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Boxing and film have had a common bond since the late 19th century. However, it wasn’t until Nov. 26, 1975, when Rocky hit movie theaters, that the sport of boxing and the silver screen forged a marriage to spawn its own genre in Hollywood.
Over the next 40 years, boxing films dominated the box office: Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Ali, The Hurricane, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, The Fighter, and Southpaw, and, of course, the subsequent six Rocky films and Creed.
Rocky’s combination of sport, fighting, blue collarism, and underdog story lines drew an audience that was put on an emotional (even tearful) roller coaster to connect with Sylvester Stallone’s tough-guy character that exudes naïvety and vulnerability. Watching Rocky then, and now, you still feel for Balboa. Mickey, who felt Rocky “had the talent to be a good fighter,” mocked him for being a leg-breaking bum for a second-rate loan shark; Adrian kept snubbing Rocky’s one-sided courtship; and Paulie’s alcoholism almost led to Rocky’s being hit with a baseball bat.
Rocky’s influence was massive. Whether you’re a boxing fan or not, every time you hear those trumpets blaring during Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” you get the urge to throw on your rattiest workout clothes, drink a few raw eggs, and sprint up flights of steps. You feel compelled to tackle obstacles, take critics head on, and prove yourself to the naysayers.
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Despite having bad luck, Rocky never gave up. He took each punch–literal and figurative–and continued through life juxtaposed in a burned-out, struggling Philadelphia wondering if his career would ever have a prime. When Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers) knocked him down in the 14th round, Mickey implored him to stay down, but Rocky got up and became the first boxer to go the distance with the undefeated champ.
Rocky’s life reached a new start. He beat the odds as an unknown and was no longer just another bum from the neighborhood. He was gonna fly now.
There may be no one who resembles Rocky’s story more than Bernard Hopkins, the now-retired middleweight champion from a Rocky-era Philadelphia who, like Balboa’s character, came from a life of crime.
“When I look at Rocky, I’m inspired by the plot to never give up,” Hopkins says. “I know what it’s like to be counted out, to never be given [anything]. Forget the fighting part. That [struggle] was part of the recipe.”
Hopkins spent time in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary from the age of 17 until he was 23 for a variety of crimes including armed robbery. The monotony of incarceration helped to steer Hopkins to boxing, which he pursued with vigor upon his release into the bustling Philly fight scene.
“What it did was bring a light to boxing, attaching the movie to the city that was known, especially at that time, for great boxers,” Hopkins adds.
The old-school training in Rocky features everything required to make a champion: grit, guts, a curmudgeon of a trainer, and lots of sweat. Killer sound track optional. Rocky’s training montage holds a special place in the annals of fitness due to the intense training sequences and crescendoing musical dramatics. Former heavyweight contender Justin Fortune, the owner of Fortune Gym and strength and conditioning coach to eight-division champ Manny Pacquiao, is a fan of the training in the films, saying that it’s more true to boxing training than a lot of today’s more modern practices.
“They always used cool training methods in the Rocky movies,” Fortune says. “They’re old-school training methods, which never hurt anyone. Old-school fighters were tougher and harder than fighters today. It’s basically just hard work—running up mountains, chopping wood, swimming pool stuff, all the stomach work is old school.” It’s as much about work ethic as ring prep, Fortune says, which grew out of necessity in the early days of boxing.
“Going back to the 1890s and up through the 1970s, a lot of those guys had jobs,” says Fortune, who once fought heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis. “I had a job. These guys would do hard work, doing demolition or laying bricks, and then you go out and fight at night. That work built a foundation of overall strength. There wasn’t this kind of dedicated process of going to run, then going home, then going back to the gym to train again later. There just wasn’t the money for that in boxing.”
In Rocky, there were several activities that Fortune sees as essential for developing the kind of yeoman’s physique that you see Stallone’s character present in the film.
“Running is extremely important,” says Fortune. “A lot of people are saying you don’t need it, which is ridiculous. You need it to drop the weight so your legs can go 12 or 15 rounds. If you have weak legs with no stamina, you’re done.”
Fortune says the amount of running is dictated by the size of the fighter and the duration of the scheduled fight. He recommends starting at an easy pace and work toward the duration of your fight, or other event, aiming for lower times each run. “If you fight 12 rounds, you run 47 minutes—that’s 12 three-minute rounds plus 11 one-minute breaks.”
He cautions against putting in six to eight miles a day, as is advocated by some boxing coaches, saying that you’re bound to burn out. Unless you’re the Italian Stallion, that is. Some estimate that Rocky put in a “light” 33 miles in the sequel, presumably the week of the fight.
“He’s Rocky,” Fortune says, with a laugh. “Why not?”
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Rocky gets his rib cage and organs pounded mercilessly with a 20-pound medicine ball by a trainer. Does this actually have any value?
“You bet,” Fortune says. “I do it with target mitts.” The point, he says, is to condition your body to absorb the force of a body shot. But the continued contraction of these muscles also has a conditioning benefit: sharpening the obliques and serratus in the process.
At one point in the original film, Rocky bangs out a seemingly endless set of alternating one-arm pushups in the ring. Not surprisingly, Fortune says, this move holds enormous carryover for boxers. “These make you stronger and develop punching power. They also break up the monotony of regular pushups. You can also do one-handed, rotating med ball throws against a wall, or one-arm presses in a power rack, adjusting the distance that you’re pressing each time to eliminate weak points in your punch.”
For power, Fortune advises against doing them to failure, suggesting 3–5 sets of 5–10 reps per side instead.
Rocky riffs off of his one-handed pushup dominance and transitions into plyometric, clapping pushups. Plyos, Fortune says, are critical for any athlete. “[Rocky] does them in the movie because they’re proven. It’s all about explosion and speed.”
Plyometrics develop your rate of force production and specifically target the fast-twitch fibers of your chest, anterior delts, and triceps. Fortune suggests starting with the basic plyo pushup–-simply getting your hands off the ground–-then moving to more complicated versions to up the ante.
“I have my boxers do plyo pushups three times a week,” he says. “These muscles are smaller, so they have a shorter memory. For a full plyo-pushup workout, you should work to three to four exercises, doing 2 sets of around 10 on each move.”
In Rocky, Balboa hangs upside down for a killer set of inverted situps. In Part IV, he kicked it up a notch with Rocky situps. Again, Fortune is a fan but admits that variety is the key to progression.
“There’s only so many ways you can train abs,” he says. “You have to switch it up to keep from getting bored. You have to continually shock your system or it becomes complacent. And, as an athlete, if you have no abs, you have no legs. You can’t have weak abs and expect to go the distance in the fight. It’s about balance and agility. It’s all connected. The ab movements they’re doing in the Rocky movies are all old exercises—the way it used to be done. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Fortune has no set recipe for a carved set of abs but says he cannot overstress the importance of constantly pushing the progression: more sets, harder exercises, less rest.