Some Life Lessons from Rocky, Offered On the Release of Creed
I wrote this quite a while ago. A few years later I was able to get it to the man himself (and in return he autographed a Rocky poster for me). I thought I’d bring it up with the release of Creed.
It’s been almost 40 years since the release of the original Rocky, the Academy Award-winning tale of a club fighter from Philadelphia who gets his big shot at heavyweight champion Apollo Creed — and goes the distance, creating a new metaphor for personal triumph. The film made Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in the movie, a household name. It also established the name “A-d-r-i-i-a-a-n!” as a cry of the heart, and spawned as many sequels as Planet of the Apes.
I first saw the movie in the fall of 1976, and I was immediately affected in a unique way: I left the theater wanting to be better — at everything. Over the years, I have used the film as a kind of working-class catechism for right behavior. Here are just nine of the things I have learned.
Rocky: “My old man, he was never too smart, so he says to me you weren’t born with much of a brain, you know, so you better start using your body. Right? So I became a fighter.”
Adrian: “My mother, she said the opposite thing. She said you weren’t born with much of a body so you better develop your brain.”
Everyone has at least one thing they’re good at. Rather than obsess over what you can’t do, cultivate your garden. Become the best kazoo player in all of Baltimore. There will always be Power of Positive Thinking fakirs who will try to cajole you into believing that your failure to develop areas of weakness is a sign of cowardice. They’re idiots. If Einstein had spent 20 years trying to be a better basketball player, science would have been much poorer for it — and so would the NBA.
2. Set Your Own Goals
“I just wanna go the distance … I just want to prove I’m not another bum from the neighborhood.”
There will always be people around telling you what constitutes success. If you buy into their standards, those same people will be happy to inform you when you’ve failed. Don’t worry about competing against other people — or for other people.
Worry about competing for yourself. That means knowing what goals are reasonable. Running 26.3 miles — even in 26.3 hours, but under your own steam — is a perfectly reasonable goal for most. Mastering the multiple-record function on your VCR may prove all the success you need in life.
Never winning the Boston Marathon, the Nobel Prize, or an Oscar does not mean you’re a failure — only that you refused to play someone else’s game.
3. Bad Company Corrupts Good Morals
“You hang around coconuts you get nowhere. … You hang out with nice people you get nice friends. You hang out with smart people you get smart friends. You hang out with yo-yo people you end up with yo-yo friends. You see? It’s simple mathematics.”
In his advice to 12-year-old street kid Marie, who smokes and drinks and curses like … a 12-year-old street kid, Rocky reminds her of the principle of entropy (albeit translated into urban argot).
In short, everything falls apart, including one’s character and morals, unless something — or someone — greater uplifts and ennobles you. Who you admire is who you will become. Choose your heroes carefully. And don’t smoke, for heaven’s sake … and watch your mouth.
Minutes before the big fight, Apollo Creed sits at the end of his training table, staring fixedly into space, pounding a taped fist into the palm of his other hand. He is absolutely focused-inward. For Creed, his Will is his Absolute.
Cut to: Rocky Balboa in the men’s room, kneeling, a sink for an altar, head bowed, hands clasped, praying. Rocky knows that doing everything you can is not necessarily enough. Humility before the Eternal Ringside Judge is always wise. And remember: The bell can’t save you.
5. Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover
“You’re callin’ Apollo Creed a clown? Are you crazy? This man is champion of the world. He took his best shot and become champ.”
To Apollo Creed’s detractors, he’s a flamboyant, egotistical showman, less athlete than con artist. To Rocky, he is the undefeated, undisputed champion, a man who stepped up to a monumental challenge — and proved his mettle.
On a smaller scale, Adrian, in brother Paulie’s words, is not “a good-looking girl” — and is destined for spinsterhood. To Rocky, the mousy brunette from the pet shop only need remove her glasses — and she’s “a movie star.”
Rocky himself is a pug, a thug, a southpaw journeyman too stupid to realize he’s a pawn in a promotional game. He sees himself as nothing more than a “ham-and-egger” — “I’m at least half a bum.” But to Adrian, he’s something more. (Or would that be less?)
Look past the obvious and glean the potential. Then be an agent for realizing it.
6. Take Pride in Your Accomplishments — No Matter How Small (or Weird)
“Look at this face — 64 fights. Lookit that nose. See that nose? That nose ain’t never been broke in 64 fights. … I’m very proud of that. That’s rare.”
Rocky’s prospects for being mentioned in the same breath as Liston, Marciano and Ali are slim; the odds of making it into a Hall of Fame — one that doesn’t have the word “hoagie” in the name — are practically anorexic. But Rocky is willing to bask in the candlelight of an idiosyncratic achievement.
When it comes time to blow your own horn or retype that resume, tout those easily forgotten excellences, even if it is just a perfectly aquiline proboscis.
“Hey, Mick, look, I needed your help about 10 years ago, right? 10 years ago? You never helped me none. You didn’t care.”
So Mickey, a boxing trainer with a cauliflower ear and a vocabulary that’s early Bowery Boy, gave Rocky’s gym locker away to another fighter — a supposed “contender.” So Mickey called Rocky a “tomata.” So Mickey isn’t exactly Vince Lombardi.
But when Mickey comes crawling to Rocky’s apartment when he hears the southpaw has a shot at the champion, Rocky forgives — and avails himself of Mickey’s hard-won knowledge.
Harboring bitterness-even to one’s own detriment — is a hobby with many people. It gives us a sense of power, to know that we have something against someone. Releasing that energy by bestowing grace can mean the difference between cutting off your nose to spite your face and cutting down real obstacles to spite your detractors.
8. Women Do Not Weaken Legs
Mickey to Rocky: “You lay off that pet shop dame. Women weaken legs.”
The old wives’ (more probably, old trainers’) tale is that pre-competition sex depletes one of the necessary “life force” to perform at peak condition. Rocky’s first night with Adrian, if anything, is a source of renewed energy, vigor and resolve. But wait for true love and commitment — or you may be waiting for test results.
9. Try the Robe On First
If you haven’t seen the movie, let’s just say … well, see the movie. You’ll figure it out.