Stallone and Rocky:40 years bookended by Oscar

“It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

Sylvester Stallone wrote those words and embodies them every time he climbs into the skin of his most legendary character, Rocky Balboa. Before he was a superstar and high paid action hero, he was an underdog in Hollywood.

The endurance has paid off. It took 40 years and seven films for Stallone to truly give a performance that deserved an Oscar. On February 28th, he will and should win the best supporting actor award for Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Michael B. Jordan. The young actor and director brought a reluctant Stallone out of retirement to play a character he seemingly “put to bed comfortably” ten years ago. Fortune has a sense of humor, because Creed became a critical darling, a breakout hit and perhaps another Rocky/Creed story.

It all started back in 1976, when an unknown actor brought a script to a pair of producers about a fighter with a million to one shot and wanted to get it made. Stallone wanted to do whatever it took to get his foot in the door and Rocky was it. It wasn’t easy. The studio didn’t want a 30 year old actor taking the part, but eventually Sly won them over and played a part in casting and the actual fight choreography. The film was made for 960,000 dollars and ended up making 117 million, playing in theaters for over a year and winning three Academy Awards.

The film spawned five sequels, with the last having Balboa fight a heavyweight champion(and real life boxer in Antonio Tarver) in an exhibition. That was supposed to be it. A below than average fifth film, starring Tommy Morrison, was erased and the ending of Rocky Balboa was perfect, with the aging fighter sitting at the love of his life’s resting spot.

Then, Coogler, a die hard Rocky fan, came calling with an idea. Let’s take Rocky’s former nemesis and late friend, Apollo Creed, and bring his son Adonis(Jordan) into the picture to truly place bookends on the franchise and potentially bolster a whole new avenue of films. The gamble was plentiful. Critics and audiences spent the months leading up to Creed’s release pondering the worth and motive of another Rocky film. When it came out, the doubts were put to rest. Critics loved it. Audiences were blown away by it. The Thanksgiving release date was a first round knockout.

The signature ingredient was Stallone and an unforgettable performance. The actor, turning 70 in July, had never been better. As Balboa or any other character. Creed brought something out in the actor that people hadn’t seen before. A true authentic and heartbreaking portrayal of a broken down fighter, living alone and fighting off isolation and death. In a classic scene, Rocky urges Adonis to maintain perspective. “Everything I have is dead and buried. It’s back there. In the past.”

Gray and weathered nearly down to the bone, Sly gave his best performance in 73 movies spanning 46 years. It was so unexpected because while he was good and sometimes great as Rocky, Creed showed a different side of Sly. Equal parts defiant and tragic, it brought tears to my eyes when I watched it. It was like he was climbing into the skin of this character for the first time.

The first film Sly played in was The Party at Kitty and Stud’s back in 1970. He made 15 films before he got Rocky. 40 years later, he will step back onto the Oscar red carpet not accepting a “thanks for your service” Lifetime Achievement Award. He will be fighting for an Oscar for the first time since he was nominated for the original film. He should win. No other performance made you feel like Stallone’s did. The nostalgia and grace combined with the unexpected dose of feeling. Sure, Mark Rylance and Mark Ruffalo are brilliant actors, but I am expected to be blown away by their work. Sly’s work in Creed was like a hook to the ribs. I never saw it coming. That deserves recognition.

When Stallone stands up to accept the award later this month, expect the longest standing ovation. Why? There’s a little Rocky in all of us. Regular people who strive to be their best every day and fight against the odds to win, whether it be a business meeting, an evening run or a personal goal. The ring for us rests everywhere we go every day. When you get out of that bed, you are stepping into a ring of numerous possibility. We are all underdogs facing a million to one shot. People can relate to that, and they gravitate towards it.

Sylvester Stallone wasn’t handed anything. He’s earned it every step of the way. At the 2016 Academy Awards, he will step on that stage, shed a tear, thank a lot of people and represent a winner.

He took the hits Hollywood gave him and kept on coming. Long may you run, Sly.

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