“Rocky” is all about an underachieving boxer from the wrong side of the tracks who decides to put it all on the line and contend with the world’s best boxer. On top of relatable characters and a classic hero’s journey story structure, the film succeeded by tapping into universal themes of adversity and courage through the eyes of an ultimate underdog. Stallone made this formula work longer than it should have. Along with fighting, Rocky’s greatest skill is attracting large boxers with violent streaks, and that’s exactly what he does for the first four movies.
After beating Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the second film, Balboa becomes the hHeavyweight champion of the world, and should no longer fit the underdog stereotype. He lives in a swanky neighborhood, owns nice cars, and wears fancy clothes. But nobody wants to watch a movie about a spoiled, rich boxer, so Stallone continued to create bigger and meaner opponents for the champ. After defeating Apollo, he takes on trash-talking Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in “Rocky III” before facing his biggest opponent yet, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), in “Rocky IV.”
Despite its repetitiveness, “Rocky” fans continued to enjoy the underdog template, and each new film grossed more than the last. But Stallone grew bored of the same storyline. In “Rocky V,” Balboa learns he has permanent brain damage from his fight with Drago, and that continuing a boxing career could kill him. The typical underdog formula would find a way out of this and see Rocky win one last time, but Stallone decided to shake things up and kill his most successful character.