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Wednesday, December 12, 2001
Six little-known truths about 'Rocky'

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Got a call from a Mr. Dubin at The Inquirer, wanting my reaction and perspective on the 25th anniversary of the release of "Rocky." Didn't know what to say to him -- at least, what to say that he'd want to hear. Been on a few movie sets. Seen a dozen or so boxing movies. Been to maybe 100 title fights. So what do I know?

I only know what I've seen, heard and felt. Keeping that in mind, here are six items about "Rocky" that maybe you didn't realize.

1. Apollo Creed was an actual actor!

Carl Weathers
Carl Weathers, left, knows that great movies are often defined by great villains.
When people are dissecting this movie, or, more accurately, their feelings about it, they always mention Sly Stallone when talking about the character Rocky Balboa; sometimes, they will mention Burgess Meredith when talking about the character Mickey the Trainer; occasionally, they mention Talia Shire when talking about the character Adrian the Frumpy Love Interest. But when talking about the character Apollo Creed, who was to "Rocky" what Hannibal Lecter was to "Silence of the Lambs," they just say ... Apollo Creed. Like he's a real guy. The ultimate compliment to an actor.

Carl Weathers once asked me -- rhetorically, of course -- if I thought anybody else deserved a Best Actor nomination from "Rocky."

Carl said it with meaning, knowing the film truism: Great villains make great movies. So I said, "Well, you sure did, Carl. But your muscles were too big." Carl looked at me quizzically, which is hard to get Carl to do. Carl's a guy with a boatload of confidence.

"You know what they say, Carl: A black dude holding a gun will never win an Oscar. Look at Sam Jackson in 'Pulp Fiction.' Easily as good a turn as the one Johnny Travolta put in. And ... nothing."

"Hey, man, I wasn't carrying no gun," Carl protested. "Actually, deep down, I was a good guy. Easily as good a guy as Stallion."

"Muscles, Carl," I said. "In the trades, they call them 'guns.' "

See, I knew Carl from the days when he was a 'tweener with the Oakland Raiders. My old editor Bob Valli pointed him out to me. "See that guy, Carl Weathers? Chief, he's gonna be a great actor one day." OK, so Bob didn't really say "actor," but he did say he was going to be great at something. Carl just gave off that kind of aura. Had big-time winning ways. But as far as the Raiders went, physically he was caught in limbo between being a linebacker (not quite big enough) and a DB (not quite fast enough). He was smart and engaging and handsome enough to go Hollywood, which he did, following the example of somewhat more famous football players like Jim Brown, Woody Strode, Bernie Casey, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, Fred Dryer, and of course ... Apollo Creed.

2. Earnie Shavers was almost Clubber Lang in "Rocky III" instead of Lawrence Tureaud ("Mr. T").

Clubber Lang
Mr. T was great as Clubber Lang, but he couldn't act like Carl Weathers or punch like Earnie Shavers.
Once I visited ex-heavyweight contender Earnie Shavers down in Martinsville, a burg near the North Cacalackey-Virginia border. Some former backer had taken pity and put Earnie up in a janitorial supply business. Earnie's eyes were going bad. He had slowed down plenty, but he still hit like a mule; the punch is the last thing to go, and you could ask both Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes about that or anybody who ever fought George Foreman about that.

Earnie Shavers hit Larry Holmes so hard with a big right hand that I thought Earnie had killed him. But Holmes got up, somehow, then beat Earnie pretty good, so Holmes was nothing to play with. Couldn't just construct a p.r. rollout and then say "Boo!" and hope to stop Holmes, Ali's former sparring partner.

"Well, I almost had him there, din I?" Earnie asked me. "Yeah, you did," I said. Earnie didn't sound like a killer, had a voice so light it made Mike Tyson's Tweety Bird pipes sound like Darth Vader's.

Earnie's voice would've stopped him from being Clubber Lang in "Rocky III," even if a sparring session with Stallone hadn't.

This was the way Earnie told it to me:

"Got a call and went out to try out for this part in 'Rocky,' the Mr. T Rocky, I think. Got out there and got put up in a good hotel for a change. Then got in the ring with Mr. Stallone. He's not a real tall fellow, is he? Well, it don't matter. Anyway we were circling; I was pulling my punches. He said, 'Don't hold back, Earnie. Hit me.' I said, 'I can't do that, Mr. Stallone.' I could've, but I wanted that job, and I didn't think that would help me get it. But he kept on pushing me, saying, 'C'mon, show me something,' and sort of hitting me, sort of. Finally, I said, 'OK,' and I give him a little one under the ribs, where the livers of boxers are. Don't know about actors. If they got livers, they probably are in the same place.

Clubber Lang
If Shavers hadn't pounded Stallone in his audition, Rocky Balboa might have been fighting a real heavyweight in "Rocky III."
"Anyway, Mr. Stallone called time -- he didn't say nothing, just kinda doubled over a little bit and sort of just waved his hand -- and then somebody helped him out of the ring, and to this bathroom or somewhere, and he sent word out later that they couldn't use me. It was like what they call an audition, and I guess I blew it."

I told Earnie he hadn't lived until he'd blown an audition. It would give him something to wince about and ponder over in his old age.

"Yeah," he said. "But do you know, young people, they like fighters, only now, when I go somewhere and get introduced, or when people recognize me, they children will ask, 'Mr. Shavers, you're a heavyweight boxer?' When I say, 'Yes,' they always ask me the same thing: 'Mr. Shavers, you probably could knock out Apollo Creed, but do you think you could beat Rocky?' "

The look on Earnie's face was one of sheer helplessness. His mighty fists were no match for the magic of the movies.

3. Director John Avildsen broke code on the indefinable quality that made "Rocky" great.

Never will forget this. For "Rocky III," when it turned out that Rocky's foil was another black dude, a much worse black dude than Apollo Creed had been (and as an actor, Mr. T was no Carl Weathers), John Avildsen called this, "simple dramaturgy to help the audience identify." It's a phrase I use myself now, whenever I see someone manipulating one audience at the expense of another.

Steven Seagal
Steven Seagal can certainly kick butt, but as an actor ...
The other quality that made "Rocky" the original so great as a story was the script. Period. The script is everything, even though usually, in the movies, the writer is not everything. Ever hear the one about the aspiring Hollywood starlet who was so stupid she screwed the writer? Nevertheless, this much is still true:

The script is everything.

Once I went out west to the set of a Steven Seagal movie. Seagal was upset that nobody took him seriously. What was the problem, he asked? "People accept that you might be able to kick a little ass," I said to the Akido practitioner. "But as an actor ... say, is that smoked turkey you've got there? And pumpernickel ...?"

On the set playing a small role in the Seagal movie was a little-known actor/writer named Billy Bob Thornton. Pulled me aside, said he knew what the Hollywood honchos thought of him, then went into a perfect impression of a redneck retard that made me laugh -- that's what he was going for. "That's what they see when they see me," Billy Bob said. "I know how they think."

A few years later, Billy Bob had taken that stereotype and made it heroic, riveting and, in the end, somehow noble, in a script he wrote that is very much like the original "Rocky," called "Sling Blade."

And "Sling Blade" won the Oscar for Best Screenplay too, just as "Rocky" did, and propelled Billy Bob into the stratosphere, much as "Rocky" did for Stallone. I'm not going to get into comparing their careers and women since, but ... let's just say Billy Bob ain't hurting too bad. As for Steven Seagal, the less said the better.

4. The real "Rockys" were ...

Too many to list here. There were several (or, several million) "real Rockys." His Slyness says Chuck Wepner inspired the character. Stallone wrote the script, so that's that. Having watched Chuck Wepner fight Ali, let's just say Stallone must have one hell of an imagination. Ali carried Wepner. Had Chuck been so unwise as to call Ali out of his name (see hospital records, Ernie Terrell), it might have gotten ugly. Jerry Quarry fought Ali, too; fight was stopped on cuts. Quarry later died a vegetable. Any studio suit will tell you, that's not the ending they're looking for. Back to Wepner for inspiration, officially. Unofficially, Rocky was ...

Joe Frazier
Joe Frazier was the first Philly guy to beat on a side of beef during training.
Joe Frazier. He was the quintessential, the proverbial Rocky, the real-life Rocky, only Joe, poor Joe, he didn't have the requisite "simple dramaturgy to help the audience identify" going for him, except as a villain. The goodfellas in Bensonhurst and the Far Rockaways weren't gonna get their swagger on because of Joe. Now, if he'd been named Joe Campanella, that might have been another matter, maybe, as long as he beat "Alley," as Don Dunphy and others used to call the champion Ali. As long as Joe won ...

Who could relate to Joe Frazier? Not even Joe could relate to Joe. Like Rocky, Joe doesn't exist unless he beats Muhammad -- which partially explains where Frazier got the wherewithal to do it. The beating a side of beef training thing? -- Frazier all the way. The Philly fighter thing? -- Frazier all the way. The fighting the real-life Apollo Creed, losing, and also winning? -- Frazier all the way.

Joey Giardello. Another Rocky-- Yo Roc-co! -- only he was from New York State. But Giardello was in Philly the night he beat "Hurricane" Carter in '64. Carter was the original Clubber Lang.

Rocky Marciano was the original Rocky. He beat Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles. The Charles fight was better than any re-creation-Rocky -- the real Rocky getting outpointed by a master boxer, coming back and winning via desperate KO. Rocky also beat Joe Louis. I don't care if Joe was sitting on an embalming table at the time, fact remains, Rocky beat him, then cried in remorse after he'd done it.

Somebody should've put that on film. In a way, Stallone did.

Brigitte Nielsen
Actress Brigitte Nielsen KO'd Rocky in real life.
Somehow, Stallone distilled all these guys down into himself in this script. He caught the wave. Two rules of journalism, screenwriting, all good writing -- (1) know your subject; and (2) simplify it.

Takes some doing, and some Ego, but that's what filmmaking is all about. Doing Ego. The script was only half the battle of filming "Rocky." For if not for Apollo Creed -- sorry, Carl Weathers -- to give Rocky Balboa a foil, a charming rogue of a foil and villain, a reason to be, you don't have a movie, you don't have a franchise.

Finally, we have Rider of the Storm herself, the one who hit the Italian Stallion in the solar plexus, broke him all the way down to "Cobra"; Yo Rock-ette, let's call her. Brigitte Nielsen.

Stallone worked Her Airheaded Way into "Rocky IV," playing the leg, er, love, er, flack interest of Russian Drago (Dolph "I Come In Peace" Lundgren). Drago was so profoundly soulless he didn't tap his foot, do The Madsen, or laugh out loud when Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) came out in his Uncle Sam striped gear and top hat, dancing with James Brown, as he sang "Living in America."

We all know by now that Nielsen knocked out Stallone, then fought to a controversial draw with Mark Gastineau, who never fought again, and who, we must all admit here, looks very much like Rocky, only with a mustache, and on Human Growth Hormone. (Yo, Adrian. Pick me up. Over here on Broad Street, some dump called da Heartbreak Hotel. Yo, Adrian. Um. Real sorry. She din mean nuttin', Adrian. It was ... just a ting.)

Larry Holmes
Larry Holmes, right, might have gotten more of a test from Rocky Balboa than he got from Gerry Cooney.
Finally, the "real" Rocky was everybody who ever felt like a loser, felt like he was being dumped on, who ever compromised himself, who ever felt overwhelmed and underskilled. For everybody who ever played Lotto. "Rocky" was everybody, because only a few people ever get to be Apollo Creed or Muhammad Ali. That's the genius of it. The character is so relatable to, because he mirrors all of our secret weaknesses and inadequacies, lets us believe, however erroneously, there's a scenario whereby we can overcome them.

5. Time magazine put "Rocky" and at least one (out of millions) Rocky Wannabe on its cover.

In the words of the late Carl Sagan in another context, there were "billions and billions" of Rocky wannabes. Only one made the cover of Time, posing side-by-side with "Stallion," as Stallone was first called in the "Rocky" film franchise by -- Carl Weathers.

(I'll get Carl Weathers his props out of this if it kills him.)

But it wasn't Carl Weathers (remember Carl Weathers as Dillon in "Predator" with Ah-nold and that great ensemble cast of unleashed and diversified testosterone? Remember "Action Jackson"?) who made the cover of "Time" with Stallone. No, it was Gerry Cooney.

Cooney was about to fight (if that's the word) the heavyweight champion at the time, a dour workman named Larry Holmes. If Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" had come down from outer space, they would have taken the chiseled form and flinty eyes of Stallone over the doe-eyed, sloped-shouldered Gerry Cooney as the real hard heavyweight contender on that magazine cover.

And Stallone might have done as well as Cooney did against Larry Holmes. Cooney beat the hell out of Holmes' protective cup, at least. Remember seeing Ryan O'Neal and one of his sons ringside. They started off giddy, throwing air punches. Hella disappointed by the end of the fight. The service Sly gave them was they could go to Blockbuster, rent "Rocky," and act like Cooney never happened.

By the early '80s, Sly Stallone had become world-famous as the title character of the great franchise of "Rocky" films. He traveled to fights with a would-be heavyweight named Lee Cantalito. Muhammad Ali probably would've called Lee "The Cantaloupe," because of the name, and because he hit about as hard as one.

Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini was in his salad days then as world lightweight champion. When Ray outfought and killed the Korean, Duk Koo Kim -- Ray killed Kim to keep Kim from killing Ray -- in Vegas, I was ringside. In the 15th round, passions and bloodlust ran high; the fighters were going at it toe-to-toe full-bore, flat-out, literal mortal combat, no bull. One of my sterling colleagues (who later apologized and said he'd had "a Korean War flashback") kept yelling, "Kill that gook!" as that fire got hotter and hotter. Stallone was around; him or Cantalito or both were at some of Mancini's title fights. Lee studied this whole possible death scenario, and decided that maybe acting, or stunt work, or even driving a FedEx truck, was a better career option.

Haven't seen him since.

Ray was hoping Stallone could use him or his story, somehow; I often wish Stallone would've found a way. I always liked Ray. He was authentic, likeable, a good athlete, the no-doubt star of his otherwise mostly black gym in the depressed economic center of Youngstown, Ohio. His old man, Lenny "Boom Boom" Mancini, is where Ray got the punch. But the style was Ray's. Had a gift for dialogue, kind of like Ali, only different. Always remember what he said right after the Kim fight, while soberly, painfully fingering a monstrously swollen purplish region that used to be his right eye:

"Why? Why do I do this to myself? I'm the one who has to wake up tomorrow and look at myself."

Ray didn't know then that Kim was dead.

Yeah. "Rocky" was great. I guess. But Ray -- Ray was on the real.

6. As a feel-good movie, "Rocky" rates "A-plus." As boxing movies, "Rocky I, II, II and IV" rate "third."

"Raging Bull" was a better boxing movie than "Rocky." Why? Well, film appreciation is the most subjective reviewing process known to man. There is really no way to keep score, other than box office receipts and awards won, and that really isn't a good way to go. Most people just go with how they feel. Probably the best way.

"Raging Bull," like "Rocky," wasn't really about boxing. Sly Stallone isn't Robert DeNiro or Martin Scorcese, much less both at the same time. But "Rocky" is a simpler good movie, and it's not that much of a stretch to call it great; with all its sequels, it's a great franchise. Is "Rocky" better than Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight"? Yes. But not better than his "Twilight Zone" episode about a washed-up fighter named Boley Jackson (Boley was portrayed by Ivan Dixon, who you either know as Kinch from the old TV sitcom "Hogan's Heroes," or the love interest of Abbey Lincoln in a good movie, "Nothing But A Man.")

Boley befriends a boy who can fold space and time, and who changes Boley's fate of being knocked out by a victorious younger foe into Boley's hand being held high over a fallen, younger foe. The boy thought Boley would be happy about what he did. Boley made the sobbing boy -- who I think was played by Rodney Allen Rippey, or a young Carl Weathers --change things and fate back to the way they'd been -- the way they should be, in the fullness of time.

There's also a film called "Hard Times," starring Charlie Bronson, Jill Ireland and James Coburn that was a better study of a boxer than "Rocky II, III, IV & V" combined. No Oscars or retrospectives for "Hard Times." In case Bronson is disappointed, there might be more life ahead for his closet version of "Rocky," which is not "Hard Times," but "Death Wish," and its sequels and franchise.

You can slap me silly and call me Sergeant Schultz and say I know nothing and it's all too true. But I'm still thinking that "Hard Times" is as good as four of the "Rockys," just lacks that special (commercial) something. Carl Weathers? Don't laugh.

"Simple dramaturgy to help the audience identify."

Remember all that, Roc-co. As if you could forget it.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."