On November 27th, 1985, audiences flocked to theaters to root for perennial underdog boxer Rocky Balboa yet again in Rocky IV, the third installment in the successful franchise to be both written and directed by its star, Sylvester Stallone. In the film, Rocky faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a square-jawed, granite-fisted giant who kills Rocky’s best friend (and former rival) Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) during an ill-fated exhibition match. Stallone clearly drew inspiration for the film from another legendary fight of the 20th century: In 1938, American boxer Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis faced German boxing champ Max Schmeling in a rematch heard around the world, as 70,000 screaming fans at New York’s Yankee Stadium watched Louis redeem an earlier loss to Schmeling and secure a victory not just for himself, but for American democracy. Swap out the Nazi-era Germans for Cold War Russians and add a tragic death for dramatic effect, and that basic outline should sound pretty familiar.
Some might argue that Rocky IV’s jingoistic leanings and adherence to music-driven montages make it one of the lesser entries in the franchise. But after three films that saw Rocky evolve from a likable, leg-breaking enforcer to a world heavyweight boxing champ, this sequel earns its right to strip back its plot and simply focus on Rocky duking it out with a Russian titan for 15 rounds. Though it failed to strike a chord with critics, Rocky IV was a blockbuster smash that pulled in $332 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation), and it remains a culturally relevant fan favorite 35 years after its release. Here’s why it still resonates with fans so much more than any of the other sequels.
Though the MGM accountants tallying the box office totals and home video sales most likely didn’t mind, Stallone regrets killing off Apollo Creed to fuel Rocky IV’s revenge narrative, and it’s not hard to see why. Rocky and Apollo had endured so much punishment by 1985 that audiences had come to accept their skulls were essentially concussion-proof, so Apollo’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago was shocking. Sure, even those who didn’t watch the incredibly spoilery movie trailer could have guessed that the overly confident Apollo was going to lose to Drago, thereby setting up a rematch. But it’s hard to believe that any popcorn-munching audience expected to see Rocky cradling a dead Apollo in his arms while a murderous Russian dispassionately quips, “If he dies, he dies.”
Part of what makes the death so cruel is that it was only supposed to be an exhibition match, and Apollo treats it as such. He dances his way through an elaborately staged entrance, complete with James Brown himself singing “Living in America.” When the fight finally starts, he prances around the ring, cheerful as ever, taunting Drago and throwing ineffectual jabs. Faster than you can say “Yo, Adrian,” Drago retaliates, and the atmosphere changes immediately as he batters Apollo from one corner of the ring to the next. When Apollo realizes what’s happening, his pride gets the better of him, and he insists Rocky not stop the fight no matter what — what follows still makes us scream at the screen 35 years later.
Stallone directed this scene expertly, as the flashy entrance and cocksure antics give way to the shocking visual of Rocky’s white pullover stained red with Apollo’s blood. Some argue that using Apollo’s death as Rocky’s motivation is lazy, but it’s hard to debate how effective the shock was and how simply it sets up the iconic fight.
What makes Rocky IV a unique entry into the franchise is the 29 minutes of montage action, featured in eight separate scenes dispersed throughout the film. Some of them simply catch the viewer up on previous Rocky films, while others showcase the original songs by James Brown, Survivor, and John Caffer that Stallone commissioned for the film. The musical montages in particular were wise business decisions, as the soundtrack sold over a million copies and hit number 10 on the Billboard Top 200 list.
The most iconic, perhaps greatest-ever montage happens after Rocky travels to Russia and begins a rustic training regimen that includes carrying logs, chopping down trees, and helping locals when their sleigh overturns in waist-high snow. His back-to-basics training, fueled by Survivor’s “Hearts on Fire,” is in stark contrast to that of Drago, whose routine sees him attached to heart monitors, running in cavernous halls, and pummeling things so hard they make Dwayne Johnson’s punches in Hobbs and Shaw seem like love taps. No, really: in Hobbs and Shaw, Johnson’s Luke Hobbs “only” punches with a force of 1235 psi (lbs. of pressure per square inch), but in Rocky IV, Drago hits register at 2150 psi (real-world boxers only average 1200-1700 psi). In other words, don’t sit in the front row of a Drago fight unless you want to feel the shockwave in your own ribs every time he lands a blow.
Most importantly, though, the Rocky vs. Drago montage recalls the original 1976 film, which depicts Stallone punching slabs of meat, downing raw eggs, and jogging up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both are gritty, back-to-basics affairs that serve their purpose with maximum efficiency, and they’re awesome to watch.
Thanks to a spiky flat top and a chiseled, glycerin-soaked 6’5″ physique, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is one of cinema’s most recognizable characters, and for good reason. Lundgren’s imposing physical presence would later lead to roles as a bionic supersoldier (Universal Soldier), a Marvel badass (The Punisher), He-Man (Masters of the Universe), and a guy who flips cars like they’re pancakes (Showdown in Little Tokyo). He also happens to be a Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree in chemical engineering and a black belt in Kyokushin Karate.
The one thing the Swedish-born actor realized he didn’t possess was the same kind of electric charisma that prior Rocky antagonists played by Carl Weathers, Hulk Hogan, and Mr. T flaunted effortlessly. So Lundgren worked with Stallone to capitalize on his stoic nature and subtle tics, crafting a machine-like uber-villain who might just have a little more lurking below the surface. Some critics like Roger Ebert called him “more of a James Bond villain than a Rocky-style character,” which isn’t exactly wrong — Richard Kiel’s Jaws comes to mind — but by focusing on Lundgren’s physical prowess and limiting his dialogue to a few memorable quotes, Stallone managed to get himself a nice little stew going. Believe it or not, Lundgren only delivered nine lines in the entire film, but with winners like “I must break you,” “You will lose,” and “If he dies, he dies” now entrenched in the pop culture vernacular, you’d have to admit he made them count.
After two epic Apollo Creed fights and two short but thrilling brawls with Clubber Lang that saw Rocky going 2-for-4 and avenging losses to both fighters, audiences probably didn’t want to see the same formula repeated again. In the first two films, Apollo was either too cocky (and still won) or tired himself out chasing a knockout (and lost, though he could have won easily). After destroying Rocky easily in the third film, Clubber lost the second fight because Rocky got into his head, which resulted in a knockout after Rocky hit him so hard it sounded like a jet took off in the arena.
What makes the fight between Rocky and Drago unique is the way Rocky makes Drago realize he’s a mortal. Drago has never faced a real challenge; his training partners seem like KO fodder, and Apollo clearly didn’t take him seriously. Sure, Drago’s power is near superhuman, and even when he misses, the air is enough to push Rocky back. But once Rocky opens up a cut on his face, and the crowd starts turning against him, he’s caught off guard, seemingly unprepared for any scenario in which he isn’t a dominating force. Rocky shatters Drago’s confidence and his nerves by standing toe-to-toe with him and forcing him to acknowledge and respect his iron will.
The cherry on top is the catharsis of seeing Drago destroyed. In Rocky and Rocky II, Apollo was supremely charismatic, and you weren’t exactly rooting against him. In Rocky III, Clubber Lang is also magnetic and larger than life, and aside from his trash talk, he was just an excellent boxer Rocky had to overcome. Drago, however, killed Apollo, showed no remorse, trained on steroids, and represented America’s greatest threat during a tense period of the Cold War. When Rocky finally turns the tide of the fight and unleashes the decisive flurry on Drago, it’s thrilling and satisfying in a way that none of the franchise’s previous climactic bouts have been.
Fun side note: In order to make the action more believable, Stallone and Lundgren actually punched each other during the fight, and at one point, Stallone insisted Lundgren “cut loose as hard as you can.” Stallone ended up in the ICU for four days.
With an average of 89% on the Tomatometer and close to $400 million at the worldwide box office, Creed and Creed 2 reinvigorated the Rocky franchise, focusing on the rise of Adonis (Donnie) Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as a champion boxer under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa. The presence of Ivan Drago can be felt throughout the two films, as Adonis attempts to fight in the sport that killed his father and ultimately faces a Russian showdown of his own. In a clever callback to Rocky IV, Creed 2 specifically focuses on the battles between Donnie and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan. Their first fight sees Donnie overwhelmed (like his father in Rocky IV), and the second meeting plays out like the Rocky/Ivan fight, as Viktor becomes dismayed that he can’t knock out Donnie and loses when Ivan throws in the towel to save his son from further punishment. The two Creed films owe a lot to the legacy of Rocky IV, introducing a new generation of fans to Ivan Drago.
Even outside of the franchise, the wonderful College Humor 30 for 30 parody has racked up millions of views, and the legend of Lundgren sending Stallone to the hospital after a Swedish super punch has mad the rounds. Recently, Stallone announced he was working on a Rocky IV director’s cut; the news started trending on social media and the controversy surrounding the decision to remove the weird robot subplot has gotten a lot of press. People love Rocky IV, and that’s why 35 years later, it still inspires passionate discussion and remains one of the most popular sports films ever made.
Rocky IV was released in theaters on November 27, 1985.
Thumbnail image by (c)United Artists courtesy Everett Collection