It has been nearly 50 years since Rocky Balboa first graced the big screen — training for the fight of his life by pounding slabs of frozen meat, balling up his courage to ask out pretty-but-shy Adrian — but in some ways, the beloved character seems even further removed from the realities of the modern multiplex. In our age of larger-than-life superheroes, the humble, hard-punching Italian Stallion feels especially old-fashioned: a beaten-down loser who never stopped believing in himself and eventually took the heavyweight crown while negotiating marriage, family, aging, and loss over the course of several hit sequels. For a period in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Rocky sequels were event cinema, dishing out regular installments of a can’t-miss story — Rocky faces a frightening new foe, starts to doubt himself, kicks himself into high gear through a slick training montage, and then squares off with his foe in the ring, emerging triumphant. It was a formula we loved, until the movies started getting too cheesy, which sent the Philly fighter into cold storage for more than a decade until Rocky Balboa and then Creed brought a radical new view of the iconic prizefighter by shifting the perspective to the son of his early opponent Apollo Creed.
The comforting familiarity of this franchise is both its greatest selling point and its nagging limitation: We watch these movies because we know how they’re going to turn out. But the best of the bunch, whether the Rocky sequels or the recent Creed films, find new ways to get us invested — maybe because, unlike in the Marvel and DC flicks, Rocky and Creed are deeply human characters devoid of superpowers. They get older, they make mistakes, they hurt, and they bleed. (They’re a hell of a lot more like us than Iron Man ever was.) And when special effects are running rampant and the fate of the universe always hangs in the balance in comic-book cinema, there’s something incredibly analog-pleasurable about movies where two guys just punch each other. Sometimes that’s all the drama you need.
With Creed III upon us, we’ve ranked all nine Rocky movies. Only a handful are true knockouts, though a couple of others win on points. We have no doubt you can guess which film is the champ.
9. Rocky V (1990)
When Sylvester Stallone sat down to write Rocky V, he knew only the ending: In the final fight scene, Rocky would die. Changing his mind on that and letting Rocky live to fight again was the only correct creative decision he made with this film, a fiasco that would essentially poison the franchise for 16 years. The mistakes are abundant: a bankruptcy plot that feels fake from the get-go, a very silly Don King–type character, multiple MC Hammer songs, and, mostly, the calamitous casting of real-life boxer (but, alas, not real-life actor) Tommy “Duke” Morrison (who claimed he was related to John Wayne but wasn’t) as a fighter Rocky trains who ultimately turns on him. Stallone brought back original Rocky director John G. Avildsen to helm this one, but neither could recapture that underdog magic. The Rocky-as-mentor concept was a good idea that the series would get right 25 years later, but it turned out to be the only salvageable aspect of this train wreck.
8. Rocky IV (1985)
James Brown sings! Apollo dies! Ivan Drago is the representation of the Soviet Union, America’s greatest threat ever! Here’s where the original Rocky series first starts getting silly, becoming a parody of itself while faithfully delivering all the trademarks audiences had come to expect from the franchise. As a result, Rocky IV is an oddly mechanical sequel despite Stallone’s clear passion to make a blockbuster that commented on the madness of the Cold War. But as a writer and director — this was the third straight Rocky movie he helmed — he’s mostly recycling tropes from previous installments and encouraging the audience to root for the aging champion as a symbol of what is good and pure and right about the ol’ U. S. of A. Speaking of Drago, Dolph Lundgren is certainly impressive as a sneering killing machine, but it’s telling that he’s the most inhuman of Rocky’s opponents. (The guy may as well be a blond, bland Terminator.) But, hey, it was big of Rocky to help bring about world peace at the end — and we’ll always have a soft spot for Paulie’s birthday robot, which Stallone inexcusably excised from his recent director’s cut.
7. Creed II (2018)
About five minutes after people saw and really enjoyed Creed, everyone had the same thought: Oh no, they’re gonna push their luck by doing a sequel, right? Yup. If the 2015 film fought back against the clichés of the Rocky series, Creed II embraces too many of them. Michael B. Jordan is still a commanding Adonis, but good Lord, we’re already bringing back old bad guys — and their uninteresting sons — to battle our hero? Diehards were no doubt thrilled to see Lundgren return as Drago, but his kid, Viktor (Florian Munteanu), isn’t all that compelling. The rest of Creed II is just training montages, by-the-numbers heartfelt speeches, and other boilerplate Rocky stuff the original Creed was wise to sidestep. (It’s worth remembering that Ryan Coogler didn’t direct this sequel.) Creed felt like something new. Creed II felt like the same old, same old.
6. Rocky Balboa (2006)
Creed did such a good job of reinventing this franchise that it has almost been forgotten that Stallone had already completed a respectable reinvention nine years earlier. The concept here, to be fair, is ridiculous: Rocky, still mourning the death of Adrian, has been retired for 20 years when a computer simulation predicts that, in his prime, he would have beaten the current champion (the absurdly named Mason “the Line” Dixon). The ensuing publicity inspires Rocky to put on the gloves again and fight the guy. There’s a certain poignance in watching a subdued, sad Rocky stir back to life through another training montage, and even though you never buy that he could actually go through with fighting without being killed, it’s still a kick to see Rocky in the ring one last time. For what it’s worth, this film has maybe the best Rocky speech since Adrian’s “There’s one thing I want you to do for me: Win!” from her hospital bed in Rocky II. It’s the one you’ll still see on the jumbotron in pump-up-the-crowd moments.
5. Creed III (2023)
The Rocky sequels — even the one from 1979 — embody so much of mainstream 1980s Hollywood moviemaking that it feels weirdly appropriate for Creed III to be essentially the franchise’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Like that film, in which Kirk faces off with an old nemesis who uniquely knows how to get under his skin, Jordan’s directorial debut pits Adonis against a childhood chum who went to prison and was forever resentful that Creed got the title shot he’d always wanted for himself. Jonathan Majors is terrific as Dame, who has the retired champ in his sights and relies on a deadly combination of brute strength and Adonis’s own guilt to menace our hero. Creed III is attuned to the socioeconomic reality of its characters in a way that’s smart and refreshing — you actually feel like these are real people, not just avatars being shoved into yet another Rocky sequel. That said, there’s still a certain “give the fans what they want” quality to this latest movie in terms of hitting the expected narrative beats. But it’s an improvement on Creed II and proof that Jordan may be quite a good filmmaker in his own right.
4. Rocky II (1979)
This ranking may seem a little low, but honestly, Rocky II is basically the same movie as Rocky minus much of the surprise and charm — except this time, Rocky gets to win. That formula has its pleasures, sure: Rocky remains a likable character, and the franchise’s consistent ability to hit all the big emotional beats is firmly established here. Stallone himself directed Rocky II, and as he would show with future films (particularly the hilariously gory, over-the-top Rambo from 2008), he has more of an eye as a director than you might think. It’s all about myth and franchise building here, but it’s expertly done. And the final fight is a knockout, literally and figuratively.
3. Creed (2015)
For the first time, someone other than Stallone — specifically Ryan Coogler, director of Fruitvale Station (and, later, Black Panther) — wrote a Rocky movie, and the new blood ended up invigorating the franchise. The idea of cancer patient Rocky training the troubled but talented son of his old friend/rival Apollo Creed is a masterstroke, and both Coogler (with some terrific fight sequences) and Jordan as the eponymous Creed rise to the occasion: This feels like a Rocky movie but also something new and exciting, even vanguard. Stallone received his second Oscar nomination for playing Balboa here, 39 years after the first one. But this would be the last Rocky movie centered around Rocky: These are Creed’s, and Jordan’s, movies from now on.
2. Rocky III (1982)
The Rocky movies have featured some good villains and antagonists, including Majors’s Dame in the third Creed film, but there has never been a more formidable, or indestructible, foe than Mr. T’s Clubber Lang. It’s actually sort of remarkable, watching the film today, that Mr. T would become such a cuddly ’80s icon; he’s legitimately terrifying here — brash, impenetrable, and overwhelming. He’s so powerful and destructive you can once again think of Rocky as the underdog even though you know he’s going to win the big fight. Also, this is the movie with “Eye of the Tiger” and the one to introduce the Rocky statue, which of course you can still pose next to today after running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
1. Rocky (1976)
People complain about how blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars torpedoed the nervy independent spirit of 1970s American cinema, turning movies into roller coasters and theaters into amusement parks. Those naysayers have a point, even if it can be somewhat overstated. In its own way, though, Rocky also ushered in a new era. An inspirational underdog story, this was hardly the first boxing film, but as envisioned by upstart Stallone — and directed with gritty panache by Avildsen — Rocky turbocharged the little-guy-against-the-system mentality that fueled so much of the era’s antihero cinema, giving us the people’s champion in Rocky Balboa, a regular guy who just wants to be taken seriously. The film was a staggering commercial success, winning three Oscars (including Best Picture) and spawning a slew of sequels that, for the most part, were increasingly inferior to the original. Sure, Rocky has a lot to answer for — not the least of which is the shameless franchising of Hollywood hits — but the first film remains an endearing, disarming, incredibly winning tale. Its love story is funny and touching — Talia Shire as Adrian is this movie’s secret weapon — and Burgess Meredith’s Mickey is a tough-guy trainer par excellence. Roll your eyes all you want at the clichés Rocky invented, but the damn thing still works well after all this time. Punching above your weight never looked so good.
Grierson & Leitch write regularly about the movies and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.