Throughout the saga, Balboa has been lionized by the cowed American press as the champion of working stiffs everywhere, a lovable lummox with a particularly strong psychic connection to blue-collar Philadelphians. Philadelphia, in fact, is a city whose population is roughly 50 per cent African-American, the vast majority of whom are working-class. I cannot recall the last time any film critic went out and asked black residents of the City of Brotherly Love what psychic connection they felt with a fictional thug from a section of a city not widely known for its affection toward minorities.
It’s worth noting that 1976 was the year Frank Rizzo won his second term as mayor of the city. Rizzo, a native of South Philly, was famous for asking the federal government for tanks to combat criminals while he was still serving as police commissioner, and also garnered headlines for raiding Black Panther headquarters in the middle of the night, lining up the naked black men outside the building, and allowing newspaper photographers to take their pictures. He once said that he was so tough he would make Attila the Hun look like a “faggot”. This is the intensely polarised racial environment in which Rocky was filmed, marketed and released.
When I was in my teens, I worked in a clothing store owned by a tough ex-Marine who used to referee fights in North Philadelphia gyms. One day he told me that he had joined an organisation called Cloverlay, which would provide funding to a young man so that he could quit his job in a slaughterhouse and train for a career as a professional boxer. The young man knocked out Buster Mathis and became heavyweight champion of the world. Three years later, he would crown a majestic career by defeating Muhammad Ali in one of the most famous bouts in history.
The prize fighter in question, like Ali, was young, gifted, and black, not old, talentless and white like Rocky. His name was Joe Frazier. A real-life, flesh-and-blood heavyweight champion, Frazier was long vilified as the white man’s champion by fans of Ali and by Ali himself, and never, ever got the respect he deserved. If you go to Philadelphia today, you can see the statue of Sylvester Stallone at the foot of the Art Museum steps, where it has temporarily been relocated as a fundraising gimmick. But you will not see a statue of Joe Frazier, a working-class hero who fought his way to the top but who is now down on his luck financially, anywhere in the tri-state area. This is not just an insult; this is a disgrace.
THE GUARDIAN: ‘Ello Guv’ner!