5. Rocky Balboa (2006)
The comeback film of the franchise, Rocky Balboa picks up The Italian Stallion’s story nearly 20 years after the disappointing Rocky V. Now a living legend in Philadelphia, Rocky runs an Italian restaurant and charms customers with his old boxing stories. However, Rocky’s personal life is in turmoil, as he still mourns Adian’s death several years earlier and has an estranged relationship with his son.
Meanwhile, World Heavyweight Champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon has been tearing through opponents with ease, leading the public and speculators to think he’s fighting weak opponents rather than winning through ability. When a computer simulation on a broadcast displays Dixon fighting in-his-prime Balboa, Rocky wins by knockout. Spurred on by this, Dixon’s management approaches Rocky to fight in a charity exhibition match – a challenge he takes on to experience one more great fight and as a way to mend relations with his son.
An interesting and heartfelt film that acts as a coda to the original Rocky series (and saving it from concluding on the downbeat Rocky V), Rocky Balboa shows a new side of the boxer, where he confronts aging, loneliness, and legacy. The film is also a nostalgic tribute to the long-running franchise and a respectable conclusion to Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa (even if it ended up not being the end of the character’s journey on-film).
4. Creed II (2018)
Creed II had a lot to live up to following the success of the first film in the spin-off series. Focusing on Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, he faces Viktor Drago, the son of Ivan Drago, who killed his father in the ring in Rocky IV.
Like the previous 21st century entries into the franchise, Creed II continues themes of family and legacy. Exploring the relationship between Adonis and Rocky, who has become his mentor and father figure, it also delves further into Adonis’ struggle to live up to his father’s legacy while carving out his own path in the boxing world. Viktor Drago also seeks redemption for his father’s actions and a chance to restore his family name.
Michael B. Jordan delivers another compelling performance as Adonis Creed, portraying his character’s vulnerabilities and intensity, while Sylvester Stallone shines yet again as Rocky Balboa, conveying the character’s wisdom and weariness that comes with age. Most significantly, Ivan Drago returns, now a broken man who has lost everything. His son seeks redemption for his father’s actions by fighting Creed’s son, and the theme of legacy continues as the film details how the events of Ricky IV have affected the Drago family since.
A worthy continuation of the Rocky franchise that explores themes of family, legacy, and redemption and a grounded and realistic approach (considering the over-the-top nature of Rocky IV, this is a particularly refreshing take on the Dragos), Creed II is a must-watch for fans of the Rocky series, particularly if you ever wondered what happened to Ivan after he lost the big fight all those years ago.
3. Rocky II (1979)
Just three years after the original Rocky film won Best Picture. Sylvester Stallone returned as both writer and director, reprising his role as the perpetual underdog. Beginning immediately after the first film’s climactic fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed, we see both men have suffered serious injuries. As Rocky recovers in the hospital, he is approached by Apollo’s trainer, who challenges Rocky to a rematch. Initially Rocky refuses, feeling that he had already “won” on his own terms and announces his retirement. However, Rocky is unable to manage the money he won and soon loses it all. He struggles to find work to support his growing family and eventually accepts the challenge and begins training for the fight of his life.
A worthy follow-up to the original film, Rocky II continues to explore Rocky’s character while the themes of perseverance, determination, and overcoming adversity come to the forefront. The movie also introduces several new characters, including Adrian’s brother Paulie (boo!), and the new trainer Mickey Goldmill (yay!), an iconic character played by Burgess Meredith.
Unlike the first film, Rocky II benefitted from a bigger budget and strong performances from Stallone and Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed). The emotional stakes are higher, with Rocky now facing a family to support and a need to not just fight, but win, to secure his place in the world. Does Rocky go the distance and become Heavyweight Champion? Will he not just prove to himself, but the rest of the world, that he can go the distance? The answer provides a satisfying conclusion and worthy follow-up to the original film.
2. Creed (2015)
Nine years after audiences thought they bid farewell to Rocky on-screen, Creed was released in 2009. A spin-off of the Rocky franchise that focuses on Adonis Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, and his journey to become a professional boxer. He travels to Philadelphia and seeks out his father’s old friend/former rival, Rocky Balboa. Eventually convincing Rocky to be his trainer, Adonis faces his own personal struggles regarding the father he never knew and died in the ring, while Rocky faces his own mortality.
A rare reboot that works as a seamless passing of the torch, Rocky franchise fans will pick up on the numerous echoes from previous entries in the franchise, while sports fans are treated to some of the most thrilling fight sequences in the entire series. Jordan’s portrayal of Adonis is particularly strong in his ability to convey the character’s vulnerability and determination and as a worthy successor to Rocky’s onscreen legacy. A reinvigoration of the franchise and strong enough film to launch its own, Creed is, ironically, one of the best films of the series.
1. Rocky (1976)
There’s just no beating the original. A breakthrough for Stallone and sports films in general, this humble origin story wins through the universal feelings of spirit, passion, and determination it imparts to audiences. To rehash what readers probably know at this point: Rocky follows Rocky Balboa, a down-on-his-luck boxer in Philadelphia who gets the chance to fight heavyweight champion Apollo Creed.
An unknown underdog from the street, Rocky finds strength in a new love, meek pet store clerk Adrian, and trains his heart out to step up and see if he can go the distance. Groundbreaking for its realism and gritty portrayal of the boxing world, along with its themes of determination, perseverance, and the American Dream, 1976’s Rocky is a classic that transcends just being another sports film.
Directed by John G. Avildsen, the screenplay (written by Stallone) was praised for its themes of determination and perseverance against the odds, creating an underdog story that has carried it through the decades. Winning three Academy awards for its year, including Best Director and Best Picture, Rocky is – and remains – an iconic film and the best of the franchise. As Rocky says, “It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” This film hit so hard the franchise is still going strong today. That’s how winning is done.