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Sports x Film Series: Rocky Balboa, Heavyweight Champion of the Underdogs

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Daniel Bertorelli recently visited the Philadelphia (Pa.) Art Museum. Bertorelli is a sports entertainment professional, producer and consultant at The Hercules Company. He is a member of the United States Sports Academy National Faculty.

By Daniel Bertorelli |

“Why this fighter of limited abilities has gained such popularity is a such a mystery”. This is a line we hear from the late iconic sportscaster Stu Nahan while Rocky Balboa walks towards the ring before the glorious climax fight on Rocky 2 (1979). The mystery of Rocky’s popularity that eventually transcended fiction, spawned a film franchise worth more than $1.3 billion only in box office, and still makes thousands of people run up the stairs of the Art Museum of Philadelphia (including myself) might have a simple answer: Rocky is the ultimate underdog, boxing being one of the best metaphors for life’s struggles, pitfalls and successes anyone faces.

There are many other sports films that tackle the underdog as a main character or a theme, like “Remember The Titans” (2000), “Rudy” (1993), “The Karate Kid” (1984), “Moneyball” (2011), “Hoosiers” (1986), and even the amazing documentary “Murderball” (2005) where quadriplegics play full-contact rugby in wheelchairs, overcoming several obstacles to compete in the Paralympic Games. My “Forrest Gump” moment: I had the pleasure to be part of an amazing team of announcers for wheelchair rugby at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and I met some of the players involved in the movie.

But let’s step back into the ring. The list of boxing films telling underdog tales is impressive. You can pick a relatively contemporary one such as “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), “The Fighter” (2010), or “Creed” (2015), but if you prefer black and white, old school cinema, you also have the option of watching Paul Newman throwing punches in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), and even Elvis Presley showcasing his boxing skills in “Kid Galahad” (1962).  Through boxing there is a guaranteed amount of “blood, sweat and tears”, a compelling triad strong enough to create a psychological impact on the viewers’ minds and stir up empathy. The blood is frequently taken for granted in a boxing environment, and in a philosophical perspective it symbolizes the vital energy, the divine elixir that keeps us alive. The sweat translates the hard work necessary to achieve goals, especially in sports. And the tears of sadness or joy are the realization of life’s battles, rising as the winner or falling into retreat (hopefully later on getting up to fight “one more round”).

The intersection of fiction and reality has been crossed both ways from time to time as well. Steve Reeves was a bodybuilder turned into Hollywood Herculean star in the 50s and 60s. Among other bodybuilders such as Reg Park, Reeves inspired and created a blue print for a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, a kid in an impoverished and hopeless post WWII Austria, to become a world class athlete and try his luck in La La Land. Stallone, a then underdog himself in the early 70s, drew the inspiration for Rocky from a 1975 fight between the heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali and an unknown fighter called Chuck Wepner, aka “The Bayonne Bleeder”. The underdog literally “survived” the fight, but ultimately he was not knocked out by “greatest in the world”. Like Rocky in the original film, Wepner did not win the fight but left the ring feeling like a champion. Rocky has made Stallone rich and famous, a true rags-to-riches story for both character and creator. Did Stallone create Rocky or in fact, is it the other way around? More than three decades later, back in the real world again, Stallone, not Rocky Balboa, was inducted in The International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011.

I wonder if it is possible to identify the underdogs we are rubbing shoulders with today who might have the potential to rise above adversity in our schools, neighborhoods or maybe our sports academies.

The key element in successful stories, to real athletes and their modern times “branding” or to fictional characters in sports films, is the amount of empathy the protagonist manages to instill into the audience. From the Greek word empatheia, empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It can’t be just sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Audiences must feel what the heroes feel, the pain of losses and the sweet taste of victories. For instance, Rocky Balboa’s wife, Adrian, leads the audience into the emotional path of feeling the suffering of a beloved one. When reality show mogul Mark Burnett and Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg designed “The Contender” (2005), a reality drama pitching boxers against each other, they agreed from the initial stages of the project the families of the fighters should be directly involved. When fighters take a beating in the ring, their spouses and kids feel the blows at home, and so do we, if we care enough for them. In other words, you “feel” because you “care”. And what can teachers, coaches, parents and sports entertainment professionals extract from that?

Maybe discovering what makes the empathy bell ring in our minds is a good start. And look for what has the power to inspire people. When we realize and feel the struggle of our beloved ones, we are better equipped to build rapport, support, help and endure their struggles with them. When the final bell rings, we will surely feel better celebrating we are the ones still standing.

Daniel Bertorelli is a sports entertainment professional, producer and consultant at The Hercules Company. He is a member of the United States Sports Academy National Faculty.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Daniel, great article. We are all underdogs and you are my preferred one. You are greatly missed by all of us who had the privilege to work with you during Rio 2016. I wish you the best.

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