Sylvester Stallone recently threw in the towel on his time with Rocky - but it's unlikely he'll actually stay retired. Rocky was just as much of an underdog story offscreen as it was on. Stallone was a struggling actor for much of his early career, but inspiration would strike when he watched a championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in 1975. No one expected Wepner to last long, but he survived 15 rounds, which inspired Stallone to write the first draft of Rocky in a frantic 3-day binge. United Artists loved his script, but wanted a major star like Burt Reynolds or James Caan to play the lead.
Stallone was offered increasingly large sums to sell the screenplay, but he insisted on playing the lead. Rocky would eventually be greenlit for a low budget and shot in 28 days, but Stallone’s belief in the project paid off in big ways. It eventually became a smash hit, going on to win Best Picture at the 1977 Academy Awards, with Stallone receiving nominations for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. After that, Stallone chose to continue to tell Rocky’s story over the course of 5 Rocky sequels, ending with 2006’s Rocky Balboa.
Throughout that time, Stallone incorporated elements from his own life and career in each entry. Rocky II was inspired by the feeling of being quickly forgotten following his greatest success, since his post-Rocky movies under-performed, while Rocky Balboa reflected his own late-career comeback and reflecting on getting older. Even retirement couldn’t stop Rocky, who once again dusted off the boxing gloves for Creed, which saw Balboa step into a mentorship role to guide the son of his former rival Apollo Creed. Audiences have been captivated by Rocky Balboa, and now Stallone has declared Creed 2 to be Rocky’s final movie. In many ways, the movie serves as a fitting end for Rocky, but as history has shown - again and again - he may have another round left in him.
Rocky’s Role In The Creed Series
Creed is a movie that has no right working as well as it does. A spinoff focused on the rise of Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), with Rocky Balboa as his trainer could have been a crass exercise in extending a franchise beyond its shelf life. Even Stallone cast his doubts on the project before signing on, feeling the character had earned his retirement. Thankfully, he was convinced of the movie’s merits, and armed with a great script, cast, and director in Ryan Coogler, Creed became - arguably - the second-best entry in the franchise.
There’s a beautiful symmetry to Rocky’s role in Creed, with audiences having followed his journey from a young underdog in the original to retired legend-turned-teacher. The weight of the character’s history is vital to the story, and, of course, there’s the charged relationship between Rocky and Adonis itself. On one hand, it's paternal, but on the other, Rocky failed to throw in the towel during Apollo Creed’s fateful bout with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, which led to Apollo's death and Adonis growing up without his dad. That subtext is there throughout both Creed movies, but the bond between the two characters is what powers a lot of the drama.
Legacy plays an important role in both movie, too. Adonis has to struggle to live up to the legend of the father he never knew, while all of Rocky’s past glories - and mistakes - weigh on him equally. Creed 2 confronts this head-on by bringing back Ivan Drago and introducing his son Viktor. Both Adonis and Viktor are trapped in the shadows cast by their fathers, but by the end of the film, they break free and decide to forge their own paths - which also feels like a mission statement for the future of the series.
Why Creed 2 Works As An Ending For Rocky
Throughout Creed 2, Rocky tries to work up the courage to contact his estranged son, Robert Jr. He picks up the phone more than once, but every time he can’t bring himself to call. There's a sense that first he has to work through the lingering guilt of his Rocky IV decision not to throw in the towel, and free both himself and Adonis of that moment. When Adonis beats Viktor in their climatic rematch, there’s a very deliberate passing of the torch, with Rocky touching Adonis' glove and declaring it’s "his time."
This is both Rocky and Stallone declaring the reins of the series now belong to Michael B. Jordan. Rocky’s final scene sees him finally reunite with Robert - in a returning cameo by Rocky Balboa’s Milo Ventimiglia - and finally meet his grandson. It’s an emotionally charged scene and totally works as an ending for the character, who has found peace now that he’s laid the past to rest.
Stallone Insists He's Not Coming Back For Creed 3
Sylvester Stallone first said he wouldn't be coming back to play Rocky in Creed 3 not long after Creed 2 came out in 2018, and to his credit, his tune hasn't changed in the years since. Whenever he's been asked, Stallone has flatly denied he'll be back, and Creed 3 star/director Jordan has also insisted Stallone's time as Rocky is finished, and that Creed 3 is solely Adonis' story. On the surface, that seems pretty conclusive, but at the same time, it's not hard to imagine both men wanting to keep a surprise Rocky cameo a secret. Plus, Stallone has a history of changing his mind about character retirements.
Rocky Has "Retired" Before
Following the release of Creed 2, Stallone declared the movie would be his final time playing Rocky. While Rocky’s role in the story supports this position, it’s not the first time he’s called time on the character. He initially thought Rocky III would make the series a neat little trilogy and planned to stop there - but he surrendered that thought when the movie proved to be a big hit. Instead, he declared Rocky V would definitely be the end, with the original script featuring the death of Rocky following his street brawl with ex-protégé Tommy Gunn. This was the plan well into filming, but both Stallone and the studio had a change of heart, with Stallone feeling Rocky’s death was against the core themes of the series.
Thus, Rocky survived, but audiences, critics, and Stallone himself would consider the movie a disappointing note to end on. Despite this lingering disappointment, Stallone once declared in the late 1990’s he would be ‘stupid’ to return to either Rocky or Rambo. Nevertheless, his dissatisfaction with Rocky V eventually inspired him to write Rocky Balboa, where he would also channel his frustrations with his own movie career. Rocky Balboa was built from the ground up as the final chapter, and Stallone declared again it would be the final time he played the role. Fast forward to Creed, where a reluctant Stallone is convinced of the wisdom of Rocky stepping into a trainer role. Creed brought Stallone some of the biggest kudos of his acting career, and he would earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.
Stallone has also called time on other franchises prematurely. He once thought Rambo III was the end of that series - despite dissatisfaction with the final product - until the success of Rocky Balboa convinced him to dust off the headband and bowie knife for 2008’s Rambo. He declared more than once that a Rambo 5 would never happen, but then came 2019's Rambo 5: Last Blood. It was the same story with The Expendables, with the actor proclaiming he wouldn’t return for a fourth movie in 2017, only to later sign on.
The Rocky 4 Director's Cut Proves Stallone Isn't Done With The Character
Sylvester Stallone may maintain that he's done playing Rocky Balboa, but that hasn't stopped him from continuing to further his stamp on the character. In 2021, Stallone completed work on a director's cut of Rocky 4 that adds lots of new footage, removes other scenes, and in general looks to be a very different film. Considering the fact that Rocky 4 is one of the most beloved entries in the franchise among fans, Stallone's choice to alter it so heavily is a bold step, and shows that he's still not content with his cinematic legacy as Rocky Balboa. Stallone may well think he's left Rocky behind as an actor, but he definitely hasn't as a director, and it would not at all be surprising to learn that working on his new cut of Rocky 4 served to light that fire back under Stallone that only stepping into the shoes of the Italian Stallion in Creed 3 can satisfy.
Why Stallone Will (Probably) Return For Creed 3
Rocky is a character that obviously means a lot to Stallone. The first Rocky movie literally gave Stallone a career in the film industry, and Rocky’s on-screen journey has in many ways mirrored the ups and downs of his own life and career. Every time he’s declared himself finished, circumstances conspire to pull him back into the ring. Even co-stars like Dolph Lundgren have cast doubt on his latest retirement declaration, and that he’ll be back again even if it’s just a cameo. Stallone has had a heavy creative say in every film in the series so far; in addition to starring, he’s written every entry and directed 4 of them, though he decided not to direct Creed 2.
While Creed 2 untangles itself from the past and declares Creed 3 will be charting new territory, it’s hard to imagine Stallone won’t be involved somehow. He’s the author of the series in more ways than one, and whether he’s a producer or helps work on the script, a Rocky appearance feels somehow inevitable. Adonis and Rocky feel inextricably linked, and it would be hard to picture a scenario where Donnie needs advice or help - either in boxing or being a new parent - and wouldn’t turn to his mentor/father figure for guidance. The most likely outcome is that instead of being a supporting player, Rocky will make a cameo appearance next time, turning up during a couple of crucial moments. Creed is Michael B. Jordan’s franchise, and Stallone is smart - and humble - enough to recognize this, but if the past is any indicator, the bell hasn’t yet rung on Rocky’s time in the ring.