Often rated as one of the most iconic film franchises in the world, the “Rocky” series is beloved by millions for its inspirational depiction of one man’s perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity. However, some viewers tend to overlook the importance of its romantic subplot, instead focusing on the testosterone-fueled training montages and bombastic boxing matches. Rocky’s developing relationship with Adrian exists at the heart of this narrative, and much of his character growth stems from the love they share with one another.
It’s evident when rewatching the 1976 Oscar winner that “Rocky” is a romance film in disguise; its depiction of a healthy, supportive relationship demonstrates just how powerful a driving force love can be.
Rocky, the Bum
The audience is introduced to Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the opening round of one of his club fights. Rocky is a boxer, and, if the jeering crowd is to be believed, not a particularly skilled one. Despite knocking out his opponent in the third round, many spectators still label him a “bum;” in the fighting community, bum is a derogatory term used to describe fighters with limited talent or losing records. For Rocky, this label is just as applicable to his life outside of the ring.
The Italian slugger lives in a cramped, messy apartment in a low-income Philadelphian neighborhood. He has a dead-end day job as a “collector” for a local loan shark, and his prospects of achieving anything in the boxing world appear slim. One poignant shot early in the film shows Rocky, covered in bruises from his last fight, staring sullenly at a childhood photo of himself. Evidently, he’s dissatisfied with his current lot in life.
The audience is later introduced to Adrian Pennino (Talia Shire), a reserved and bookish woman who works at the neighborhood pet store. Despite her aloof demeanor and lackluster social skills, Rocky becomes infatuated with her. Paulie, Adrian’s brother, warns him that his sister is a “loser,” but Rocky remains convinced there is something special beyond her shyness.
Adrian and Rocky
An unconventional yet beautiful romance blossoms for the next 90 minutes. Adrian and Rocky are far from the wise-cracking, picture-perfect caricatures that star in most romcoms; there’s nothing “Hallmark” about their appearances or dialogue. Their first date, which occurs at an empty ice rink on Thanksgiving, perfectly encapsulates the humanity of their interactions.
As is the case for many first dates, there’s a level of awkwardness that feels both timeless and authentic. Adrian remains shy and unsure of herself, though she gradually begins to open up, whereas Rocky rambles aimlessly, clearly afraid of boring her. When asked about his boxing career, he admits that his father told him to develop his body since he never had much of a brain. Here, Adrian finds a shared experience; her mother advised her to work on her brain since she wasn’t born with much of a body.
Viewers begin to understand that Rocky and Adrian are two sides of the same coin. Whereas Rocky is confident yet simple-minded, Adrian is intelligent yet self-conscious. They both drifted through life as loners — as “losers” or “bums” — but they are finally able to find acceptance and validation in one another.
Rocky sums up the value of a healthy, supportive relationship during a conversation with Paulie in which he states, “She’s got gaps, I’ve got gaps. Together we fill gaps.” Everyone has shortcomings they are insecure about, but the best relationships involve partners who love one another in spite of their respective faults. This sort of love allows both partners to feel more whole.
The film demonstrates how healthy relationships can inspire self-improvement. Adrian in particular experiences a wealth of character development due to her romance with Rocky. Despite being meek and passive for the majority of the film, she finally finds the courage to defend herself against Paulie during one of his drunken tirades.
“What do I owe you, Paulie?” she shouts, “I take care of you. I don’t owe you nothing! You made me feel like a loser. I am NOT a loser!”
Rocky remains silent during this exchange, allowing Adrian to fight her own battle. At this moment, she is able to unleash years of pent-up frustrations. She spent a lifetime feeling beaten down by the negative judgment of others, but the respect, support and constant validation from Rocky allow her to finally recognize her self-worth.
Adrian’s love and support serve as crucial motivators during Rocky’s preparation to fight Apollo Creed, the World Heavyweight Champion.
Oh right, “Rocky” is also a boxing movie. Well, for context, Apollo Creed decides to give a no-name, local underdog a shot at the title to prove that America is the land of opportunity. He arbitrarily selects Rocky Balboa, throwing the battered club fighter into a title match that is essentially unwinnable.
One of the film’s greatest scenes involves a tender, emotional monologue in which Rocky admits to Adrian that he doesn’t care if he loses; he simply wants to go the distance to prove that he’s not just a “bum from the neighborhood.” There is something especially raw, vulnerable and human about this scene. Rocky feels comfortable enough with Adrian to express his deepest fears. Despite hardly saying a word, her unwavering support is felt through the silence. His willingness to open up and her willingness to listen are both indicative of their strong love.
The Final Bell
After 15 grueling rounds of boxing, Rocky and Apollo are both beaten to a pulp. Reporters and spectators rush to the ring as the judge’s decision is read aloud. However, Rocky shows no interest in the match’s outcome.
In the chaos of the moment, Rocky shouts Adrian’s name over and over as she gradually maneuvers through the hectic crowd, losing her hat in the process. When she finally finds him, Rocky asks one question: “Where’s your hat?” After 15 rounds of punishment, he is still only concerned about her.
She exclaims that she loves him, and they embrace as a barely audible announcer confirms that Apollo Creed won. The result of the fight is quite literally pushed into the background.
“Rocky” illustrates the power and beauty a loving relationship can bring. Its title character’s boxing ambitions are irrelevant now that he found someone who makes him whole. Someone who sees him as anything other than “another bum from the neighborhood.”
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