The Italian Stallion sounds like a Kentucky Derby-winning horse, but it's the nickname of Rocky Balboa, a.k.a. our protagonist, a.k.a. the contender for the heavyweight title.
But before he's a contender, Rocky Balboa is a bum. He boxes with bums as a hobby. He makes very little money boxing (winning a fight nets him only forty bucks), so he has a job with a loan shark as the muscle who shakes down bums. And he can't get a date… because he's a bum.
And this bum-ditude bums him out. He feels like his youth and potential is slipping away, and that he'll have gone to seed without having ever bloomed:
ROCKY: Talkin' about your prime. What about my prime, Mick? At least you had a prime. I ain't had no prime! I ain't had nothin'!
Of course, he gets a ton of negative reinforcement. Mickey even tells him, "Nothin' special about you." And hearing that, as you can imagine, does wonders for a man's self esteem.
Rocky may be a bum and a shady loan collector, but he's a sketchy no-goodnik with a heart of gold. He's a sensitive man who keeps a goldfish named Moby Dick and two turtles named Cuff and Link. (Aww. That's just adorable.) And Rocky wants to find true love even more than he wants to be a boxing machine.
And we're not just talking about hearts-and-flowers love. Rocky wants to love himself and he wants to love someone else. Having self-esteem and loving another person are both unfamiliar feelings for poor ol' Rocky. Mickey constantly berates him and even takes his locker away, which leads to Rocky being as adorkably awkward around Adrian as a middle schooler on his first date.
The term "manchild" is often used as an insult, but Rocky's childlike sweetness, coupled with his burly physique, makes him totally endearing.
Rocky's personal life is rough around the edges, and so is his fighting style. Mickey tells Rocky, "You got heart, but you fight like a goddamn ape." Our little Magilla Gorilla can't spell finesse and he doesn't have any in the ring. Part of the reason why is because he's a southpaw, or a leftie. Apollo's coach, Duke, tells Apollo, "I don't want you messin' with southpaws. They do everything backwards." That line could apply to Rocky's life as a whole, because he always feels like a bass-ackwards screw-up.
But we can't just blame Rocky's lack of grace on the fact that he has to use left-handed scissors. He also has a hard time smoothing out his edges because he's… vain. Yup. He's proud that he's never broken his nose, which is kind of like being a prima ballerina and being proud that you've never crushed a toenail in your pointe shoes, or being a writer and being proud that you've never worn reading glasses or succumbed to a crippling Red-Vines-and-black-coffee diet. Getting your nose broken is part of the whole boxer steez.
Also, he never takes advice from coaches. He's stubborn and has a real "my way or the highway" ethos, which makes him a true American icon, but also makes him a lesser boxer. Lucky for us (and Rocky), he learns to swallow him pride right around the time that his ego gets an Adrian's-love-fueled injection.
Coincidence? Not even close.
In the title fight with Apollo, Rocky manages to go the distance because he finally swallows his pride. He takes Mickey's advice, and he doesn't worry about his precious nose. In fact, it gets broken in the process. But by breaking his own nose, Rocky mends his spirit.
Aside from the smashed schnoz, Rocky doesn't change much during the movie. He succeeds first by catching a lucky break, and then by tapping into the personal drive that he's always had, but has never had to use. He realizes that if he doesn't try at something, he'll be a bum forever:
ROCKY: All I wanna do is go the distance. […] And if I can go that distance, 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.
Rocky's an American hero for a few reasons: his iconic training montage, his affable sweetness, and his "started from the bottom, now I'm here" reward. But maybe his heroic status stems most from the fact that he always stays true to himself.
At the end of the movie, Rocky is still a sweet dope with fists of steel, but he's a sweet dope with fists of steel who went the distance with the heavyweight champion. He's always been a survivor, but by surviving fifteen rounds with Apollo, he finally learns to believe in himself.
Adrian is Rocky's best friend's sister and the love of Rocky's life. She's the type of woman you've seen in a lot of movies: she's gorgeous, but everyone acts like she's a homely nerd because she wears thick glasses. Once she takes the glasses off—bam—she's gone "she's all that" on us.
Adrian's character growth in the movie is all about her removing her glasses, and therefore becoming less shy, more confident, and (bonus) a total knockout. (Boxing puns, y'all.)
Ironically, she becomes motivated to do this because Rocky accepts her for who she is. Just like how Rocky wins by losing, Adrian decides to change because her boyfriend likes her just the way she is. He doesn't mind that she's shy, and that fact (paradoxically) makes her open up to him more.
Rocky doesn't change much, but Adrian is a totally different person at the end of the movie than she is at the beginning. In the first half, the longest phrase she can string together without having an anxiety attack is "good night," but by the end of the movie, she's able to stand up to her brother, and tell him that she isn't a loser. She becomes her own person.
Adrian probably would have been content, if not necessarily happy, living with Paulie for all eternity if she hadn't met Rocky. But once she meets Rocky, she sees how wonderful love can be, and she wants to share her life with him. Every time he says, "Yo, Adrian," she melts inside.
And so do we. In our book, "Yo, Adrian" trumps "We'll always have Paris" and "I'll never let go, Jack" for most romantic line. Ever.
Rocky best explains why he and Adrian work when he says their love "fills gaps, I guess. […] She's got gaps, I got gaps. Together we fill gaps." (That's Rockyspeak for Jerry Maguire's "You complete me"—Rocky was never eloquent.)
He and Adrian have a lot in common, including their sweetness, their genuineness, and their awkwardness. But Rocky has courage and physical strength, and Adrian has intelligence and book smarts:
ADRIAN: My mother, she said the opposite thing […] She said, "you weren't born with much of a body, so you better develop your brain."
This brains vs. brawn dynamic makes Rocky and Adrian (Radrian? Adrocky?) complementary colors, not opposites attracting.
At the end of the movie, as she fearlessly rushes through a giant crowd to meet Rocky in the ring, Adrian is glamorous—she's a far cry from the layered sweaters and Coke-bottle glasses at the beginning. And the Adrian at the beginning of the film would never even have shown up at the arena. But her love for Rocky gives her new confidence.
And that snazzy red beret doesn't hurt, either.
Paulie is a hot-blooded Italian and Rocky's best friend. And, other than being two Italian boys, we're unsure why they're friends (the movie never explains it). But they stick together through thick and thin—mostly thin—like guys who have grown up with each other and known one another for thirty years.
A lot of people think Rocky is a bum, but Paulie is even bummier. He drinks. He yells at Adrian. He even gets violent. Even though both he and Rocky are at the bottom of their respective barrels, Rocky has the ability to crawl his way out, and he does.
Paulie doesn't. Paulie will always be Rocky's subordinate. Paulie isn't self-sufficient. He works a job that he doesn't like, lives with his sister, and rides his friend's coattails.
Paulie wants Rocky to help him out by getting him a job with Gazzo, the loan shark, but Rocky always changes the subject. Rocky never says exactly why, but it's probably because of Paulie's violent nature—he knows it would get Paulie into trouble. One excuse to crack skulls, and Paulie is likely to not only be cracking skulls, but drinking mead out of them, Viking-style.
Paulie takes a lot of his pent-up frustrations out on Adrian. He says,
"Adrian ain't sharp. Adrian is a loser. She's pushing thirty freaking years old. And if she don't watch out, she's gonna end up dying alone."
Replace "Adrian" with "Paulie" and the sentence would actually be correct.
However, Paulie isn't entirely a loser, because he's a good buddy. He helps Rocky by supporting him. He sets him up with Adrian in the first place. Rocky is poor, and Paulie gives him meat from his meatpacking job, helping Rocky keep up his strength (and get swole). And Paulie pulls some strings to allow Rocky to beat the sides of beef at the meatpacking plant in his iconic training scene.
If you're going to capitalize on the success of a friend, it helps to have a friend like Rocky. Rocky is laid back and never takes any of Paulie's drunken rants personally. Oh, and he also generously allows Paulie to advertise on his robe, earning Paulie a nice chunk of cash. Paulie's good deeds are repaid, and then some.
Rocky is a boxer for a new generation. And Mickey is… the old generation.
His face is craggy. His attitude is cranky. He's not physically strong anymore, so he compensates for deteriorated muscles with a nasty attitude—he's a grumpy old man.
He thinks Rocky should retire, and tells him:
MICKEY: The only thing special about you is you never got your nose busted. Well, leave it that way, nice and pretty and what's left of your mind.
Oof. That hurts more than a punch to the nose.
But this is all Mickey's version of tough love. He's angry that Rocky is squandering his potential, and he explains:
MICKEY: I wanna take care of you. I wanna make sure that all this shit that happened to me doesn't happen to you.
Mickey wants to help Rocky be even better than he was, which is sweet (unlike his salt-and-vinegar pep talks).
The only time Rocky loses his temper is with Mickey, and it's because Rocky knows Mickey is right. In fact, these two have a verbal argument that rivals the movie's final fight with Apollo… although no one has to get their eyelid sliced open.
But remarkably, both men put their differences aside. Rocky agrees to let Mickey become his manager, and Mickey helps Rocky go the distance with the champ. But finally taking off the gloves and fighting it out—verbally—these two are able to put their grudge to rest, and both men grow as a result.
When you hear the name "Apollo," what do you think of? The Ancient Greek sun god? The missions to the moon?
Well, Apollo Creed can't move the sun, but he probably is fairly certain that the sun revolves around him. And he's not flying to the moon, but we're pretty sure that he thinks that he could, if he really wanted to.
Basically, his ego is as big as his heavyweight championship belt. Check out what he says about um, every other boxer in Philly:
APOLLO: Shape nothing, man. They afraid. Hell, they know everybody in the world's gonna see this fight, and none of them got a prayer of whipping me. So they making excuses so they don't have to be the chump to get whipped in front of the whole civilized world.
Apollo Creed—whose name, aside from having those sun and moon connotations, is also a riff on the Apostle's Creed—is modeled on Muhammad Ali. He talks big (and walks, er, fights big, too) and turns a boxing match into a show.
He tells kids, "Stay in school and use your brain," which: fair enough. He thinks of the publicity in his match with Rocky that will rival the Thrilla in Manila:
APOLLO: "Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion." Sounds like a damn monster movie!
And he teases Rocky on camera, both to demoralize the contender and to maintain his large-and-in-charge personality.
Apollo isn't a bad guy. He's just self-involved—"Apollo Creed" is more of a brand than it is the name of a fighter. Everything he does is cultivated around maintaining his All-American image. He gives Rocky, "a snow-white underdog," a shot at the title, just to show that he's magnanimous. And he even arrives in the ring dressed as George Washington and Uncle Sam.
With this much patriotic pandering on display, we're surprised he doesn't run for president.
Gazzo is the nicest loan shark to ever grace the silver screen. He must break kneecaps and send men to sleep with the fishes (right? he's a cinematic loan shark, after all) but we don't see any of that.
We only see the softer side of this Philly crime boss. He gives Rocky money for his date, helps fund his training, and gets him to quit smoking… and he never expects Rocky to pay him back.
Once more for effect: this loan shark gives Rocky money and doesn't expect Rocky to pay him back.
If this were a Scorsese movie, Gazzo would break Rocky's nose after Rocky failed to break a man's fingers. But in Rocky, Gazzo gives him a firm talking-to about the cost of doing business on the mean streets of the City of Brotherly Love. He's the father figure Rocky never had.
Seriously. He says things like:
GAZZO: You know, you ain't never had any luck, but I think this time Lady Luck may be in your corner.
Gazzo has a driver named Buddy (or maybe they just call him "buddy") who's mean to Rocky. Buddy wouldn't bear mentioning, except that Gazzo's explanation for Buddy's un-buddy-like behavior is one of the movie's better lines:
GAZZO: Some guys, they just hate for no reason. Capisce?
Yup. Tony Gazzo just told Rocky to shake it off, shake it off. And that's because Rocky is a movie with very little hate. Even the crime bosses and the boxing bums are full of love.
Rocky fights a man named Spider Rico in the movie's first scene. It shows us Rocky's passionate, if less than elegant, fighting style. Rocky doesn't do much until Rico headbutts Rocky, almost breaking his precious nose, and Rocky takes revenge. Also, we had to mention this because "Spider Rico" is a pretty freaking amazing name.
Later in the movie, Rocky walks a neighborhood girl named Marie home. He lectures her on reputation, not wanting her to be known as a "whore." She thanks him by saying, "Screw you, creep-o!" And the next time Rocky sees her with her little gang, he ignores her. She breaks his self-esteem, and makes him think that he can't do any good, no matter how hard he tries. Marie actually appears again thirty years later in the 2006 film Rocky Balboa.
Finally, there's Jergens, the boxing promoter named after a moisturizer. (He's so slick, maybe the moisturizer is named after him.) Always dressed as a dandy, complete with red carnation, he's like the white Don King to Apollo's Mike Tyson. He orchestrates the fight with Rocky, and does very little else. That's okay, though: he's a flat character intended to provide us exposition and move the plot along to the big fight.