Every year, I revisit my favorite film franchise, Rocky. Every year, I’m questioned by those around me why I feel the need to do so.
“Why do you feel the need to watch the same 14 hours of content every year?” my girlfriend would say.
“Isn’t today’s America a little too complicated for this sort of macho jingoism?” my uppity roommate would say, peeking up from her Instagram.
“Why do you order so much turtle food?” the UPS guy would say.
Surprisingly, I only had an answer to one of those questions. I know why I love Rocky Balboa —the dopey earnestness, his love for Adrian, the vigor of every punch thrown — but I couldn’t immediately explain our ongoing fascination with the character and his longevity in our culture. Leave it to a magical ball and too much dairy to help shine a light.
As I was taking my first morning gulp of raw eggs and queueing up Rocky V, my front door flung open and in bounced a black, rubber ball, not dissimilar to Rocky’s favorite stress-relieving toy. The ball took a sharp right turn, almost as if pushed by an invisible hand, and landed on my couch. I stared at the ball for a second, consumed the rest of my raw eggs, and grabbed it.
In a snap I was someplace where it was sweaty, congested, and brimming with shouts and bright snaps. I looked up and saw Rocky Balboa seated at a long table in front of me, beaten to a pulp and cradling Adrian in his right arm. This wasn’t today’s Rocky Balboa either — it was Rocky Balboa circa 1976, just after a knockdown, drag-out fight with Apollo Creed. There were what looked to be reporters all around me, shouting questions at the man who just went 12 rounds with the Heavyweight Champ.
“Hey, yo, kid. How ya doin’?” said Rocky Balboa. I looked around and then up in front of me where Rocky had his non-swollen eye trained on me. “I think you got a question,” he said.
I wanted to ask about the pure logistics of this scenario — look, I’d been eating a dozen raw eggs and watching six hours of Rocky per day for the past week. I’d say a possible salmonella-driven psychotic break explained itself — but I knew why I was here.
“Why do you fight, Rocky, and why do we still care?” I asked.
“Because someone had to. I figured, and my figuring don’t get too complicated, but I figured that if I wasn’t going to take this fight, then what was I gonna do? Bang on a pot for a nickel? I don’t know about you but I ain’t too good with askin’ for things. Bangin’ on things on the other hand, well I figured I’d just do what I’m good at,” said Rocky. “And I hope you still care. I only got out of the ring five minutes ago.”
The rest of the press pool howled with laughter as I looked down and saw that black, bouncy ball coming right for me yet again. I grabbed it.
I snapped into a place that was somehow louder, somehow sweatier, and somehow more menacing than the Rocky press pool. Thousands of people all around me chanted “ROCKY! ROCKY!” I was being mobbed by people pouring in over boxing ring ropes. In the center of the ring stood an American flag-draped Rocky Balboa, again beaten to a pulp but this time triumphant.
“Everybody can change,” said Rocky into a microphone. As the crowd went bananas around me, Rocky shook loose of the swarm and stumbled over toward me.
“Whoa, kid. You haven’t aged a day. What concoction are you on?” asked Rocky.
At this point, I was just along for the ride. I stifled down “concoction” questions of my own. “I don’t think we’ve changed, Rock,” I said.
“Well that’s why you keep comin’ here, right? To remember that we can,” said Rocky.
“You’re a character. These aren’t real things. Believe me, if you saw Russia and the U.S. forty years from now, this would seem… quaint.” I said.
“It’s as real as you feel, kid. Way I see it, America’s sort of a feeling. And you feel it, don’t ya?” said Rocky. He winked his good eye at me and walked away. I made my way to the corner of the ring where a defeated Ivan Drago was still slumped over on a stool.
“Train your son,” I said to Drago. He looked up at me in a daze as I exited the ring.
When I got to the bottom of the steps, I was face to face with Paulie’s favorite companion — his robot. It stretched out its “hand” and placed into my palm that black bouncy ball. The robot waved longingly as I snapped away.
I came to in a calm, cold, green and grey place. “Hey, kid. I swear you gotta tell me about that concoction. Or maybe don’t. I think I’ve had enough of those. Grab a chair from that tree over there,” said Rocky Balboa, circa today, seated in front of a concrete gravestone that read “ADRIAN BALBOA.”
I grabbed the chair from the tree and set it next to Rocky. “This is where I cry, every single time,” I said, already disguising tears with furious blinks.
“Sheesh, kid. Buck up a little, yeah? You’re so glum, I don’t get it,” said Rocky.
“After all of this. Everything you’ve been through. You don’t really have much anymore. What makes you move forward?” I said.
“What do you mean? I’ve still got everything. I’ve got these two,” he said as he motioned toward Adrian’s and his friend Paulie’s graves. “I’ve got these,” he said, holding up his fists. “And I’ve got this,” Rocky said as he patted his left breast. “I’m not sure what else you need. Spaghetti is nice every now and then,” said Rocky.
“Even in my hallucinations you make me cry, Rock,” I said.
“Hey, as you change, as this world changes, so will I. But I’ll always be here to tell ya to get back in the ring and keep punchin’,” Rocky said as he removed a black, bouncy ball from his jacket pocket.
“Here you go, kid. Time to lay off the raw eggs, yeah?” said Rocky as he bounced the ball toward me. I grabbed the rubber ball and snapped away from wherever I was.
“Wait, I need to know about the robot…” I trailed off as I saw Rocky’s slack-jawed looked of approval fade away.
I was back on my couch, sun coming in through the blinds and warming my face. The glass of raw eggs in front of me was broken and splashed across the floor. Egg yolk was splattered across my mouth and chest and I realized that my girlfriend was on top of me, attempting CPR.
“Keep punching!” I said, choking up globs of yolk. I rose from the couch, too excited to wipe myself off. I was brimming with confidence, in pure, unadulterated American fighting spirit. I could feel the passion in my eyes. “That’s why America needs Rocky. He reminds us not to quit! It’s that simple!” I stumbled into the kitchen and grabbed two travel mugs and a fresh carton of eggs from the fridge. “Get the keys, we’re going to the movies!”