While it may come as a surprise, 2021 marks 45 years since Sylvester Stallone first graced our screens as Rocky Balboa. We know it’s true, but we still can’t quite believe that the Rocky film series has been around for so long now. Over the years, Rocky has become one of the biggest movie franchises ever, thanks to both the Stallone- and Michael B. Jordan-helmed films.
Whether he lost or won his fights, Sly’s Rocky taught us all the importance of believing in yourself, putting in the hard work, and, you know, persevering — even if that means working out to “Eye of the Tiger” ad nauseam. (Thanks, Rocky III.) And, off the silver screen, Stallone is also a prime example of those same attributes; he put in the effort and, even now, he’s a Hollywood icon.
Want to learn more about the history of the Rocky series? Read on for some reminiscing as well as a look ahead at the future of this enduring film franchise.
The Series Actually Had a Rocky Start
Stallone studied drama in college and had big dreams of becoming an actor. But, after school, he really struggled to catch a meaningful break. Not to mention, he was broke — and not booking jobs of any kind. While living with his wife and dog in Hollywood, the idea for Rocky came to Sly in the mid-’70s, while he was watching a boxing match.
“One night, to cheer myself up, I took the last of my entertainment money and went to see the Muhammad Ali/Chuck Wepner fight,” Stallone shared with Empire. “Wepner finally established himself as one of the few men who had ever gone the distance with Muhammad Ali. This is why he had been training for 34 years. I said to myself, ‘Now the only thing I’ve got to do is get a character to that point and I’ve got my story.'”
Inspired by the fight, the beloved actor and director wrote the full script for Rocky in three and a half days. At first, he had a rough time selling the script, which felt like par for the course for the struggling artist. But, after a long negotiation with producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, Stallone sold the script to them. Sly’s only condition? He wanted to play the lead character, Rocky Balboa.
Although the producers initially wanted to cast a bigger name for the role, they eventually agreed. The first Rocky was filmed on a $1 million budget in just 28 days, which is amazing considering it became such a sleeper hit.
“Rocky” Became an Overnight Sensation
Spoiler Alert: Even though Rocky Balboa may have technically lost his big fight in the first film, Stallone and Rocky won big. Although the movie had a small budget — by Hollywood standards — it went on to earn a whopping $225 million in global box office sales after it was released in theaters in 1976.
In the end, it became the highest-grossing film of 1976 and catapulted Stallone to instant superstardom, which meant more opportunities and long, successful career. Just like the his onscreen underdog character, Stallone finally got his shot — and it proved to be a real knockout.
Impressively, the movie went on to receive nine Oscar nominations. At the 1977 Academy Awards, Rocky ended up nabbing three of those Oscars. As the first feature-length film to use the Steadicam camera stabilizer, Rocky won the award for Best Editing, while John Avildsen claimed the Best Director prize. But the real win? Rocky won Best Picture, beating out now-classics like Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men.
In 2006, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry with the Library of Congress deeming it “culturally, historically, [and/or] aesthetically significant.”
The Sequels Really Did the Character Justice
Thanks to the first film’s monumental success, execs green lit quite a few sequels. The formula for the Rocky pictures is simple — yet effective. In each one, Rocky faces some kind of obstacle while preparing for a major fight. No matter the final outcomes, he always pushes himself to give it his all.
The sequels were relatable — not just for athletes, but for underdogs from all walks of life. Although things didn’t always work out perfectly in the Rocky films, the movies still illustrated the importance of persisting, no matter your circumstances. Ultimately, whether you win or lose, the journey you take toward reaching your goals is more important than the end result itself.
From time to time, we could all use some of this sort of Hollywood inspiration. And that’s been made clear by the franchise’s continued success. In total, the series has grossed more than $1.7 billion at the worldwide box office.
“Rocky” Effortlessly Passed the Baton to a New Generation With “Creed”
After 2006’s Rocky Balboa, Stallone was ready to let the series go. However, nearly a decade later, director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station) — who was a huge fan of the franchise — had an idea for a revamp of sorts.
The story would center around Adonis Johnson Creed, or Donnie, the son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend, the late Apollo Creed. Donnie, played by Michael B. Jordan, would follow in the footsteps of Rocky himself, learning how to be a real boxer in the ring while Balboa coached him from the other side of the ropes.
Initially, Stallone was against the idea. However, his agent convinced him to accept Coogler’s pitch, and, in the end, Stallone reprised his role as Rocky, serving as a trainer and mentor to the young Creed. The new 2015 film was a critical and commercial success, earning over $173.56 million worldwide and spawning an equally well-received sequel, Creed II (2018).
The Future of the “Rocky” Franchise Looks Bright
Recently, Stallone announced that he’s working on a director’s cut of Rocky IV (1985), appropriately titled Rocky vs. Drago — The Ultimate Director’s Cut, in celebration of the film’s 35th anniversary. “So far it looks great. Soulful. Thank you, MGM, for this opportunity to entertain,” he shared last year in an Instagram post. The famed actor-turned-director recently confirmed that he had finished the last day of production for the special cut. Clearly, the Rocky legacy is alive and well — in many ways.
And while Creed certainly stands on its own as a franchise, it’s still very much part of that larger Rocky legacy, too. Following in Stallone’s footsteps, Michael B. Jordan will make his own directorial debut with Creed III, which is set to be released in November 2022.
“I thought Rocky was over in 2006, and I was very happy with that, and then, all of the sudden, this young man presented himself and the whole story changed,” Stallone said of the Creed franchise. “It went on to a new generation. New problems. New adventures. And I couldn’t be happier, because as I step back, as my story has been told, there’s a whole new world that’s gonna be opening up, for the audience, for this generation.”
Forty-five years later, Rocky — the character and the film — continues to live on. A new generation has fallen in love with the stories of both Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed, forever encouraged by underdogs who rise up, no matter the odds.