This month marks the 35th anniversary of Rocky IV, the greatest sports movie ever made in which the intangible idea of communism is defeated by boxing. The plot follows Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as he basks in his glorious wealth alongside his friend and former rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who is enjoying his retirement as a boxing legend. However, when a Russian ubermensch named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) arrives in America to challenge Rocky, Apollo takes it as a personal insult and challenges Drago himself to an exhibition match in Las Vegas. Ignoring the advice of both Rocky and pretty much everyone else around him, Apollo comes out of retirement to fight Drago, only to get beaten literally to death in the opening seconds of the 2nd round.
Obviously, Rocky is inconsolable over this tragedy, and he swears an oath of vengeance to a Robert Tepper song while driving in his sports car. He accepts a Christmas Day bout against Drago, and travels to the wilds of Siberia to train for the fight. After several agonizing rounds going toe to toe with his friend’s murderer, Rocky delivers a flurry of blows that topples the Russian to win the bout. He then grabs the microphone and gives a rousing speech about change that 90% of the audience cannot possibly understand. By the time he is finished speaking, the entire Soviet Union is applauding both him and the American Spirit, effectively destroying the communist regime years before it actually dissolved. The credits roll at 87 minutes, ten of which were devoted entirely to montages. It is a perfect film.
However, after having nearly four decades to absorb the many intricacies of Rocky IV, it’s high time we discussed one of its unspoken truths, something every Rocky fan has had to quietly reconcile but has never dared to speak aloud. Fellow Balboners, it’s time we addressed the fact that Apollo Creed 100% deserved to get his ass kicked.
Now before you go flooding my inbox with “how dare you” and “bad take” and “Apollo Creed actually crawls out of the Sarlacc pit in the Extended Universe,” let me clarify that I am not saying Apollo Creed deserved to get his ass kicked to death. All I’m saying is that Apollo spends his brief screen time in Rocky IV being a gigantic asshole so desperate to cling to his former glory that he makes it his personal mission to publicly embarrass Drago, a man who has done absolutely nothing to offend Apollo beyond merely existing. Had Drago simply beaten the shit out of him instead of killing him, the audience would’ve collectively murmured, “Yeah, he kinda had that coming.” Being a balls-out mid-80s jingoistic drama, the movie never arrives at this conclusion, despite making several powerful arguments in its favor.
First, some context. Rocky the Fourth is the third sequel to Rocky, the movie that earned Sylvester Stallone two Oscar nominations and made him an international movie star. That film is a cinema verité style drama about a small-time fighter who gets a shot at the heavyweight title because the champ (Apollo Creed, forever an asshole) wants to fight some local chud and embarrass him. Much like he does during his eventual fight against Drago, Apollo even wears an Uncle Sam costume to the ring, because that is his fetish. Rocky takes the fight seriously, however, and shocks the world by going the distance with Apollo, ultimately losing the bout via split decision. It’s a powerful film that is firmly grounded in reality.
Fast-forward nine years to Rocky IV, which begins with an American boxing glove and a Russian boxing glove punching each other and exploding. Rocky is now so far removed from his situation in the first film that he casually presents his brother-in-law with a sentient robot as a reward for not succumbing to massive heart failure as they celebrate his birthday in Rocky’s palatial mansion. The disconnect between Rocky and Rocky IV is absolutely hilarious. It should come as little surprise to learn that Rocky IV was released the same year as Rambo: First Blood Part Two, another Stallone sequel that completely abandons the serious, grounded drama of the original film in favor of recasting the main character as a cartoonishly larger-than-life American hero. The 1980s were magnificent, you guys. It is in this environment that Rocky IV is able to make Apollo Creed behave like an embarrassing dickhead without consciously realizing it. Let’s examine.
Apollo is comfortably living in retirement in a giant mansion with a loving wife, a gigantic swimming pool, and two extremely good dogs. While joyously splashing around in said pool with aforementioned Good Boys, he looks over at his outdoor television and catches a press conference about Ivan Drago. It is interesting to note that while having a TV propped up on a piece of patio furniture in your backyard would get you a citation from your homeowner’s association in 2020, it was a status symbol of extreme wealth in 1985.
During that press conference, Drago’s wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielson) is extremely cordial and professional when discussing her hopes for her husband’s boxing success. But Apollo inexplicably takes that shit personally, and vows to punish Drago for having the absolute temerity to come to the United States and challenge Rocky Balboa to a fight. That’s really it. The film was made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, and back then, villains didn’t really need to do anything outside of “being Russian” to be considered villains. Sure, there are some scenes later on in which Drago’s pompous trainer starts ranting about Soviet superiority, but Ludmilla remains extremely diplomatic, and Drago himself never says anything. He just stands there, looking like a wax figure of Dolph Lundgren. And this is enough to make Apollo Creed furious. The cool waters of his million-dollar swimming pool are no comfort to the blinding rage of seeing a younger athlete on television. “How dare he be Russian?!” Apollo screams inside his heart, outwardly scowling with all of the power afforded him by his considerable mustache.
Obviously, Apollo cannot stand for this, so he immediately leaves retirement to challenge Drago to an exhibition match to prove that Russian boxers cannot fight, no matter how young and in-shape and objectively powerful they are. To his credit, Rocky really tries to talk him out of it, pointing out all of the things I’ve just mentioned in addition to the fact that it’s just an exhibition match, meaning it won’t affect either Apollo’s or Drago’s professional record. It’s just a match for the sake of Apollo’s pride and legacy, neither of which, if you’ve been keeping track, have been in question for one moment of the film. Drago came to America to fight Rocky, and instead got called out by Apollo for the insult of existing.
During a press conference for their fight, Ludmilla refers to Drago as an “international sportsman and ambassador of goodwill,” and when asked if he’s ready to fight a professional boxer, she says, “…we hope he’s qualified to do so… Well, I know he is, but I don’t want to sound too confident.” Perfectly diplomatic and civil. Meanwhile, Apollo quips “I had to teach this young fellow to box, American style,” before spending the rest of the press conference clowning on Drago and interrupting him before he gets a chance to speak. Ludmilla cuts in to say they’re very happy to have the opportunity to fight Apollo, and that Apollo is well known and respected in Russia. But Apollo’s near-psychotic temper flares up again when Ludmilla suggests that Drago “could” win the match, and that it would be a good victory for his career if he did. Apollo responds by shouting that there’s no possible way Drago could ever defeat him, despite the objective fact that Drago is a gigantic marble statue with the demeanor of an executioner who has heard so many cries for mercy the words no longer hold any meaning for him. Once again, Ludmilla responds with civility and merely asks Apollo what makes him so certain he is going to win
Finally Drago’s trainer loses his temper and points out the obvious fact – Apollo is too old to be fighting, and certainly too old to be fighting someone like Drago. (He’s 37, and that’s pretty long in the tooth for a boxer.) Apollo gets defensive and calls Drago a “heavy bag with eyeballs,” then insists “I came here to talk about a friendly exhibition bout ‘till Comrade Bigmouth started up.” If you’ll remember, Apollo is the one who has been needling Drago and his team the entire time. Drago’s trainer just finally pushed back, and now Apollo is making a big show of being insulted. It’s real “I’m going to kick sand on you until you kick sand back and then I’m going to run and tell the teacher” energy, and it’s a bad look, Apollo.
The night of the fight, Rocky very correctly points out that they don’t know anything about Drago or how he fights. They’ve never seen any videos of his matches or his training. Rocky gently tries to remind Apollo that he hasn’t fought in five years and that maybe they should postpone until they’re able to get a better idea of what Drago can do in the ring and how to train for it. “This is us against them!” Apollo barks, referring to a Las Vegas exhibition fight against a man to whom he has spoken maybe five sentences. Also, during the entire film, we never once see Apollo discuss the fight with his wife. But you know who does speak to Mrs. Creed? Ludmilla. She approaches Apollo’s wife in the crowd and very respectfully says hello and that she hopes that they can be friends after the fight is over. (This friendship probably did not end up happening.) Ludmilla also points out that Apollo and Drago are sportsmen, and not soldiers in a war.
The night of the fight, Drago gets an appreciably cool entrance in which he begins below the ring and is slowly lifted up into the building like the King of the Morlocks. Apollo then ambushes him with James fucking Brown performing “Living in America” live with an entire backup band and an army of dancers waving American flags. Apollo descends from the ceiling on a giant bull head, the avatar of capitalism, wearing an Uncle Sam coat and hat and dancing like a cheeseball. Apollo then skips across the stage and does a hype jog around James Brown, who is so unspeakably high on cocaine he probably doesn’t realize he’s in a movie and believes Carl Weathers is the spirit of America descended from the heavens to commune with him.
The fight begins, and Drago proceeds to beat the absolute christ out of Apollo, to the point where Rocky desperately pleads with his friend to let him throw in the towel and end the match. Apollo refuses, and makes Rocky promise not to call it no matter what happens. Because Rocky is a man in the 1980s, he agrees. (Again, Apollo never once addresses his wife or indeed seems to care much about her opinion at all.) He then stumbles back out into the ring, blinded by blood and pride, to get immediately punched so hard by Drago that his spirit leaves his body.
Obviously his death is sad, because everyone loves Apollo Creed and Carl Weathers, but let’s be real here. Apollo came out of a comfortable retirement, secured by a championship legacy, to fight some guy he’s never met without ever once consulting his wife about it. He then publicly tries to humiliate this man over and over again, even going so far as to bring the Godfather of Soul into it, until ultimately getting his ass kicked so hard he literally dies. Again, I must stress that none of this was necessary. Drago came to fight Rocky, not Apollo. Apollo is never even mentioned in the initial TV press conference. He could’ve just stayed at home, enjoying retirement in his gigantic pool with his wife and his two Very Good Dogs. Smdh Apollo.
So many shows, so little time.
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