The Rocky franchise might contain some of the greatest sports movies of all time, but did you know it also acts as a platform for some of the most intriguing psychological and social metaphors in movie history? No? Where have you been?!
This isn’t just a series about an underdog with unnervingly large eyes and an endearing innocence to boot, no no. The Rocky movies are actually much deeper than that. In fact, each of the famous movie villains that have become so important to the franchise actually serve as blank slates for some thought-provoking metaphors. …We promise.
From the Rocky origins to Creed 3, we’ve taken a long hard look at some of these snarl-faced fictional boxing legends to present to you just exactly what these opponents actually, 100%, without a doubt, really represent. (Well, maybe not, but it’s fun to think about.)
Ivan Drago (Rocky 4): The Triumph of American Pride
It would be easy to misconstrue Apollo Creed as the all-American representation with the Rocky franchise. His signature flag attire and Uncle Sam hat definitely put the stars and stripes at the forefront. And when we see him during the third movie’s training montage, Apollo and Rocky both sprinting down the golden sunset-tinted beach, their muscly tree-trunk thighs rippling as they run and frolic in the crystal blue water, you can’t help but think: this is what America is all about, baby.
But the Rocky series’ alliance to its own nationalism actually comes in the form of the villainous Ivan Drago. Presented as more of a sweaty boxing-gloved terminator than an actual human being, Ivan Drago has one job: to stalk around the film (mostly) wordlessly, and to remind us that any threat to the US of A is unwelcome. The fact that he murders the human embodiment of the American flag in the first half of Rocky 4 is no small detail.
During the final fight, Rocky isn’t just fighting for revenge, he’s fighting for the fate of America. Wearing the iconic American flag shorts, Rocky beats Ivan to the ground. Even the Russians can’t contain their triumphant excitement for the Yank, cheering for him as he is boosted up into the air, wrapping him in the silken sheen of the American flag. When Ivan goes down, it’s not only a triumph for Rocky Balboa but all of the United States against those dastardly Soviets and anyone else who dares step on their turf.
Even Rocky’s final speech, which is part senseless rambling and part pro-alliance declaration, vaguely encouraging the Russians to consider a more peace-and-love mindset. (“If I can change, you can change!”) Even the Russian government officials are brought to their feet in applause for indeterminate reasons. Rocky, we salute you.
Apollo Creed (Rocky 1 and 2): The Tragedy of Ego
This former heavyweight champion was riding high on his pedestal until he was knocked off by underdog Rocky Balboa in the first drama movie of the series. And though The Dancing Destroyer, The King of Sting, met his demise at the bulky hands of Ivan Drago, don’t let yourself be fooled. For it wasn’t really the deep-voiced Russian that killed Apollo — it was his own ego.
A modern-day Icarus flying too close to the sun, Apollo was ultimately taken down by his lust for success and his yearning for showmanship. It’s never enough for Apollo, as surmised by his line from the second movie which sees him declare: “I won, but I didn’t beat him.”
His desire to put on a good show is amplified by his constant involvement in the creation of such performances, and even being the one to see the potential in the ‘Italian Stallion’ moniker.
Everything about Apollo is to inflate his own self-worth. His star-spangled sparkly visage adorns every fight, and he prioritises spectacle above everything else. This can be further seen in the fact that he, compared to his opponents, spends more time prancing around and riling up the crowd.
The show is paramount. Even in his final moments, his face bruised and bloodied and agonisingly pulped, he continues to yell garbled cries of, “No!” whenever Rocky looks like he might bring the fight to an end. Because he cannot stand to be beat, he ends up succumbing to his own inflated self-conceit.
Perhaps the most warped element of the scene comes as a result of his own limelight when photographers and audience members rush to the stage to rubberneck a glimpse of Apollo’s convulsing body after a deadly blow. Uttering one of the many great lines of the franchise, Ivan Drago perfectly sums up Apollo’s own attitude when it comes to ego vs. reason: “If he dies, he dies.”
Tommy Gunn (Rocky 5): The Arrogance of Youth
Tommy ‘The Machine’ Gunn presents a new challenge for the Italian Stallion in Rocky V. The young and angry boxing champion serves as a reflection on Rocky’s own age and abilities, with his bombastic personality and youthful aspirations making him seem like an unlikely adversary for the seasoned fighter.
Consistently brought down by his inexperience and immaturity, Tommy quickly grows angry at being referred to as a kid, unafraid to challenge anyone who tries to get in his way. But his quick-to-punch attitude and rage issues don’t exactly make him a dangerous adversary for Rocky.
Originally his protegee, Tommy quickly turns against his mentor after some media battering in the form of nicknames such as ‘Rocky’s Robot’, wanting to prove that he is just as good, if not better, than his superior. His immaturity is proven when he challenges Rocky by storming into a bar and knocking out Paulie, keen to skip the traditions and go full force in proving himself far too early.
The two wind up fighting outside the ring, and Rocky ends up knocking the younger man to the ground, who quickly gets escorted away by police. So Dunne never gets his big ringside showdown with Balboa, but he only has himself to blame. His need to one-up his elder counterpart causes him to forego any respect for the sport or for himself, and he winds up losing everything before he even has a chance to earn it.
Viktor Drago (Creed 2): The Sins of the Father
Viktor Drago, son of Ivan, is even more of a machine than his ruthless father. After Ivan was exiled from Russia and left by his wife following his shameful loss against Rocky, he dedicated the rest of his life to training his young son to become an unstoppable force. In essence, Viktor is a representation of everything Ivan could have been.
In a symbolic fight between Viktor and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis, it becomes a battle of the offspring. The prize? Justice. Viktor fights for his father’s reputation (though it’s never really made clear as to how much he cares), while Adonis fights to avenge his dearly departed dad. The Drago duo never seem to share much affection, so the relationship appears to lean more towards trainer and fighter than father and son.
How could Viktor ever become his own man when Ivan is ruled by his mission to rewrite the past? During Ivan’s confrontation with Rocky in Adrian’s Restaurant in Creed, he utters the line: “My son will break your boy.” Backed by Viktor’s wordless hooded presence, it harkens back to the similar line spoken by Drago way back in Rocky IV: “I must break you.” Ivan couldn’t break Rocky, so he built his son up to finish the job, one way or another.
It has to be said, there is some poetic redemption in Viktor’s arc. Turning history on its head and in a moment obviously referencing the original Creed vs. Drago battle, Ivan sees his son failing, crumbling, and throws in the towel. Plus, when Viktor comes back for a brief stint in Creed 3, greeting Adonis as an affectionate buddy and helping him get back on his game pre-fight, we know for sure that old quarrels have died. It looks like not all is lost in the world of Drago.
Clubber Lang (Rocky 3): The Folly of Complacency
Enjoying his fast rise to fame, the entire opening of Rocky III serves as a montage of success. Magazine covers, his name in lights at Radio City Hall, and sponsorship deals litter Rocky’s life post-Apollo Creed rematch.
Balboa, who was once a young and hungry fighter filled with fire, is now at ease. His world seems to do the work for him, not the least of which in the form of his manager Mickey setting up fights with lacklustre opponents, unknown to Rocky. Later, after the challenge has been set, we see the full effect of Rocky’s complacency.
While Rocky trains in a gymnasium open to the public, he is distracted by his own resources. Fans come up to him and ask for kisses while he works out, he jams along to his theme song being played on loop by a live band, while Mickey begs him to take things seriously. In comparison, Clubber Lang is duking it out in grimy gyms and spending every minute perfecting himself ahead of the fight.
Before the big match, when a shove from Lang causes Mickey to have a heart attack and die, Rocky is faced with the unbearable question: did his lack of effort bring this about?
Fame and money do not always equal results, and Rocky learns that in order to keep his title and earn his name, he must go back to his roots and continue to be as hungry and determined as he was at the beginning.
Damian Anderson (Creed 3): The Shadow of Guilt
Damian Anderson, played by part-man, part-tree Jonathan Majors, is the human embodiment of guilt. After childhood friends Adonis and Damian (Dame) are torn apart after an ill-advised night, Adonis has to forever live with the fact that he abandoned his spiritual brother, who then went to prison for most of his life.
When Dame comes back, Adonis tries to fix his own shame by offering to help his newly released friend and allowing him to train in the gym and inviting him into his home. But all the grand gestures in the world can’t help Adonis outrun his past trauma, and when he and Dame come to blows, he has to get out of his own head and learn how to forgive himself.
Not only does Dame represent the guilt of Adonis and his wrongdoings, but also his own fear of what his life could have been. Growing up in a group home, he got out of his old life with sheer luck, and Dame serves as a reminder of how very different his future could have been. For Creed, it’s not something he wants to be reminded of. It’s only when he comes face-to-face with Dame in the ring that he can move on and, ultimately, clear his conscience with an apology.
Well. Now you know. We’re sorry you’ll never be able to look at Rocky movies in the same way, given the deep metaphorical roots that you now know are buried there. But it’s all for the best, isn’t it?
Now next time you settle in to watch Balboa or Creed prepare to face another nemesis, maybe you’ll think twice about whether they really are just mindless villains.
If you want to step into the ring again, take a look at our Creed 3 review, or check out how to watch Creed 3, or see what we thought of Jonathan Majors’ first venture into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in our Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania review. And don’t forget to check out all the new movies coming in 2023!