THE CASE OF THE BOXING BUDDIES
When we last left our sweaty heroes at the end of Rocky III, Apollo Creed had managed to train Rocky Balboa in all the skills of boxing except how to stop deflecting punches with his head. Despite this, Rocky had won back his title from Clubber Lang, and as payment, Apollo demanded a favor: one more go-round in the ring between the two of them. The film ends with the freeze-frame above, and Rocky IV decides to keep quiet as to who won the match. So unless they simultaneously knocked each other out, came to and decided it was for the best not to tell anybody, somebody walked out of that ring the victor. But who?
Now Rocky IV does offer what could be a subtle clue. Rocky comes home wearing a hat and sporting a black eye, as boxers often do. His son asks him where he got the hat. “A friend gave it to me.” Then he asks who gave him the black eye. “Same friend.” It doesn’t take much of a leap to read from this exchange that Rocky won the match, and that Apollo gave him the hat as a token of his victory. Then again, maybe Apollo won the fight, and the hat is a consolation prize. Or a penalty for losing. I guess it depends on your opinion of the hat.
If you stretch things, you could also look at Apollo’s decision to fight Ivan Drago for an indication of what happened. If he won the fight, maybe he’s full of misplaced confidence after beating the boxer he essentially created and thinks he can now take on the world, starting with Russia. If he lost the fight, maybe he’s determined to actually knock out a slow, plodding, monosyllabic white guy one of these days. Of course, following the course of the film, Drago kills Apollo, but Rocky beats Drago. It’s a simple matter of the transitive property at work. But for some reason, it seems wrong to use a mathematical proof in relation to Rocky Balboa.
I keep coming back to Apollo’s line at the end of III: “You fight great, but I’m a great fighter.” Like I said before, Rocky’s primary strategy seems to be getting the living hell beat out of him long enough for his opponent to get tired enough or mad enough to make a mistake. And he basically relies on every opponent to underestimate him. The one time in the films that doesn’t happen, Clubber cleans his clock in three rounds, hard head or no. Meanwhile, Apollo is an absolute tactician who only lost the rematch with Rocky because his ego wouldn’t let him believe this slab of beef was still sticking with him. He could have won easily if he’d just stayed back and coasted by on points. Maybe not the most honorable or heroic way of doing things, but those are the rules, and it sure beats taking that roundhouse left to the head over and over again.
Then again, it’s just the two of them in that ring. No judges, no points. But also no title, no stakes. Sure, they’re both professional fighters, they both have their pride, but at the end of the day, this doesn’t mean anything more than bragging rights between friends. But I can’t see Rocky’s go-to method working when there’s really nothing for Apollo to get mad about. So Rocky wades in, hands down as usual, and Apollo works him like a second job and knocks him down over and over again, just like in their previous two fights. And instead of being inspired when Rocky’s never-say-die attitude makes him keep getting up, Apollo says, “Look, just admit you lost and wear the damn hat already.”