Editor’s note: Travis Barrett of Kennebec Journal is ranking his top 10 sports movies of all-time. Punching in at No. 5 on the list is 1976 heavyweight “Rocky.”

As the decades piled up, and as both the character and actor became caricatures of themselves, it’s easy to forget just how good the original “Rocky” installment was.

The 1976 Oscar-winning film for Best Picture hit every single high note with ease, and it dragged viewers through the low notes with the kind of realism absent from most modern-day boxing movies.

It’s the fighter trying to punch his way out of the life of a loser. It’s the sleazy promoters out to make a few bucks off the busted noses and beat-in brains of bar room brawlers. It’s the unlikeliest of love stories, the working class in America in the 1970s trapped by poverty and alcoholism, and — supposedly — a sports movie.

The first Rocky episode of so many to follow was the best and brightest, rivaled only by Rocky II, which might be one of the finest movie sequels of any genre ever produced. But what makes the first film so good is that it’s Rocky before Rocky became “Rocky,” that it’s a film which stays true to its intentions long before it became a billion-dollar franchise churning out sorry storyline after sorry storyline to the masses eager to reconnect with the nostalgia.

Two things of note, each of which would be glaring omissions when discussing the original “Rocky” film.

The first — unlike the sequels that followed with their formulaic process of hot-shot contender followed by a bruising loss followed by a build to Rocky overcoming all odds to win — is that there’s very little actual boxing in Rocky. There are a few training scenes and, of course, it ends with the title bout against Apollo Creed, but aside from that, it’s two hours of very little fighting (at least in the ring).

The second, and most significant note, is that Rocky doesn’t win.

We think of Rocky today as always winning, to the point of eye-rolling when we see a trailer for yet another Rocky movie grace the big screen. Before ever buying the tickets, the popcorn and the soda pop, we already know how a Rocky movie is going to end.

Not this one.

It was a superbly self-aware story.

Long before he was the statue atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky Balboa was a hapless enforcer for a local crime boss. Long before he and Adrian lived in a multi-level mansion with a talking robot butler (Rocky III), he’d been kicked out of his locker at the local gym for the sin of having not amounted to much of anything. Long before he overcame Hollywood-sized odds over and over again to become a multi-time heavyweight champion of the world, he was lecturing corner kids on how to put their lives on the right path.

Which prompted one such corner kid to call Balboa out on his bullcrap.

It’s in that moment Rocky becomes “Rocky,” when the down-and-out local punching bag is faced with every ounce of his unfulfilled promise. If there ever was much promise to begin with.

It begins as a joke.

It begins with the heavyweight champion of the world looking to drum up interest in an otherwise meaningless title defense by celebrating the nation’s bicentennial with a bout against a local nobody.

How Rocky becomes that choice is perhaps the only plot point one could take issue with, but it’s Rocky’s story and not the story of “Trent” or “Billy” or whoever else the champ could have chosen given the unlikely scenario.

Watching Rocky go from apathy to belief to doubt, and watching those closest to him filled with jealousy, or simply wanting a piece of the good fortune the challenger is granted for themselves, there’s so much good in this film simply because it feels so raw and so real.

By the time the night before the fight with Creed arrives, Rocky is inconsolable with doubt. He knows he doesn’t belong in this ring — in this arena — with the best fighter on the planet. But Rocky also stunningly realizes this is the one and only chance his life has ever granted him, and he knows he’s arrived at the place where he can leave a legacy.

He doesn’t have to win.

He just has to survive.

He simply has to be the only fighter ever to survive 15 rounds against Creed.

And, in a final stroke of genius filmmaking, by the time the fight ends none of us are even concerned about who wins and who loses.

And neither is Rocky.

Because at the end of every Rocky movie, the one constant throughout the franchise is that it’s about overcoming one’s self more than it’s ever been about overcoming an opponent.

That’s not sports, that’s real life. Ring the bell.


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