Written By: Steve Rushin
Sylvester Stallone was the first to admit there was nothing new about Rocky Balboa, whose most famous monosyllable—“Yo!”—is likely as old as Cro-Magnon man. The Roman numerals appended to four Rocky sequels date to Caesar’s time, while the main storyline of the film franchise—as a television announcer shrieks in Rocky IV, just before Balboa squares off with Ivan Drago—is “a true case of David and Goliath!”
Whatever its origin, the Rocky franchise taps into something eternal, possibly even preverbal, though Stallone dates the protagonist that he created only to the dawn of cinema. “I didn’t invent this formula of the little guy who beats the system,” said the star, writer, and sometime director, himself a metaphorical little guy who beat the system. “Frank Capra did very well with it, and so did Charlie Chaplin. If Rocky proves anything, it’s that old formulas never die.” By the time Stallone wrote Rocky, Hollywood had already made roughly 100 boxing movies.
“Rocky revives something old that has always worked,” is how Burgess Meredith put it on the eve of the 1977 Oscars, when he was up for Best Supporting Actor for the role of boxing trainer Mickey Goldmill. “It allows the audience to participate. They feel that’s them up there on the screen. They have an emotional investment in the film.”
If old formulas never die, neither do old boxers. Rocky Balboa, who burst into the American consciousness 45 years ago, in 1976, has lived on through eight movies and counting. The character earned a Best Actor nomination for Stallone at the start of the Jimmy Carter administration (for Rocky) and a Best Supporting Actor nod at the end of the Barack Obama presidency (for Creed). That 39-year gap between nominations is the longest for any actor playing the same character.
In those four decades, “Yo, Adrian” has joined the very short list of very short quotes that are instantly identifiable with a classic character from a classic film. Tourists to this day run up the 72 stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—now called the Rocky Steps—as the title character did in Rocky, and venerate the statue of Rocky that Stallone commissioned, as a prop, for Rocky III. The statue has done almost as much running through Philadelphia as the character it represents. It once stood at the top of the museum steps, was moved to Philadelphia’s Spectrum arena—site of Balboa’s first fight with Apollo Creed—and now stands at the bottom of the museum’s steps, bronze arms forever raised in triumph, holding the pose for tourists with selfie sticks.
When the robe that Rocky wore into the ring to fight Apollo Creed for the first time made its way into the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian, sharing a roof with Lincoln’s top hat and Edison’s light bulb, that museum’s then-director, Brent D. Glass, said: “The story of Rocky Balboa, an underdog from the urban working class, is a quintessential depiction of the American dream.” Can the same be said of Stallone, and the making of Rocky?
As Rock would say: “Abzalootly.”
“In one year, my life exploded for the better,” Stallone said in the 2020 documentary 40 Years of Rocky: The Birth of a Classic. “So I tell people, ‘you never know.’ You just never, never know if you’re gonna hit the lottery. You just gotta keep buying tickets.”
Here is a selection of images from LIFE’s new special issue Rocky: Underdog. Fighter. Champion.