In 1975, a little-known actor named Sylvester Stallone (Tulsa King) watched boxer Chuck Wepner take the legendary Muhammad Ali to the 15th round of a heavyweight championship match. Wepner lost, but the underdog made a lasting impression on Stallone. Legend has it that Stallone went home and wrote the first draft to Rocky, which he finished three days later. One year later, Rocky became the highest-grossing film of 1976 and won the Oscar for Best Picture.
Nearly 50 years later, Rocky is one of the most successful franchises ever. The franchise is known for its underdog mentality, motivational training montages, and riveting boxing matches. With the addition of Michael B. Jordan (Without Remorse) and the Creed films, the Rocky franchise has inspired a new generation of fans looking for an unlikely hero. With Creed III in theaters, I had the Wepner-like task of ranking the Rocky and Creedmovies from worst to best. Keep reading to see which film took the top spot.
Note: Creed III was not considered for the list.
While the best movie in the Rocky franchise may be up for discussion, there is no debating the worst. That title belongs to Rocky V, the 1990 sequel to Rocky IV. Stallone hates the film and gave it a score of zero out of 10. Picking up after the events of the fight versus Ivan Drago (Section Eight’s Dolph Lundgren), Rocky returns to Philadelphia, discovering he’s bankrupt as a result of his brother-in-law Paulie’s (Chinatown’s Burt Young) string of poor financial decisions.
Since he can’t fight due to poor health, Rocky decides to reopen the gym previously owned by his mentor, Mickey Goldmill (Rocky’s Burgess Meredith), and train an upstart boxer named Tommy Gunn (professional boxer Tommy Morrison). Rocky gains a new lease on life as a trainer, but Gunn eventually abandons Rocky for the eccentric promoter George Washington Duke (Men of a Certain Age’s Richard Gant). From the ineffective subplot surrounding Rocky’s kid to the mediocre street fight against Gunn, Rocky V is not worth your time.
Had there been no Rocky V, Rocky Balboa would have been a good ending for the franchise. Written and directed by Stallone, Rocky is 60 years old and runs an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia in this film. Rocky is now a widow after the death of his wife, Adrian (The Godfather’s Talia Shire), who succumbed to cancer four years prior. After watching a simulated fight between himself and undefeated heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (professional boxer Antonio Tarver), Rocky gets back into fighting, renewing his boxing license.
It culminates with an exhibition fight against Dixon, with Rocky pushing the champion to his absolute limit. Rocky Balboa did what Rocky V failed to do, as it recaptured the underdog spirit that made Rockya global sensation. Rocky’s relationship with his son (This Is Us’s Milo Ventimiglia) is also much more believable in Rocky Balboa than in the fifth film.
Creed II follows the formula of most sequels: bigger and louder, with higher stakes. Three years after the events of Creed, Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is now the WBC World Heavyweight Champion. When Viktor Drago (The Contractor), son of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, challenges Donnie for the title, Rocky refuses to help Donnie train, which leads to the young champion moving to Los Angeles with Bianca (Thor: Love and Thunder’s Tess Thompson). After their first fight ends in controversy, Viktor becomes a folk hero in Russia, restoring prominence to the Drago family name.
Meanwhile, Donnie struggles to adjust to life with his newborn daughter, who is born deaf. Donnie needs one thing and one thing only, Rocky, who reenters his life and helps Donnie regain his magic from the first film. Though predictable, Creed II is still very entertaining, with excellent fight scenes and good performances from Jordan and Stallone.
After the success of Rocky, Stallone directed his first film in the franchise, Rocky II. The film begins with Rocky and Apollo Creed (The Mandalorian’s Carl Weathers) in the hospital after their epic fight from the first film, which Apollo won by split decision. Apollo wants a rematch with Rocky to prove that he’s the one true champion. However, Rocky declines and reluctantly retires from boxing. While Rocky marries Adrian and plans to start a family, Apollo starts a smear campaign against Balboa to goad him out of retirement.
Rocky finally accepts the rematch, but does it without Adrian’s support — initially. The last fight in Rocky II is spectacular and ranks toward the top of the best fights in the franchise. However, Adrian going into a coma after the premature birth of their son is a puzzling storyline that still doesn’t make sense over 40 years later. Still, Rocky II is a worthy entry into the franchise. Plus, it provided the iconic line, “Yo, Adrian, I did it,” which is among the most famous quotes from the films.
Two words: Clubber Lang. Played by Mr. T (The A-Team), James “Clubber” Lang is the young loudmouth who challenges Rocky for the title five years after the events of Rocky II. Rocky’s grit and dedication have taken a back seat to his rock star persona, leaving the champion vulnerable to a challenger like Clubber. When Clubber faces Rocky for the first time, it’s not even close. Clubber wins the championship and beats Rocky badly. Even worse, Mickey dies shortly after the fight.
To regain his underdog mentality, Rocky trains with Apollo and slowly regains his focus as he moves on from Mickey’s death. The beach scene is one of the more memorable moments in the franchise, but Rocky III belongs to Mr. T. From his catchy one-liners (“I pity the fool!”) to his eccentric personality, Mr. T outshines every actor in this film, including Stallone, and cements himself as the greatest villain to ever come out of the Rocky franchise.
Come for a message about the Cold War, but stay for the epic montages. The fourth film centers around the arrival of Ivan Drago, a Soviet Union boxer who has more performance-enhancing drugs in his body than Jose Canseco. Apollo Creed fights Drago in an exhibition match, but the Russian treats the bout like a title fight and beats Apollo to death. Riddled with grief and motivated by revenge, Rocky challenges Drago to an unsanctioned 15-round match in the Soviet Union.
If three things define a Rocky movie, it’s music, montages, and fights. Rocky IV gives you all three in excess. Yet, it somehow works without becoming annoying. From speeding down the freeway to the tune of No Easy Way Out to training in the snow-covered mountains of Russia with Heart’s on Fire in the background, these montages will motivate you to run through a brick wall. James Brown even appears to sing Living in America during Apollo’s entrance. It’s all about spectacle, and Rocky IV is a movie that is not afraid to be over the top.
In theory, Creed should not have worked. Rebooting the Rocky franchise with a spinoff that introduced a new character (Adonis) to take the reins from Stallone is as risky as it gets. Not only does Creed work, but it’s easily one of the three best films in the franchise. Adonis “Donnie” Creed is an up-and-coming fighter with a huge secret. Donnie is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Donnie shows up unannounced at Rocky’s restaurant in Philadelphia and asks the former champion to train him. Rocky eventually agrees, and the duo form a familial relationship that mirrors a bond between an uncle and a nephew.
When Rocky gets sick, the tables are flipped as Donnie becomes the trainer, pushing his mentor to fight his disease. Creed injected the Rocky franchise with a jolt of energy it desperately needed. From Ryan Coogler’s script and direction to the performances from Jordan and Stallone, Creed is as uplifting as the original Rocky while giving the franchise an updated version of an underdog story. Plus, the fight that’s shot in one long take is worth the price of admission.
There’s only one answer for the greatest movie in the franchise, and that’s Rocky. The first film introduced the world to the working-class boxer from the streets of Philadelphia, better known as the “Italian Stallion.” Rocky gets the shot of a lifetime when the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Apollo Creed, picks him to fight on New Year’s Day. Rocky is very unorthodox in his training methods — he uses slabs of beef as punching bags. However, there’s no denying his toughness, something Creed quickly discovers in their back-and-forth battle.
Stallone does not play Rocky; he is Rocky. He embodies what it means to be an underdog. Stallone was relatively unknown in the early ’70s due to his rough persona and speech impediment. When he wrote Rocky, studios wanted the script, but did not want Stallone to star. Instead of selling his script, Stallone took less money to play the titular role, a bet that changed his life. From the music and montages to the iconic image of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky became a symbol of hope and inspiration for the “little guy.” Almost 50 years later, Rocky is still the champion.
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