I have a fondness for the Rocky franchise tightly threaded through my childhood. When I first saw Rocky III, I was around the age of his son in the movie. There’s a familiarity with my father here too, with a personality a bit like Rocky and a lot like the Dude from The Big Lebowski.
I felt like I grew up with Rocky, and as I kept growing, his character kept growing too.
As a series of films, Rocky offers a unique arch over the whole of a man’s lifetime. Of course the violence of boxing is a trite (often abused and toxic) masculine motif, but in this case, I still think it serves as effective grounding for universal challenges, like facing our own fear and pain. Each individual film is a predictably flawed product of its time. But the accumulative results are a perpetual coming of age story, throughout various life stages, following a similar pattern to Richard Rohr’s map of the masculine spiritual journey.
The story of Rocky starts by climbing the first steps into maturity, experiences the connection and loss of a good mentor, and tastes the failure of believing your own myth, becoming blinded by ego. The story continues by reaching the pinnacle of your prime, facing your toughest challenge, and experiencing cost of success that breaks something deep inside. (I-IV) It leads to an inevitable midlife crisis and the mistake of trying to repeat past success by imposing it on a younger generation. From there, Rocky discovers the wisdom and freedom won through acceptance and humiliation (Richard Rohr calls this the "second half of life"). His story finishes in the Creed series, where we see a full transition into masculine spiritual maturity, giving the rest of his life for the benefit of a new generation. (V-VIII)
Throughout these films, we’ve watched this man grow up. We’ve seen the challenges he’s faced, the mistakes he’s made, the losses he’s endured, and the pain he suffered. But we also witness him transform, as he’s shaped by his commitment to keep moving forward through it all.
When the cultural norms settled for loud, flashy, and financially successful masculine ideals, Rocky was uniquely unpretentious. He never came across as being better than us. He wasn’t chasing after fame, he didn’t want your envy. He wanted something real, something that couldn’t be bought, something only he would know in his heart if he achieved it or not.
One thing that keeps me coming back to these Rocky stories is his innate drive to discover what you’re made of— to define and embrace your own masculine identity— to know beyond a shadow of doubt if you do or do not have the integrity and substance of a the kind of person you want to be or not. Does the inner vitality of holistic masculine spiritual maturity run through your heart and veins? The longevity of these stories in our cultural consciousness suggests many of us want to know the same about ourselves too.
This journey towards masculine maturity starts with inclusive male initiation. The basic pattern is threefold: separation, encounter, return (from Richard Rohr’s From Wild Man to Wise Man, summarized below).
Here is one of my favorite scenes from Balboa (VI) that shows exactly what positive, secure, loving “father energy” (as Rohr calls it), can give to a son or mentee to prepare a young man for this kind of journey. At first Rocky seems to be sentimental, relationally unresponsive, and completely unaware of his own irrelevance. But he quickly shows us he knows a hard won wisdom his son has yet to experience.
This is an example of that first call.
Moments like this cement in my mind why we need to explore, create, and celebrate more of our own myths for developing holistic masculinity. I believe all young men want, in some form or another, to know how to receive and eventually give masculine acceptance to others who need it.