Ranking the top opponents of Rocky Balboa’s career

Since 1976, Rocky Balboa has been an endearing character who many can’t help but root for. Sylvester Stallone hit the jackpot with the character, who was a true underdog. “The Italian Stallion” had heart in and out of the ring and has left a lasting impression in the world as one of the most iconic figures in film history. 

Balboa is known for his unique quotes, calm demeanor and entertaining opponents. Who was the best opponent Rocky ever faced? 

With the anniversary of “Rocky III” coming up, The Sporting News looks into Rocky’s fighting career. Fights included are only battles in the ring, so his street fight with Tommy Gunn (late fighter Tommy Morrison) does not count. Who is your favorite Rocky opponent? 

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5. Spider Rico (“Rocky”) 

In the first movie, the opening scene is Rocky taking on Spider Rico. This showcased what kind of fights Rocky competed in early on, as this took place inside a church. Rocky was cut early thanks to a head butt, and the crowd voiced its disapproval of the fight. Rocky ended the bout with a series of blows. Spider was brought back for the “Rocky Balboa” movie, where he helps out Rocky in his restaurant. 

It is one of the only fights in which we see Rocky actually compete outside of his main opponents. His other bouts were shown via montages. 

4. Mason Dixon (“Rocky Balboa”)

After years away from the ring, Rocky didn’t have any real intention to fight again. That is until an ESPN “Then and Now” segment aired pitting Rocky against current champion Mason “The Line” Dixon. Played by former champion Antonio Tarver, Dixon is incensed that there is debate about whether he could beat Rocky. 

Rocky, who has some “stuff in the basement,” feels like he has one more match in him. After much debate, he’s granted a boxing license despite being well past his prime. He was only supposed to compete in small exhibition fights, but Dixon challenged him right away.  

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The fight is one-sided to start, with the younger Dixon dominating. Dixon would hurt his hand later in the bout, and Rocky tried to take advantage. He knocked Dixon down for the first time, to the shock of the crowd and Dixon. They traded shots in a fight that showcased the heart of a much older Rocky. Dixon would knock Rocky down multiple times, the last knockdown almost ending the bout. Rocky got back up, however, and the two exchanged blows to the delight of the crowd.

Dixon won by split decision (there is an alternate scene in which Rocky won), but Rocky was proud of his performance. It was the perfect sendoff fight for Rocky, who no longer had the “stuff in the basement.”

3. Ivan Drago (“Rocky IV”)

Out of all of Rocky’s opponents, Ivan Drago was the hardest-hitting opponent he ever faced. 

During the height of the Cold War (in film and real life), Drago came to the United States and competed against a long-retired Apollo Creed. Now friends with Rocky, Creed had the itch to compete. It backfired on him, as Drago took the exhibition bout seriously, killing Creed thanks to vicious blows. Rocky, who was in Creed’s corner, didn’t throw in the towel to stop the fight, something he always regretted. The film also gave birth to the iconic quote, “If he dies, he dies” and the “Throw the damn towel” GIF. 

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Looking for revenge, Rocky gave up his heavyweight title to face Drago. He also traveled to enemy territory in then-Soviet Russia to fight him. Excluding himself from the world in a cabin, Rocky had an unusual training camp. During the fight, a hostile crowd welcomed Rocky. The opening rounds saw Drago punish Rocky. But Rocky forced Drago to bleed in the second, an encouraging sign that Drago was just a man with muscles and not a monster. Rocky managed to hold his own against Drago, and the two had a back-and-forth affair. In the final round, Rocky knocked down Drago and won the fight. 

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The film wasn’t as highly regarded as the others, but Drago was an intimidating force who made for a great challenge and villain opposite Rocky. 

2. Clubber Lang (“Rocky III”) 

One of the most ruthless opponents Rocky ever faced, Clubber Lang got into Rocky’s head the most of all of his opponents. While Rocky was at his highest of highs and perhaps a little lazy, Lang was training hard for his shot at the heavyweight title. He was stronger in their first fight, and mind games played a major factor. Calling out Rocky’s wife and being part of the reason trainer Mickey died? That will affect anyone’s mindset, including Rocky. 

The first fight between the two was a massacre, with Lang decimating Rocky with vicious shots. Rocky reached rock bottom as Lang won the world title. “The Italian Stallion” needed help, and his old rival Apollo Creed was there to help him out. In the second fight, Rocky stormed back and put on a performance nobody will ever forget. 

Also, the rivalry introduced us to “Eye of the Tiger,” another iconic theme song in the Rocky universe. 

1. Apollo Creed (“Rocky” and “Rocky II”) 

Nothing can beat the original, especially if it involves the charismatic Apollo Creed. 

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Creed needed a new challenge and fast in the first Rocky movie after his opponent suffered an injury. The champion decided to give a local underdog a shot at the title when no contenders were available. He thought choosing Rocky could control the narrative and make a solid storyline. What Creed ended up getting was a real battle. The unknown Rocky was someone who kept on coming after Creed. 

In the first film, Rocky knocked Creed down, the first time that ever happened. Rocky got knocked down in the 14th, but got back up. Creed couldn’t believe what he saw as Rocky came out of nowhere to make it an even fight. 

The first fight ended up being a split decision. The second film begins where the first left off, showcasing the match. Both men appeared in the hospital and showed some form of respect for one another. Creed, convinced the fight was a fluke, calls out Rocky for another bout. After Rocky ignores his messages, he finally accepts. Rocky, the southpaw, worked on the power in his right hand and made the second fight extremely interesting. 

In another back-and-forth affair, the fight almost went the distance again. Both fighters were knocked down in the last round, but Rocky was the one who beat the 10 count. The two brought out the best in one another. They became best friends, and the legend of Rocky grew. There was an unofficial third fight between the two in “Rocky III,” and although Rocky told Adonis Creed in “Creed” that Apollo won, the world will never truly know what happened. 

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