. For everyone who, like Adrian, can't take a compliment. For everyone who has gaps.

For everyone who has had an obnoxious brother, or relative, or friend.

Rocky and Adrian
Although he wouldn't marry Adrian until "Rocky II," Balboa learned in the original that "women weaken legs."
For everyone who has smoked a cigarette. For everyone who has quit smoking, or tried to quit.

The fight against nicotine addiction is, for many, a Rocky story in itself.

And, like handshakes, cigarettes tell most of the story of the movie. In the opening scene, Rocky steps out of the ring after a fight and bums a cigarette -- a live one -- off a grimy spectator (who replaces it with one stashed away behind his ear). Rocky, age 30 and going nowhere, lights up often, but he can't stand to see 12-year-old Marie pull a cigarette out of the front pocket of her jean jacket -- "What are you doing? It'll make your teeth yellow, don't do that. ... It'll make your breath like garbage."

Rocky himself continues to smoke, even after he is chosen to fight Apollo Creed. He knows better, but his self-esteem and ambition have been chipped away over the years. Then, as he and Gazzo talk warmly at a cold, outdoor food stand, Gazzo pulls a cigarette out of Rocky's mouth and throws it down, telling him, "You're in training, huh? Come on!"

For Rocky, smoking is not an addiction, but a vice, a way to shorten both his disappointing boxing career and his painful life, cigarette by cigarette. But training for Creed gives Rocky a new purpose, a reason to live, a reason to live without cigarettes. For many addicts, extinguishing their cigarette lighter is not so simple, but just as Rocky's story can inspire athletes and stockbrokers and assistant managers, it can inspire smokers.

It's for everyone who takes father figures, wherever they might come from.

Rocky reluctantly accepts two parents in the movie -- Gazzo and Mickey. His own father, he tells Adrian, "was never too smart" and told Rocky, "You weren't born with much of a brain, so you better start using your body." Thus, his "old man" led him to two other flawed father figures.

For everyone who has been proud to have the business card of someone important.

For everyone who has received "good" news that created as much grief as pleasure.

Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers
Once Rocky finds out he'll be fighting Apollo, he begins living a tortured existence.
Sylvester Stallone wrote "Rocky," and one of his beautiful insights into human nature was his understanding that this bit of "freak luck" could not make Rocky happy. Fifty-six minutes into the film, Rocky finds out he'll be fighting Apollo Creed. For the next 23 minutes, the movie is full of turmoil, one tense scene after another -- Rocky and Paulie argue; on TV, Creed and several broadcasters treat him as a joke, and Rocky gets embarrassed and admits to Adrian how much he resents their "cheap shots;" Mickey comes to Rocky's apartment for the first time, and in an excruciating eight-minute scene, begs Rocky to let him be his "manager" (trainer), to which Rocky responds by yelling (and then reconciling with Mickey); Rocky has his painful first training run, wracked with fatigue and self-doubt; he argues in the meat locker with Paulie, and begins punching a side of beef so hard he breaks its ribs; and he upsets Adrian by telling her that he can't fool around with her while he's training.

Rocky's big break might have given him a chance for some joy, and a better life -- it might have pointed him in the general direction of self-actualization. But it could not bring him happiness. Kudos to Stallone and Co. for understanding that.

For everyone who has worn Chuck Taylors.

For every boy who wanted to find out how "women weaken legs."

"There's no foolin' around during training. ... I wanna stay strong." I was 12 years old when I heard Rocky say that line to Adrian, and while I didn't quite fathom its meaning then, it has stayed with me. Twenty-five years later, I still think about it when it comes time to make decisions about how to ration my energy.

For everyone who recognizes that style is not substance, and that substance trumps style.

Early in the movie, Rocky and his local bartender are watching Apollo Creed, the flamboyant heavyweight champ, on TV. The bartender complains, "Where are the real fighters gonna come from, the pros? All we got today are jig clowns."

Rocky Balboa
"Rocky" might look like a typical "Great White Hope" story, but the filmmakers were much more canny about race than that.
Rocky is incredulous, even insulted -- "Clown? You callin' Apollo Creed a clown? Are you crazy, this man is champion of the world. He took his best shot and become champ."

For everyone who understands that race is the most complex social issue of our time or any other.

The movie may look like a typical "Great White Hope" scenario, with an Italian-American fighting an Ali-style African American, but Stallone and the other filmmakers are canny on the topic of race. They matter-of-factly show us black broadcasters, and Mickey's gym is full of blacks and Latinos -- the fighter who takes Rocky's locker is black, and Mickey clearly has more regard for him than for Rocky.

Apollo Creed is far more than a clown. In fact, for many of us in 1976, black and white, especially us Muhammad Ali fans, he was a heroic, awesome figure. The movie shows him to be a businessman and a master marketer, the brains behind his operation, which happens to employ exclusively African Americans. He is Ali without the baggage -- a clean, polite Ali -- whose braggadocio is transparently for show. He advises kids, "Stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make you grunt and smell. See, be a thinker, not a stinker." And, in a twist on our normal expectations, it's the black man who gives the white man a chance to rise above his station.

And, as people might tend to forget, Creed defeats Rocky. The white man overcomes his own doubts and demons, and gives Creed the fight of his life, but the black man wins.

For everyone who ever wished the movie was about Apollo Creed, not Rocky Balboa.

  "Rocky" is a movie for everyone who ever misquoted the Bible ... who's been in a smelly bathroom ... who likes street literature ... who has ever fought for something that meant everything ... who has said, "Absolutely" .... who has spit. 
  

For everyone who likes "street literature," which is what one of the actors calls Stallone's screenplay.

For everyone who is thrilled when Adrian gets to speak her mind.

Too few films have good parts for women, and among the hidden attributes of the movie Rocky is the substantial role of Adrian, as written by Stallone and played by Talia Shire.

For everyone who has experienced the joy of self-disclosure, as when Rocky and Adrian open up to one another.

For everyone who has said, "Absolutely." Absolutely.

For everyone who has ever wanted to "eat lightning and crap thunder." For everyone who has wished he (or she) could do one-hand pushups. For everyone who has broken into a full sprint, just for the hell of it. For everyone who has climbed stairs heroically.

For everyone who has ever wanted "the chance of a lifetime."

For everyone who hopes that before he died, Burgess Meredith, after a career of 60 years and over 100 movies and countless plays, looked back and saw Mickey as one of his finest moments.

For everyone who has felt the loneliness of training, or preparing, for something.

For everyone who owns a DVD player, or wonders whether to get one. The Rocky DVD (Special Edition) is a marvel. It restores the dark beauty of the film, and the extras are real bonuses, including rehearsals for the boxing scenes, a 28-minute commentary by Stallone, insightful commentary by the directors and several of the actors, and more.

For everyone who has found a voice. For everyone who has lost someone.

In his DVD commentary, Stallone says, "Every day I truly miss that character so much -- I tell ya, sometimes I could just cry. Because I'll never have a voice like that again where I can just speak whatever I feel in my heart. That's the one thing I'll always cherish about that character, because if I say it, you won't believe it, but when Rocky said it, it was the truth."

For everyone who realizes life is about more than winning and losing. For everyone who wants to be special.

"It really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. No one's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standing, I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood."

For everyone who has ever been taped up before a sporting event. For everyone who has shadow-boxed.

Who has danced in a squared circle with someone who had malice in his (or her) mitts.

Who thinks "Going the Distance" is about the most exciting piece of music ever written, except for maybe "Gonna Fly Now."

Who has teared up when Adrian, during the 14th round, full of fear for the love of her life, comes around the corner.

For everyone who has wanted to be in the game.

Who has lost a hat.

Who has told someone, "I love you."

Rocky. It's a movie for everyone. For everyone who has ever sat in the dark and imagined themselves in the characters on the screen. For everyone who has wanted to step outside oneself, into something larger. For everyone who has ever fought for something that meant everything.