From the depths of obscurity, Rocky Balboa rose to become an international icon – both in the fictional world on-screen and in real life, turning Sylvester Stallone into a star in the process. But a boxer is nothing without opponents, all of whom played a key role in Rocky’s success and arguably deserve more respect for their efforts, beginning with:
An established champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) selects the unknown Rocky as an opponent in order to excite the world and promote the American Dream. In doing so, Creed not only provides Rocky with a substantial and undeserved payday, but helps get him off the streets, where he works as a thuggish debt collector for a callous loan shark.
Creed then spends the following weeks almost single-handedly promoting the fight while Rocky trains as hard as possible, leaving it almost entirely to Creed to generate interest and ensure the event is a success.
With minimal training, Creed then wins their fight, yet he is lambasted by fans due to the closer-than-expected result. Despite generously giving Rocky his initial opportunity with little benefit to himself, Creed is then left having to practically beg for a re-match.
Eventually Rocky relents, agreeing to and winning a re-match, all but finishing the career of a man who undoubtedly changed (and potentially even saved) Rocky’s life.
Memorably played by acting powerhouse Mr T, Clubber Lang is a boxer filled with rage but also enormous ambition. After brushes with the law as a juvenile, Lang focuses his energy on boxing, constructively turning his life around and earning a title shot against Rocky through sheer willpower and dedication.
Having already achieved much that is worthy of praise, Lang then has to deal with the ignominy of having an initial win against Rocky tainted by the suggestion he only won due to the ill-health and death of Rocky’s trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
Magnanimously agreeing to a re-match, Lang then loses and is never heard from again, despite setting an excellent example of what can be achieved through hard work and perseverance.
At the height of strained international relations and with the weight of the entire Soviet Union on his shoulders, much is expected of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Subjected to an apparently state-sanctioned doping regime, he is treated like a machine, with scant regard for his long-term health and well-being.
After accidentally killing Apollo Creed in a bout, his emotional health is also ignored, with his apparent indifference to the situation indicating a wealth of issues that go unaddressed.
Yet against the odds, and despite losing their bout, Drago learns to respect Rocky over the course of the film, serving as a fine illustration of how people can change and accept others despite their apparent differences.
Again, nothing is heard from Drago following his loss, leading to grave concerns about the consequences he faced from his country’s unforgivingly strict regime. All this despite trying his best, taking a beating and ultimately helping bring nations together.
Played by real-life boxer Tommy Morrison, Gunn is another example of someone pulling themselves up by the bootstraps to make something of their life.
Much like Rocky himself, Gunn has talent, but lacks the direction and guidance necessary to establish a career. Instead of providing this to Gunn in the way others had generously done for him in the past, Rocky throws Gunn out onto the street. Unperturbed, Gunn refuses to give up, continuing to dedicate himself to training and forging a formidable career.
For his troubles, Rocky then beats Gunn up in an illegal street fight, punishing a guy he could easily have helped, setting a terrible example on how to deal with problems.
Special mention should also go to first-time actor Morrison who proves that even if you lack ability at something (in his case acting), trying your best is always a worthy goal.
Mason "The Line" Dixon
Beating up an old man rarely earns someone praise, but Rocky’s final opponent, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), deserves credit for giving Rocky one final shot.
Aware he will receive no credit for defeating a 60-year-old man, Dixon grudgingly accepts the proposed fight, performs admirably and allows Rocky to finally lay his demons to rest. In response, he is treated with little respect, if not total disdain, for gifting a man a final chance.
With the exception of Apollo Creed, little is heard of Rocky’s opponents following the events of their respective films. Perhaps in their own worlds, they all go on to great things and are lauded for their achievements as they each richly deserve.
Or perhaps they are genuinely relegated to obscurity, forced to cope with the financial struggle and health issues facing many boxers, taking some small and selfless satisfaction that they helped one man achieve great things in a brutally unforgiving sport.