The movie Rocky tells the story of an underdog athlete who is shaped by a unique opportunity. Through intense training for a big event, he is physically remade in five weeks. But he also develops in terms of discipline, self-image, and courage.
Rocky uses a big break to transform his life
In the movie, small-time fighter Rocky Balboa aka “The Italian Stallion” is transformed into a world-class boxer. He is selected to fight reigning world heavyweight boxing champ Apollo Creed, who decides that Rocky, a native son of Philadelphia, is the perfect opponent for a match in the bicentennial year of 1976 in the birthplace of the United States.
Before his big break, Rocky works as a bill collector for a loan shark and picks up extra money as a club boxer for a local gym. He seems to be going nowhere as a not-tough-enough collector and not-dedicated-enough athlete. When Rocky shows that he is serious about fighting in this heavily publicized event, gym trainer Mickey Goldmill takes him on as a client. While training, he receives emotional support from his new girlfriend, Adrian, who is also the sister of his good friend Paulie.
Creed barely wins in the judges’ split decision, having underestimated his opponent and spent too much time promoting the event. And, even though he loses the match, Rocky is now positioned as a great athlete, unafraid of facing difficult and challenging circumstances.
As Rocky moves from small-time fighter to big-time boxer, Adrian also blossoms. She rejects Paulie’s label of her as “loser” and her mother’s assessment of her as unlovely. She enters into a relationship with Rocky and becomes a strong, beautiful woman and ardent supporter.
Transformation requires looking at yourself differently plus lots of action
As a teenager, I thought that the movie centered on Rocky’s physical transformation. But after looking at the film again, I see that both Rocky and Adrian, his former wallflower girlfriend, both experience dramatic change. Here are their steps to transformation:
- Make a move that seems risky or scary or both.
Rocky accepts the challenge to fight the world champion and Adrian accepts a date with Rocky. Neither really knows what he/she is getting into but they act anyway. As they persist (in training and dating), they adapt to the changes in circumstances.
- Realize you have talent and worth.
Rocky thinks of himself as just another “bum in the neighborhood” with his sketchy job and stalled boxing career. Adrian is extremely shy and views herself as unattractive. Her job as a clerk in a small pet store doesn’t elevate her status nor does cleaning and cooking for her brother and housemate Paulie.
In a telling conversation, Rocky confides in Adrian that his mom said he needed to use his body to make a living because his brain wasn’t good enough. She says her mother said something similar to her, that she needed to use her brains because her body wouldn’t help her move ahead in the world. At this moment, they realize how damaging words can be and they see their previously unnoticed talents and worth.
- Feel the confusion as relationships change.
Paulie tries to assert his presence into Rocky’s training regimen and the couple’s romantic relationship, causing confusion. He is unsure of his role in their new relationship and seems to want to disrupt the progress of both his friend and sister.
Rocky also seems confused about how he should treat his friends. In response to Paulie’s questions, he starts hitting hanging meat in the meat locker at Paulie’s workplace (a meat packing company). This reaction may not have been the perfect solution but helped him deal with the confrontation.
- See yourself differently.
The media takes notice of Rocky and begins following his activities. For example, he is interviewed in the meat locker about his unique training technique. Rocky simply says he invented the technique and you can sense that he sees the media attention as frivolous. Still, as others start to view him differently, he adopts a new self-image.
Adrian also starts to see herself differently. She begins to dress more fashionably. And, even though Rocky found her attractive before the change in dress, he really likes her new look. You can see a boost in her self-confidence, unaccompanied by arrogance or self-centeredness.
- Surround yourself with people who help you to become a better person.
Mickey revives their relationship when he sees Rocky’s renewed and deeper commitment to the sport. Seeing the championship fight as a chance not only for Rocky’s career but also as redemption of his own career, Mickey pushes and encourages Rocky as he coaches him throughout the training period and during the match.
Similarly, Adrian supports Rocky as he trains, even buying him a dog to run with. She continually reinforces Rocky’s belief in his own capabilities. She is loyal whether or not he becomes a world champion. At the same time, Rocky supports Adrian as she is transformed into a beautiful, strong woman.
When I saw the movie for the first time, I had just completed a two-week cycling trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway (aka the bike challenge) with a group of teenagers and young adults. The idea that a little-known, out-of-shape athlete could train intensely for a big event, transform his (or her) body, and become a better person in the process was something to which we bonded, especially after running and cycling together to experience this big trip.
Rocky reminds us of our own journey and continues to inspire us. The classic scene when he runs triumphantly up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art shows us the joy of being transformed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Today, still, when I consider transformation, I think of this movie — not just the story itself but its influence on a group of teenagers and generations of athletes.