Rocky and Wrestling: How the Italian Stallion Helped Shape WWE

When it comes to the success of the WWE, you think of the two ‘manias, Wrestle- and Hulka-, and for those two marketable properties, you can thank three people: Vince McMahon, Terry Bollea, and of course, Sylvester Stallone of Rocky and Rambo fame.

“Sylvester Stallone? What’s John Rambo got to do anything?” I can hear your cry, dear reader. Well, read on and all shall be revealed!

Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon at the 2005 WWE Hall of Fame.
Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan, and Vince McMahon at the 2005 WWE Hall of Fame. [Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]

The Movie Rocky and its Effects on WWE

The original Rocky film came out way back in 1976 and changed the way sports movies were made, but its effects can also be felt beyond cinema and into sports entertainment as we know it today. Many aspects of the WWE have been manipulated by Sylvester Stallone’s most iconic creation, some times by inspiration and sometimes directly. The most impact would be felt in 1982 with the impending release of Rocky 3.

While the film was shooting, Hulk Hogan was working for Vince J. McMahon Sr., whilst also touring Japan for New Japan Pro Wrestling, when he received a letter from Stallone.

“Arnold Skaaland handed me a Western Union Letter,” recalls Hogan in his 2002 autobiography, Hollywood Hulk Hogan. “It said Sylvester Stallone wants you to appear in his next Rocky movie.

“I had seen Rocky and Rocky II and Stallone had seemed like a God in those movies. I remember sitting there in the theatre thinking it would be a dream come true if I could ever appear in that type of movie. I would sweep up behind the horses in a parade to get into one of those movies. And there I was, standing in the dressing room with Stallone’s letter in my hands. So I called Sylvester Stallone and on my next day off I find myself on a plane heading for Los Angeles.”

Vince McMahon Sr. was not happy about the role. He believed wrestlers should concentrate on just being wrestlers and not branch off into other forms of media.

“Vince said, ‘You can’t do this. You work for me. You’re a wrestler, not an actor.’ But I told him, ‘I want to do this. It will only take ten days for me to film the part, you can spare me for ten days.’ Vince looked over his glasses and said, ‘This is how it works. If you leave to do the Rocky movie, you’ll never work for this company again.’ I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll never work here again.’ And I left. A few days later Stallone flew me out to Los Angeles.”

“Vince said, ‘You can’t do this. You work for me. You’re a wrestler, not an actor. If you leave to do the Rocky movie, you’ll never work for this company again.'”

'Thunderlips is here, in the flesh, baby!' - Hulk Hogan in the movie Rocky III.
“Thunderlips is here, in the flesh, baby!”

Of course, Hogan starred in the film as villainous Thunderlips (in the flesh, baby) and the rest was history. Hogan became a megastar thanks to the movie. One of the most famous wrestlers on the planet was born and it wasn’t because of a McMahon, it was in spite of one.

Vince Jr. wasn’t his dad and saw money in Hogan, and rehired Hogan once he took over his father’s company.

How the Movie Rocky Helped Inspire Entrance Music in Wrestling

Another aspect of modern wrestling that Rocky helped introduce was entrance music. Make no mistake, Hulk Hogan wasn’t the first grappler to have an anthem accompany him to the ring. One of the earliest most famous examples is Gorgeous George using Pomp and Circumstance (later to be used by Randy Savage). But the practice had not become widespread until the 1980s thanks to wrestlers like The Freebirds, The Junkyard Dog, and of course, Hulk Hogan. Using Survivor’s Eye Of The Tiger, the smash hit song from Rocky III which dominated the charts, the audience would pop in recognition and anticipation of the opening riff before Hulk even appeared.

Using the song would cost money so Hogan would soon have his own original theme. Two years before Rick Derringer would teach us what you should do when it comes crashing down and it hurts inside with his Real American song, we had Hulk’s original theme, heavily influenced by Rocky and would fit nicely with any ’80s movie training montage.

Written by Bat Out Of Hell scribe Jim Steinman and known as simply “Hulk Hogan’s Theme,” it would later have lyrics sung by Bonnie Tyler and late renamed “Ravishing.” (Unfortunately, this new version was not used by Rick Rude).

Hulk Hogan with the other star made by Rocky III, Lawrence Tureaud, a.k.a. Mr. T.
Hulk Hogan with the other star made by Rocky III, Lawrence Tureaud, a.k.a. Mr. T.

The other star made by Rocky III was one Lawrence Tureaud, a.k.a. Mr. T, who made his big film. feature debut playing the main antagonist Clubber Lang. Mr. T would headline the first WrestleMania tagging with Hogan and would later fight against Roddy Piper in a boxing match at the second.

The main catalyst for WrestleMania’s success was Hogan and T. The main catalyst for their success was Rocky III. So you see, modern wrestling fans, we owe Sylvester Stallone EVERYTHING!

Ok so maybe EVERYTHING is a little over the top (another classic Sly film), but everything written in this article so far isn’t speculation, it’s fact, jack!

The Movie Rocky and Its Undeniable Inspiration on Professional Wrestling

Now let us take a look at things that may have no official confirmation of being inspired by the Rocky franchise, yet have undeniable similarities.

The WWE Style

90% of Rocky end fights tend to follow the same pattern. The Italian Stallion takes a beating for the vast majority of the match until Rocky hits a couple of good punches (this is normally when the fight theme kicks in). Then, another beat down, then another comeback. The bout continues more evenly until Balboa dominates the last few moments of the battle.

Most sports movies since have followed the same pattern, the hero(es) take punishment, then when all hope is lost the miraculous comeback can begin.

“The WWE style” means a lot of things. A slower pace with big moves meaning more. Working towards the left on the hard cam. But then there is the actual match pace itself. Here is a heavily edited down version of Al Snow explaining the seven deadly steps of a WWE wrestling match to Pro Wrestling Report about ten years ago (the full interview is well worth checking out if you haven’t before).

“Step one is to shine the babyface. Shine the babyface is where the face does two or three spots where he bumps the heel around. Step two is called the heat spot, its where he (the heel) cuts off the babyface, the heel will do a bigger, stronger, more aggressive, kickass move than what the three high spots were than the babyface did in his shine.

“Step three is when the heel gets his supposed heat, that’s where he does two or three highspots, much cooler and kick-ass, much more aggressive than what the babyface did in his shine.

“Step four is now, of course, the hope spot. The babyface is gonna rally some kind of offenses and make the comeback which results in the heel doing something stronger and more aggressive and cutting the babyface off.

“Step five. We always have to do some kind of double down, where one guy hits a move and we’re both down selling.

“Step six is now where we do the comeback.

“Now, finally, after ten minutes in the ring we can now do the one thing we were supposed to do the entire time, we’re gonna try to win! The first pinfall of the match!”

I don’t know about you guys, but that sounds like a Rocky fight to me! Heck, Rocky II even did the double down spot!

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky II
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky II. [Photo: productplacementblog.com]
As I say this is speculation, but one cannot deny the similarities!

The Victory Theme

The Final Bell is the “victory theme” that plays at the end of every end Rocky and Creed movie the moment the big match ends, with the exceptions being Rocky IV and V. Ever since Rocky went the distance with Apollo in the first movie we have heard this music signify Rocky’s success, and it helps amplify the happy ending vibes.

When WWE started using superstar themes at the end of the match, it was usually after the official announcement. At some point in the late ’80s, this changed to the music playing through loudspeakers the very moment the bell rang, just like “The Final Bell” (and if it didn’t it probably meant post-match shenanigans were afoot). This helps the audience know who won instantaneously and helps add to the epicness of the final pinfall.

Character Influences

Then there are names and characters that are obviously influenced by Rocky.

Carl Weather as Apollo Creed in Rocky
Carl Weather as Apollo Creed. [Photo: telestar.fr]
Apollo Crews and Xavier Woods old ring name/gamer tag Austin Creed are monikers clearly influenced by Apollo Creed.

Xavier Woods worked in TNA using a Carl Weathers-inspired Consequences Creed gimmick.
Xavier Woods worked in TNA using a Carl Weathers-inspired Consequences Creed gimmick.

The evil big eastern European types like Vladimir Kozlov and Rusev took their persona’s from Rocky IV nemesis Ivan Drago.

Bridgett Nelson as Ludmilla and Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago in Rocky.
Bridgett Nelson as Ludmilla and Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago in Rocky.

It was to the point that Lana used to wear a dress suit and manage her former flame Rusev in very much the same style as Bridgett Nelson’s Ludmilla.

WWE's international baddies Rusev and Lana took inspiration from Ludmilla and Dolph Ivan Drago from Rocky.
WWE’s international baddies Rusev and Lana took inspiration from Ludmilla and Dolph Ivan Drago from Rocky.

Then comes the famous and well-chronicled story of The Rock’s chant. When portraying a straight-laced good guy as Rocky Marvia, the crowd would chant “Rocky Sucks.” As he won the audience over, they would simply chant “Rocky” in the manner of the crowd in the boxing film saga.

As you can see Rocky’s influences are undeniable, so what better way to end this article by quoting Mick Foley, who famously paraphrased Balboa after his own title win: “I’ll like to dedicate this match to my two little people at home and say… BIG DADDY-O DID IT!”

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Tim Buckler
Tim Buckler is a contributor for Pro Wrestling Stories as well as a writer, presenter, and lover who hosts the geeky magazine show "Tim Buckler's Thursday Night Geek Out" every Thursday at 8 p.m on Radio Woking. Follow him @blockbusterman on Twitter for more of his ramblings!