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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

What I Learned from Binge-Watching the Rocky Franchise

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, your home for rhetoric, martial arts studies, and Tae Kwon Do. Last week I got to share some wonderful footage from my recent Tae Kwon Do family reunion, so give that a read if you want a good laugh.

This week, I was planning on writing about the academic job market and the growing pains of professionalizing, but I think I'll save that for next week. What I want to talk about today is actually the result of many, many hours of intense that I mean many many hours melted to my recliner, cookie crumbs littering my ratty t-shirt, bleary-eyed from staring at the tv. Today, I'm going to talk about Rocky as a tragic hero, one that I used to admire and envy, but one that I look at now with a type of painful sympathy.

Though he still wears a flag better than almost anyone

In some ways, I'm still writing about the job market. Because the fact is, it's one of the biggest things occupying space in my brain right now. So when I spent the last week or so re-watching Rocky I-V, maybe I saw the hyperbolic battles in the ring as a stand in for my own upcoming gauntlet of employment documents, application portals, Skype interviews, and campus visits. Maybe each melodramatic training montage and heartfelt speech was a stand-in for the kinds of professionals and friends in the academy I have standing in my corner. Maybe.

But that's supposed to be the great thing about the Rocky narrative, right? That anyone can identify with it and see their own struggles mapped against one fighter's triumph over the odds? It's supposed to be the classic underdog story of a man chasing the American dream...and I think that's what makes it so tragic to me now.

See, I was always jealous of those people that had a clearly defined passions. Those people that had a single aspiration or goal that motivated them. The kids who knew they wanted to be a paleontologist or magician or whatever. The people like Rocky who only know one thing, only think about one thing, only gravitate towards one thing. I thought this purity of purpose was an admirable quality, something that exemplified discipline and drive. But the longer I continue to study and reflect on the philosophical underpinnings in Tae Kwon Do, the more I see this rigidity to be a kind of curse, something embedded in the American mindset that, perhaps, isn't the healthiest quality for human beings to have.

If you look at the original Rocky, the potential negativity of this kind of ambition may not actually be clearly apparent. In the original movie, Sly Stallone plays a boxer who's pretty much past his prime and isn't likely to make a real career from fighting. But, by a stroke of dumb luck, he gets selected to box in an exhibition match against the reigning heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. This movie delivers on the underdog narrative in full-force and really plays up the idea that the villainous Han (Shih Kien) delivers in Enter the Dragon so eloquently: "We are unlike other men. We are unique in that we create ourselves." This sentiment is what make the training montages so visually potent--the audience gets to watch a transformation unfold before their eyes, as if watching high-speed footage of a butterfly emerge from a cocoon. Rocky's metamorphosis is nearly unbelievable, but the audience sees enough evidence to believe that an average fighter can become a champion through sheer will and dedication. And in this we see ourselves or, rather, who we hope we can become.

If you've read any of my academic scholarship or heard me talk about my dissertation at all, you know I'm very attracted to this notion of "becoming" and the training regimens we subscribe to ourselves to aid in self-transformation. To that end, it's no surprise that I find the original Rocky one of the best in the franchise for the simple reason that it's primary focus is on a man trying his best when the opportunity presents itself. Rocky seeks nothing but seizes opportunity. Rocky does not aim to win or overcome, he simply fights to discover the depths of his own strength. For these reasons, it feels like a victory when he "goes the distance" with Apollo instead of winning by decision. (Note: after recently re-watching I do recognize some serious characterization flaws in terms of Paulie and Adrian especially--the franchise's treatment of women is truly abhorrent until Rocky III--but that's a different discussion for a different day.) But after this movie, things go downhill fast--not necessarily in film quality or audience reception, but the sequels get more and more tragic as Rocky struggles against his aging body, his own ambitions, and his ultimate place in a changing world.

Rocky II begins this trajectory of decline the moment it stages the rematch with Apollo Creed in terms of toxic, American masculinity. This is pretty overtly expressed when Rocky asks Adrian for her blessing in pursuing the title. Adrian knows that Rocky has no business fighting at such an elite level at his age, and she's worried about the long-term physical effects to his health, not least of which is an eye that suffered permanent damage in the first fight with Creed. But Rocky persists and appeals to her by saying, "I never asked you to stop being a woman so please don't ask me to stop being a man." And that's it, that's the point in the franchise where Rocky plainly states that his masculinity and his whole identity are firmly rooted in fighting the best.

So why is this a problem? Because it reveals Rocky to be an unyielding character, someone fixated on a goal that continually moves further and further beyond his reach. And, no matter what, he will pursue it in the same way, by sacrificing his body, the relationships with loved ones he's worked so hard to protect, all of it. Sure, he wins the championship in the second film and now holds the heavyweight title. But when he finds out that he's only defended that title against less-experienced challengers in Rocky III, he's determined to prove himself against the best yet again. This time, it comes at the cost of his mentor, Mick, who has trained him since the beginning. Mick, joins Adrian in support of Rocky's retirement and begs him to quit before fighting Clubber Lang (Mr. T), even expressly telling him that he can't win. But his pleas fall on def ears and Mick dies of a heart attack before Rocky and Clubber Lang can square off. A similar loss is seen in Rocky IV as Apollo Creed loses his life in the ring against the infamous Soviet, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Truthfully though, Apollo dies as a direct result of his own hubris. Creed simply saw an opportunity to resuscitate his own career--like Rocky, Creed became unable to see a version of himself that wasn't a fighter. This time, however, Rocky isn't motivated by the challenge of fighting the best or even his own ego--the film leaves his motives cryptic enough, but it's not hard to infer that Rocky is operating purely out of revenge and fully intends to kill Drago in the ring. So, while Rocky isn't falling into the exact same trap, he's now so fully immersed in this worldview where he can't see a way to respond other than boxing. And it costs him--really costs him.

Not too long ago I included a clip from Rocky IV in my second Tiny Tiger Lecture where Rocky delivers an impassioned speech after beating the Russian. He remarks on the ability for people to change after taking the time to get to know one another and suggests that this can happen on a global level. This used to really inspire me, and I still believe the sentiment, but hearing this kind of wisdom come from Rocky is one of the biggest hypocrisies in the franchise. As a character in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony clearly articulated, "things that do not grow or change are dead things." Nothing is more evident in Rocky III-V than the fact that Rocky refuses to change--he's fixated on an unattainable goal: to be the best in perpetuity. Rocky V opens with a scene that disturbs me in a way few other movies do. You can watch it below if you want to ruin your day.

We see Rocky in the locker room after his fight with Drago and he asks his trainer to get Adrian. Shivering, soaking wet, Rocky sits in the shower and asks his wife if he ever remembered Mick talk about "fighting so hard that he was thinking he broke something inside." So hard that he was going to die, that he could feel the angels pulling on him. When she tells him he needs to see a doctor, Rocky refuses and simply says he wants to go home. Then it becomes clear that Rocky doesn't fully understand when or where he is when he finally says "I just want to go home, Mick."

Why does this break my heart? Because it feels like I've watched this character die. Because it's beyond certain that there is no going back, no resets, no rematches...that Rocky hasn't just lost someone close to him, but a real part of himself. And Rocky realizes this too in due time. When the doctors eventually tell him that no boxing commission will give him a license, we see Rocky start smoking and drinking, obviously no longer concerned with what's left of his body. Not until he has the opportunity to train the young upstart Tommy "the Machine" Gunn does Rocky seem to have much of a pulse again. But as the film makes clear, Rocky sees this young fighter as an opportunity to be "born again," to live vicariously through his success instead of fully embracing a new identity as a trainer, coach, mentor, or father. Despite the film's attempt to suggest that Rocky learns his lesson and becomes a better man, we see in Rocky Balboa that his obsession continued throughout the adolescence of his son, Robert, and drove a wedge between any real family relationship he had left. By this time, Rocky is an elderly widower and an estranged father, a man who literally admits his fragility and mortality to a boxing commission who knowingly gives him license to die on his own terms. This movie is the epitome of why Rocky is a tragic character, swallowed by an American sense of success and usefulness, unable to change as life changes around him.

So why does this suddenly strike me as worth talking about? Because when I think of the lessons I've learned in the study of rhetoric and training in Tae Kwon Do, I circle back to the concept of adaptability. Xing Lu (1998) and Steven Combs (2006) both describe a key rhetorical concept in ancient Daoist texts known as wuwei which seems applicable here. Often translated as "non-action" or "no-mind," wuwei is a difficult concept for many Westerners to wrap their head around. On the one hand, wuwei is a type of adaptability, the ability to respond to the current context appropriately. This might be thought of as some combination of timeliness and audience awareness. But, on the other hand, wuwei, implies a particular kind of effortlessness. This is to say that if one is following their true path, they shouldn't have to exert unnecessary energy. This is the part that's tricky. See, it's not bad to have a goal and work towards it, but it is bad to work in a hyper-focused and unyielding way, a way that doesn't consider opportunities for change or improvement. A Daoist hero, then, is a wanderer, a wearer of many faces. The best example I can think of right now is Cane from Kung Fu. He has no defined purpose other than the occasional mention of finding what roots he has left in America. Instead, he follows the road, works when there is work, eats when their is food, rests when their is time. Cane rarely inserts himself into other people's lives, even sometimes after they ask him to, because he's highly conscientious of how his efforts have a rippling effect and how his focused attention can be a trap in itself.

Rocky, by contrast, has such tunnel vision for his identity as a boxer, he's so limited by his hunger to be the best, that he effectively cuts off any other avenue of his life that could enrich his experience. His friends and family all eventually leave him in one way or another, partly due to his own choices that alienate them. And none of this seems to resonate in him as a character until the Creed franchise. Here, we finally get to see Rocky respond to chance once again as Adonis Creed seeks him out. Through their relationship, Rocky finally gets to correct some of the mistakes of his youth and changes into something new. Until the next seven movies come out...

Ok. So. I said all this to say that I no longer admire that kind of brute determination, that unmitigated passion that seems to drive so many success stories. Instead, I hope to find a way to leverage my own generalist, jack-of-all-trade, tendencies toward a life of change and transformation. No, I don't know exactly what I want to do or exactly where I want to be for the rest of my life. And, now that I've paid closer attention to Rocky, I can safely say I'm OK with that. Because the moment his goal was no longer attainable, he was a dead man walking. I want to be a man who survives, a man who constantly finds new ways in which to thrive.

I encourage all of you to look back at some of the heroes you held close to your heart at young age--have they changed in your estimation? Have you changed? As many more folks like me plow through the job market this year, remember, look for the pathways where you're not wasting energy, look for the audiences who see what you offer as something they value--don't try to force your goals and ambitions on others just because you think that's what you truly desire. Allow yourself to be surprised.

That's enough punch-drunk rambling for this week. I hope some of that made sense to someone.

Thanks for reading.


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