Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed, 'Rocky' (1976)
The "tale of the tape" doesn't look promising for Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) against reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers): The challenger is slow, undersized, and almost perversely unwilling to defend his face or midsection. Were it not for that colorful nickname "The Italian Stallion," Creed would have picked some other lethargic bum for a tune-up, sending him back to the Philly ratholes from whence he came. But the 50-1 underdog is both the perfect foil and the true embodiment of the American spirit — all determination and grit. Rocky sends Creed to the canvas with his first punch, the only time the champ has even been knocked out in his career. Yes, our man Balboa loses on points, but the fact that he goes the distance when nobody believed he could suggests a dignity that, say, outslugging Mr. T conspicuously lacks. There are more exciting bouts in the series (see the epic Balboa vs. Drago below), but none that better express the authentic blue-collar toughness at its core.
Pretend boxing skills: Despite Stallone's series-long habit of leading with the face, he's utterly convincing as a poky southpaw with surprising power; Weathers dances around as gracefully as any fake-boxer in movie history. 10
Style: Director John G. Avildsen isn't going to knock anyone out with style, but he proved here (and later with The Karate Kid) that his character-first approach to fighting can make unfussy staging seem electric. 8
Stakes: On the one hand, the stakes are much higher for Apollo than Rocky, just as they always are for favorites against vastly overmatched opponents. For Rocky, the worst thing that could happen is he goes back to his old life, which isn't looking so bad now that Talia Shire's Adrian is in the picture. And yet, the latter is the pride of a downtrodden city — a respectable showing is essential. He's gotta fly now! 9
Overall rating: 9