The debate rages on today and will continue to for eternity, what is the greatest Rocky sequel? Rocky V was a train wreck while Rocky Balboa (the sixth installment of the franchise) made a valiant effort but was undone by its ridiculous premise that a man in his late fifties could go-toe-to toe with the heavyweight champion of the world. That leaves II, III, and IV as the contenders for the best sequel. It must be mentioned that all three also happen to be written and directed by Sylvester “Sly” Stallone. Sly may not be Scorsese but the man knows what audiences want and how to give it to them. While II, III, and IV all have strong cases for the greatest Rocky sequel, Rocky III which turned 30 this year - and is currently available on blu-ray - gets the nod for the following reasons.
An Opening Montage with No Equals
Rocky III begins with the ubiquitous Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now” and flashes back to Rocky’s last second victory over Apollo Creed in Rocky II. Freezing on a still shot of the Italian Stallion’s bruised and bloodied face the song “Eye of the Tiger” starts in quietly then crescendos to fireworks exploding into a giant illuminated Rocky sign. The full guitar kicks in and we are off and running into the greatest eighties montage in the history of eighties montages. We see Rocky’s several successful title defenses with some classic Rocky grunting mixed-in as he pummels his opponents.
Running nearly four minutes the montage not only shows Rocky’s growing success it also sets up his future conflicts. We see his brother in-law Paulie drinking angrily with every mounting Rocky victory while his soon to be rival Clubber Lang watches bitterly. Did we mention that “Eye of the Tiger” is playing the whole time? The montage shifts to Rocky’s growing fame and wealth. Magazine covers flash-in including People, Newsweek, along with appearances in an American Express commercials and The Muppet Show (hallmarks of eighties fame and success).
The montage rolls on with Clubber training in squalor and racking up victories while Rocky is getting more and more consumed with the trappings of fame. We’re only about five minutes in and the story has been brilliantly laid out, but more importantly the audience is worked into a frenzy and fully onboard the Rocky train.
Rocky vs. The Hulkster
In 1982 professional wrestling was reaching new heights of popularity and Sly shrewdly capitalized on this by including a charity fight scene between Rocky and Thunderlips, a wrestler played by a young Hulk Hogan. While this sequence does very little to move the story forward it might be the most entertaining scene in the entire franchise.
Thunderlips enters the ring wanting to prove that wrestlers are superior to boxers and pummels Rocky with a series of wrestling moves eventually picking him up over his head and hurling him out of the ring. Beaten but not defeated, Rocky gets his revenge by choking out Thunderlips and giving him a taste of his own medicine by miraculously picking him up and tossing his 300 lb plus frame out of the ring. Rocky once again proves that he can take all comers and the audience gets an incredible bonus fight scene.
Clubber is the Real Man
Up to this point in the movie, Clubber Lang played by eighties icon Mr. T, has been basically stalking Rocky even attending the aforementioned bout with Thunderlips inexplicably wearing a tuxedo. This time Clubber shows up at Rocky’s statue dedication ceremony demanding a shot at the champ. With the help his manager Mickey, Rocky doesn’t initially take the bait but when Clubber goes after his wife Adrian asking her if she wants to come to his apartment and see what a “real man” is like Rocky goes ballistic. Rocky and Clubber are restrained before they can start pummeling each other but the match is set and everyone can’t wait to see Clubber get exactly what he deserves.
Rocky Actually Loses…No Really, He Does
While Rocky takes his share of beatings in II and IV he managed to come back and win each fight, however in Rocky III he loses convincingly to Clubber in their first bout, getting knocked out in the second round. While no one wants to see the Italian Stallion fail this loss raises the stakes for his rematch with Clubber. By the time the second fight begins the audience wants to see Clubber unconscious on the canvas like never before.
The Death of Mickey
After the first bout with Clubber, Rocky’s faithful and tough talking trainer Mickey dies of a heart attack. A mainstay of the first two movies, this is the man responsible for molding Rocky into a champion not to mention his de facto father figure. Mickey dying is arguably one the most emotional moments in all the Rocky movies and the audience is left wondering how Rocky will ever recover.
Apollo to the Rescue
For the first two Rocky movies Apollo is the villain we love to hate, but in Rocky III we see a different side of him when he becomes Rocky’s trainer and trusted friend. Apollo has his own motives for helping Rocky, including wanting to see Clubber get what he deserves after getting insulted by him. He also wants an unspecified favor from Rocky which is revealed at the end of the movie. The Rocky and Apollo alliance doesn’t start smoothly but eventually they become best friends, something thought to be impossible in the first two movies. Establishing the friendship with Apollo also sets up Rocky’s motive for revenge in Rocky IV when Apollo dies in the ring at the hands of an unremorseful Ivan Drago.
The Training Montage with a Twist
A Rocky movie is not a Rocky movie without its training montage set to “Gonna Fly Now,” however III puts a unique twist on the training montage by making the audience think its about to begin and then pulling back. Rocky goes with Apollo to train in his home town of Los Angeles. Apollo tells Rocky that he can’t out punch Clubber so he needs to get leaner and faster. Rocky struggles with Apollo’s training regimen and gives up during their wind sprints on the beach. Rocky doesn’t know if he wants to fight and is poised to quit but enter Adrian who gives him a pep talk and convinces him to continue on. “Gonna Fly Now” starts up and now after being teased the audience gets their training montage. The montage ends with Rocky finally outrunning Apollo on the beach and both of them celebrating as BFFs.
Rocky Goes Back to Being Rocky
The rematch with Clubber gets underway and Rocky uses his new found speed and agility to dominate the first round, however in the second round Clubber adapts and starts winning the fight. Rocky then changes strategy going back to the street brawler we know and love. His strategy is simple, let Clubber beat on him until he tires out. Rocky keeps taking the punishment telling Clubber, “You ain’t so bad.” As Clubber starts to wear down Rocky makes his move and in the third round sends Clubber to the canvas with a flurry of punches. Rocky is champ once again and all is right with the world.
The Favor is Cashed In
The vague favor that Apollo mentions during their training is finally paid off. Dressed in their boxing gear, Rocky and Apollo walk into an empty gym. Apollo still thinks he’s better than Rocky and the two friends are going to find out in private. The movie ends on a freeze frame of them both about to land a punch. People have broken down this freeze frame arguing that Rocky’s punch looks like it was going to land with more force but in the end we are only left to speculate who won.
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It’s the Eye of the Tiger
“Eye of the Tiger” was written specifically for the movie after Stallone couldn’t secure the rights to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” He liked some tracks from Survivor’s first album, asked them to write a song for the movie and the rest is history. “Eye of the Tiger” gave Rocky III its own distinct musical identity and rose to number one on the charts. The song has transcended both the movie and the decade and for better or worse is a mainstay at sporting events throughout the country.
Enjoy Rocky III during it's 30th anniversary on blu-ray today.