'Rocky' at 40: The Movie that Put Boxing In Hollywood's Ring

“How [Stallone] got 'Rocky' made was something of a miracle. And because the movie is not overly stylized you are able to focus in on this man and that important message of putting trust in yourself.” — film critic and ESPN commentator Ben Lyons Credit: Getty Images

For most of us, Rocky Balboa is an icon, a character that represents inspiration and perseverance and American ingenuity. For Hollywood, he is a shining example of what is possible when studio execs put faith in a small, provocative story. He’s also the one that showed execs that boxing could be a cash cow.

How Rocky made it to the silver screen in 1976 is every bit as inspiring as the movie itself. Broke and nearly homeless, Stallone wrote the screenplay out by hand with a pen on two sheets of lined notebook paper. Inspired after watching the heavyweight contest between Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali, he had a finished draft in less than a week after starting. “I wanted to talk about stifled ambition and broken dreams and people who sit on the curb looking at their dreams go down the drain,” said Stallone in an interview with the New York Times at the time.

The resulting script was widely buzzed about in Hollywood, but studios wanted a star in the title role. Names like Burt Reynolds and James Caan were mentioned, but Stallone refused to compromise on the idea that he would be the lead. It was a bold move for a young actor who had just been forced to sell his dog (the bullmastiff that eventually starred as Butkus) to put food on the table. Finally producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff agreed to the conditions, but it was clear that nobody believed in Stallone’s abilities more than himself. He was given the even-then-measly budget of $1 million, which was stretched over the course of the 28-day shoot. But what the production lacked in funds it regained in its story of human spirit. For those that put their faith in Stallone, they were rewarded, with the movie making its money back and more in the first few months.

Following the box office success, it was only a matter of time before the Academy realized the need to give a nod to the populist love of this film. His efforts were rewarded; the movie earned an Oscar nomination for his performance and three wins including Best Picture. Stallone seemed to be aware how many people related to his character when he accepted his Academy Award. “To all the Rockys out there, I love you,” he said. The honors went far beyond the Academy though, with a copy of the film being immortalized in the Library of Congress’s archive and a statue standing by the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, now more widely recognized as the “Rocky Steps.”

Rocky wasn’t the first Boxing movie to come to the big screen. On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando, was the most acclaimed boxing movie of the time, and Fat City, which came out just four years earlier, offered up Stacy Keach in a memorable performance. But to date, boxing was all metaphor — a symbol of transformation and grit. Rocky mingled a purists’ appreciation of the sport with a rags-to-riches plot. It was a simple but brilliant twist that has been repeated over and over again — from Cinderella Man to Million Dollar Baby to The Fighter. The producers Winkler and Chartoff used their heat off of Rocky to get another project off the ground, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

That’s not to mention the six more Rocky movies that came out after — none of them straying far from the original plot, and all of them putting most of the focus on the ring. Even if his influence didn’t spike boxing tickets, it let the boxing movie live forever on the screen. Indeed, this months’ Bleed for This is another tale about a working-class fighter from small-city U.S. persevering in the ring against all odds. And, like so many before, it's great. Would it have gotten the green light without Rocky? It’s hard to say. But in any case, it is the audience who won.