Movies that changed my life: Rocky (1976)

“Rocky” (1976)

It’s probably been twenty years since I saw a movie that changed my life, and that has zero to do with the current quality of film.  It is that after a while, the lessons repeat: you get it.  Otherwise, IMO, you aren’t paying attention.

One film that definitely did this was the original “Rocky”, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone.  I was 24 when I saw it, and it blew my mind.  You’ll see why.

Let’s apply the Hero’s Journey to this Oscar-winner

CONFRONTED WITH CHALLENGE:  Small time boxer (and gangster “muscle”) Rocky Balboa must find a life of meaning. He is alone, losing hope of a boxing career, basically good-hearted but lives in a general fog.

REJECTS CHALLENGE:   He cannot dream “large”.  He satisfies himself with small pleasures: sex, alcohol, competing in small-time fights, making enough money to “get by”, being one of the local guys everyone knows.   It is a small world, but a world he understands.

ACCEPTS CHALLENGE: A summons arrives from the larger world: Apollo Creed, champion of the world, wants to fight him for the title.

ROAD OF TRIALS: Rocky must deal with his fear that he can’t even provide a good fight.  His anger that Mickey, the owner of the local gym, didn’t support him before now, even though he desperately needs the old Master’s advice.  There is a parallel journey: the boxing is an external metaphor, but according to Stallone, the REAL journey belongs to Adrianne,  the pet-shop girl Rocky loves.  She blossoms from a total wallflower to a lovely, sensual woman who must separate herself from her clod of a brother and accept that a man could love and desire her.   Rocky’s journey then is to accept his worth on multiple levels: as a boxer and as a man.   His growth matches hers, and is wonderful to watch.   Of course, his training, running, pushups, hitting the bag and so forth are all part of his “road.”

ALLIES AND POWERS:   Adrienne, who gives him something to fight for beyond himself. Paulie, Mickey, etc.  Even Apollo Creed is an ally: without him, Rocky would never have “awakened” to his actual life. Rocky’s powers?  He is a tremendous athlete of course, but more to the point, he has a gigantic heart, a phenomenal wellspring of love, is a totally sweet-natured lug everyone can cheer for.  A genuinely good guy.

CONFRONT EVIL-DEFEATED:  This is the moment when the movie became amazing to me.  Revelatory. Rocky goes to the arena the night before the fight, sees the banners, talks to the promoter, and realizes this isn’t a fight–it is just a show, and he is the dancing monkey, the canvas on which Champion Creed will paint another masterpiece of destruction.

He has no chance at all.  Devastating.

DARK NIGHT: Adrienne finds him staring into the mirror. Asks him what is wrong. And he says that he knows he cannot win.

LEAP OF FAITH: Rocky is not “smart”.  But he is wise.   What does he say?  Roughly, that no one has ever gone the distance with Creed.  That single thing: to be on his feet at the end of 15 rounds, is the only thing he can control.  And that, therefore, he is CHANGING THE DEFINITION OF WINNING.   Not knocking Creed out. Not getting the decision.  THESE THINGS DEMAND CONTROLLING EXTERNAL CIRCUMSTANCE.   He will seek only to control himself. To be on his feet. And the prize might not be a title–it is self respect.  “I’ll know for the first time that I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood.”  Flippin’ brilliant.

CONFRONT EVIL–VICTORIOUS: Apollo was never “the evil”. The evil was the doubt and confusion that masked his life, made him a muscular Big Boy instead of an adult man.  Because all Rocky focuses on is not being knocked out, he comes within a hair of beating the greatest boxer of his age…

STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER: He gets his self respect. He gets the love of a good woman.   For the first time in his life, he has awakened to who he really is: the champion of the world says “ain’t gonna be no rematch.”   Rocky is no bum. He is one of the very best, ever.

Man, that conclusion, when everyone else is waiting for the judge’s decision and Rocky just wants to hold his woman, slays me every time.  THAT is clarity of values.


From my own position, the critical lesson is that in every competitive arena, every situation where you are trying to express the best of yourself, you must define the terms of victory.   There is a great bit in “Karate Kid 2” where Mr. Miyagi, forced to fight an old frenemy, gets the man to agree that regardless of the outcome of the fight, their village will own all its own property, forever.   Therefore, before a punch has been thrown, Miyagi already wins.

THAT is proper strategic thinking.  You must define the terms so that YOU determine victory, and preferably do it in such a way that inner and outer victory are simultaneously facilitated.  As concentrating not on “beating Creed” but “staying on his feet” educed Rocky’s transcendant performance, your ability to decide that life does NOT get to define whether or not you are a success, that success will be based on whether you adhere to your values, express your essence, tap more deeply into your soul…

Those things you can control. And almost accidentally, they will also open the door to your finest performance.


Neglect this step, and you’re pretty much screwed.   Master it, and life becomes one success after another, in a way that becomes almost magical.

Master the “inner game.”



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