Rocky Balboa talks a lot. And he has been talking for a very long time. Sometimes, his words are just endearing gibberish, sometimes they’re wrong, and sometimes they’re historically informative. But fans of the series can agree on one thing, for sure: When Rocky Balboa speaks, his words are always human.
Rocky Balboa has made an appearance in at least one film in each of the last four decades. Rocky’s storyline is linear, each film connected to the next, Sylvester Stallone lugging the dramatic weight and character development from one chapter to the next. Rocky’s ascent from a nobody on the Philly streets to world champion to singular mediator of the entire Cold War marks an unprecedented arc. There is nothing else like Rocky Balboa in the history of cinema, a single character played by a single actor, with both aging in real time alongside one storyline that stretches over forty years, and unless the Marvel Cinematic Universe extends into 2040, there’s nothing currently in play that might match that sort of committed character longevity.
And that’s why, to many, Rocky is real and his words often feel so human. Forty years of movies have brought Rocky to life, from bumps and bruises, through ups and downs, through bad to great films, Rocky’s words have experience, and occasionally, the Stallion speaks with an informed intelligence that shouldn’t be overlooked. With that in mind, I’ve collected the ten best Rocky Balboa quotes, with enough wisdom to live your life by:
10. Change (Rocky IV)
“During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”
The cheesiest, most hollow film in the Rocky canon also happens to offer the hokiest speech, but it’s not without merit. Rocky’s post-fight contention here is that man is not wholly a product of his nature or his nurture, and that the complexities of the human mind render social conditioning to be strongly suggestive at best. The Cold War tensions informing the importance of the Balboa v. Drago fight were the product of a conflict of leaders, each respective country’s average citizen prescribed to the animosity against the other’s as a matter of civic expectation. Rocky offers a common sense suggestion that this standoff would end only when we stopped blindly holding to anger that was never ours.
09. Reality (Rocky III)“Nothing is real if you don’t believe in who you are!”
Likely his most existential moment, Rocky here speaks toward the subjective nature of reality. In simple terms, Rocky outlines the classic philosophical stance that reality is centered upon the individual mind’s ability to experience, perceive, and rationalize it, a sort of Schroedinger’s Cat for the Philadelphia street rat. Would the universe, as we understand it, even exist were we not here to witness it? As Rocky would respond, “No, I dunno. Probably not, but hey.”
08. Fear (Rocky V)
You see, fear is a fighter’s best friend. You know, but it ain’t nothing to be ashamed of. See, fear keeps you sharp, it keeps you awake, you know, it makes you want to survive. You know what I mean? But the thing is, you gotta learn how to control it. All right? ‘Cause fear is like this fire, all right? And it’s burning deep inside.”
One of the most debated rhetorical questions in sociological and philosophical circles is this: Which characteristic is the most influential to human behavior and the history of civilization, fear or laziness? Boxing movies are really just films that turn up the human element to deafening volumes, and, as Rocky points out, the study of boxing would lead one to believe that fear is clearly the more prominent motivator, not just for fighters, but people living everyday life. The tone here is distinctly Darwinist, but with boundaries. According to Rocky, all of human civilization holds together because of our species’ ability to control our fiery survival instinct.
07. What’s Owed (Rocky III)
“Nobody owes nobody nothin’. You owe yourself. Friends don’t owe! They do because they wanna do.”
This little ditty is a bit controversial, as Rocky weighs in to support the hotly contested idea of true altruism and pure benevolence. Cynics like to illustrate human kindness as being driven by subconscious ulterior motive, the embedded need to be selfless itself a form of selfishness. But Rocky punches that notion directly on the nose, rejecting the idea that personal interaction hosts an economy of indebtedness and self-interest, positing instead that love is the natural base upon which charitable acts are built.
06. Love Almost Everybody (Rocky V)
“Yeah, yeah, well I love almost everybody.”
When Rocky’s son promises that his father will love Picasso, the senior replies with a brief quip that showcases a surprising phenomenon. By this point in Rocky’s career, he is the picture of Western success: he’s made millions, he’s become famous, and he’s even scored his country’s biggest symbolic victory against its communist enemies. Rocky is the ripest fruit on the capitalist tree, but he reminds us here of something surprising. Rocky really has loved almost everybody. His friends, his debtors, his opponents. This boundless compassion serves as a sharp reminder that while our culture might necessitate competition for the sake of progress, competition doesn’t necessitate animosity toward one another. It is possible to love everyone and excel within a capitalist culture.
05. Gaps (Rocky)
“She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together, we fill gaps.”
There is no topic to which Rocky can’t supply mind-bending reason. When his friend and future brother-in-law asks about his developing relationship, Rocky replies with an uncanny and clear understanding of the flaw in the romantic logic of the post-industrial western world. Barely 30 at the time, Rocky already understands that real love is provided no favor from the blind idealizations that so often function as traps to young lovers. Rather, as Rocky illustrates, committed amorous partners have to be self-aware, to be honest about their shortcomings, and each must accept the responsibility of helping the other be the best version of his/herself in spite of these flaws.
04. Can’t Win (Rocky IV)
“No, maybe I can’t win, maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he’s got. But to beat me, he’s gonna have to kill me, and to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me, and to do that, he’s gotta be willing to die himself and I don’t know if he’s ready to do that.”
In his most hopeless hour, Rocky determinedly commits himself to a battle against perhaps his toughest opponent. Not Ivan Drago, but the will of man. While most of the world (and the movie’s audience) understood the mean Russian prizefighter to be a programmed machine, Rocky dared to engage the psychological underpinnings of whatever warm-blooded human existed within the mechanics. Rocky recalls and then subverts the earlier discussed ideas of fear-as-motivator, daring Drago, who, Rocky believes, must possess some measure of human empathy, to wholly destroy another consciousness, to go against humanity’s communal social survival contract.
03. I Am (Rocky Balboa)
“What’s so crazy about standing toe-to-toe with someone, saying ‘I am?'”
Having spent half a dozen films living in a way that teaches others principles, morals, philosophies, etc., Rocky, in the final chapter of his saga, lays bare his own existential need. As far as the human mind can understand it, the universe is infinite, and it’s stretching out into a separate infinity that humans may never begin to understand. Most of that infinity is emptiness, and we’ve been arbitrarily placed within it. Rocky know that everything he does, everything we all do, is an action meant to communicate the despair and confusion of our placement. “I am,” we all shout into the void, and Rocky shouts with us, one punch, one opponent, one movie at a time.
02. The Distance (Rocky)
“It really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
The one that started it all. Going the distance, the notion that there can never exist a standardized measurement for the value of an individual aside from his/her’s ability to be the best version of who they are, is the implied slogan of Rocky’s entire life. This trademark considers a personal and cultural relativity, a blind vote of faith to anyone who happens upon the words, and a built-in self-help program designed to bring the best from anyone who accepts the phrase as a guiding tenant.
01. Sunshine and Rainbows (Rocky Balboa)
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!”
What else is there to say? This is just a damn good speech.