Rocky Week bobs and weaves its way into round two. Yesterday, Dan Caffrey sprinted through a marathon of all the Rocky sequels. Today, Blake Goble and Sarah Kurchak celebrate all the Sidekicks who helped Rocky Balboa become the thunder-crapping people’s champ!
Rocky Balboa’s one of the most beloved boxers to ever hit the silver screen and come out with a gold belt. The marble-mouthed masher from Philly was a TKO with audiences. Sylvester Stallone’s script fueled John G. Avildsen’s Best Picture Winner, and Stallone’s world of muscle and well-intentioned folks from Philly built a retrograde feel-gooder that totally went against the grain of ‘70s cinema. Rocky was optimistic, charming, and vintage. That first film inspired five sequels, and the brand-new Ryan Coogler spin-off, Creed.
Dat’s a whole lotta sparrin’, and Rock couldn’t have stayed the people’s champ for this long without a little help from his friends: coaches, colleagues, family members. Pets, too. Shoot, even inanimate objects. Rock likes to fight, day and night, but he mighta been another bum had he not accumulated years of offbeat experiences (rather, met a colorful cast of characters and creatures straight out of funky Philly).
In honor of Creed, and in remembrance of Stallone’s colorful franchise, we’ve decided to rank all of Rock’s sidekicks. Who are the prize fighter’s heavy helpers, and who are the welter wusses? Find out in this finely tuned list that didn’t require no eggs at four in the morning or trips to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Because sometimes, a turtle can help you with your sparring more than some lout in-law ever could.
Senior Staff Writer
*Editor’s Note: Adrian (Talia Shire) is not a “sidekick.” She’s his wife — his partner.
13. Paulie Pennino
Film(s): Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa
Talk about riding the coattails of another man’s success. Paulie let Rock into the meat-packing plant a few times, and suddenly he thinks he’s Rocky’s bestie, his consigliere. Paulie, with his fisherman’s hat, beer belly, and verbal pugilism that makes the plain-spoken Rocky sound positively, uh, articulate-like, was a loser. A lame-o. A Philly-stine. He practically abused his sister Adrian and forced her to date ol’ Rock. Paulie instigated and provoked absolutely every one of Rock’s opponents. Paulie was ungrateful that one time Rocky was nice enough to get a helper robot for Paulie on his birthday. He pissed about snow in Russia and moaned about arthritis when he was getting up there in Rocky Balboa. He ruined a turkey dinner in part one. He took swings in resentment at Rocky in chapter three. We learn in V his bad investments cost Rocky everything he won over the years. And who the hell knows how much cigar ash Paulie left all over the place in those 30-odd years of claiming to be Rocky’s buddy?
Paulie Pennino: The true bum of the Rocky franchise.
Parting Wisdom: Never let your in-laws be a part of the process.
12. Robert Balboa Jr. #4 (Sage Stallone)
Film(s): Rocky V
Did you know that Rocky Jr.’s been played by five different kids over five of the Rocky films? And in this list, we’re going to count three as sidekicks (IV, V, and Balboa), because those three young people provided varying degrees of support and wisdom. Sadly, Stallone’s real, actual son was the worst and least helpful.
Poor kid. Sage Stallone never had that one-in-a-million chance like Rocky Balboa. Like Frank Stallone before him, he’d live in the shadow of the very successful and popular Sly and eventually become a pop punchline. Sly’s real-life son was cast at the age of 13 to play Balboa’s fourth filmic son, Robert Balboa, in the ridiculously clunky and clueless Rocky V: The One with that Street Fight and a Guy Actually Named “Tommy Gunn”. And Sage being a real 13-year-old, he had a real teen’s acting sensibility: lines that get whined, stances at ringside offering very little while demanding his father’s constant love and attention. Get off Rock’s back, kid, he’s got Mr. Gunn now! Plus, he makes some really bad gang friends, crum-bums.
Yet, none of this is as bad as that terrible earring Sage sported. What’s up, 1990?
Parting Wisdom: Never let nepotism dictate your casting decisions.
11. Robert Balboa Jr. #3 (Rocky Krackoff)
Film(s): Rocky IV
This kid was mugging it up as the third iteration of Rocky’s spawn. Rocky Krackoff was a child actor through-and-through, cracking wise, getting Paulie’s goat. Whereas the first two Rocky Juniors were pretty much babies, this Rocky Jr. was super mid-‘80s, a child actor placed solely for the purpose of yuks and busting Rock’s chops for a few scenes. Did this Rocky Jr. contribute heavily to the Italian Stallion’s game in the ring? Not necessarily. No. But this was the first instance of Rocky Jr. being given some authority and faint characterization, and he enabled Stallone to show off paternal sentiment and concern for his own life.
That, or Stallone saw Short Round in Temple of Doom the year prior and was like… “Chartoff! Winkler! Fellas! I just saw dat new Indy flick and realized we need a kid in the new Rocky! One with attitude!”
Parting Wisdom: Kids just say the darndest things. But if you’re a boxer, and your son says your head looks like a catcher’s mitt, don’t brush that stuff off. He could be saying that your head looks swollen and shiny from bruising or maybe leathery from plastic surgery (*cough* Stallone looked weirdly different, kinda vanity-different, in the middle entries *cough*). Maybe, just maybe, Rock, you should see a doctor about all that.
10. Paulie’s Robot
Film(s): Rocky IV
Everybody kinda hated Paulie. The hanger-onner in-law smoked, drank, wore beaters while around family and company in a million-dollar mansion. He barely talked to Adrian as the series progressed. Rocky’s son taunted him a bit, too. Rock likely had enough of Paulie come part IV, so what better way to unload the problem of Paulie than by getting him this. Take a moment to appreciate the wonderfully wtf robot of Rocky IV. That bulbous monster on wheels helped Rocky with Paulie; it could clean, serve beer, even allow for phone calls. All things considered, Sico, the robot’s real-life name, was not all that useless for Rocky.
Curiously as well, the robot made it into the movie for real and personal reasons for Stallone.
Robert Doornick, founder of International Robotics, developed Sico as a tool to explore and study autism in the 1980s when it still mystified researchers and was stigmatized by people. Doornick hypothesized that a robot could aid in communicating with autistic children and promoted the robot on TV. Stallone, whose son, Seargeaoh, was diagnosed with autism, reached out to Doornick about trying Sico, and Sly loved the big-headed bot. Apparently, Stallone wrote tons of scenes that were cut out, but according to Doornick, there was stuff like Paulie and the Robot getting into Oscar and Felix-like fights and the robot complaining about Paulie’s offensive cigar smell. What we’d give to find that footage in the MGM vaults.
What we’re left with is a vague, suggestive human-robot relationship that’s been haunting and fascinating audiences for 30 years … and one of the campiest elements, a pop culture fart, tied to the Rocky movies. Also, it’s fun to imagine the conversations between Stallone and Sico.
“Yo, Mr. Robot, I like your work, and I thinking maybe I got a part for you in my movie.”
“You. Have. A. Call.”
Parting Wisdom: When you become an athlete, if you become really successful and make enough money, eventually you can pawn off bad relatives on robots.
09. Robert Balboa Jr. #5 (Milo Ventimiglia)
Film(s): Rocky Balboa
By the time Rocky Balboa rolls around, Robert Balboa Jr. is in his fifth incarnation, now played by Milo Ventimiglia. Rocky’s Son #5 is now a somewhat successful accountant, but he’s also the epitome of every millennial stereotype we read about in every generational thinkpiece almost a decade later. He’s whiny — so whiny that he makes Ventimiglia’s previous work on the Gilmore Girls seem staid — and entitled and blames his dad for pretty much everything. Feeling like he’s in the shadow of Rocky’s far more flashy, if fleeting, success, he worries that he only has a job and friends because his dad was famous. But in the end, after initially balking at the idea of Rocky getting back in the ring, he does become one of his dad’s biggest supporters. They even make up quite literally over Adrian’s dead body.
Parting Wisdom: Not much, but he does provide a sounding board for this gem from Rocky: It ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” This is not great boxing advice, by the way, and goes a long way to explaining the damage that Rocky has suffered in the ring over the years, but it is an admirable life philosophy.
Film(s): Rocky Balboa
As far as sidekicks go, Stephenson, better known as “Steps,” doesn’t make a particularly significant contribution to the film he’s in, let alone to the franchise as a whole. The son of Marie — the rebellious young teen girl who found herself on the receiving end of some potentially unwarranted advice from Rocky regarding the dangers of smoking and hanging out with “yo-yo people” in the first feature all grown up — is one of the more generic stock characters in the Rocky arsenal. He’s essentially a typical troubled teen thrown into the mix to give Rocky some focus and someone other than his angst-ridden and moderately estranged son to mentor. But actor James Francis Kelly III does a suitably charming job with the material he’s given, and Steps does end up making a decent cornerman.
Parting Wisdom: You learn just as much if not more from teaching others as you do from doing things for yourself. Or, if you take it upon yourself to impart yo-yo-related wisdom on some poor young girl, you might just end up mentoring her son some day.
07. Cuff and Link
Film(s): Rocky, Rocky Balboa
Rocky’s pet turtles, Cuff and Link, aren’t always the best when it comes to moral support — they don’t go to their old man’s fights, after all — but they do help him awkwardly but sweetly woo Adrian. He buys the pair from her, and they also form the basis of the terrible joke that finally makes her smile: “The turtle food last week had more moths in it than flies. And the moths get stuck in the turtles’ throats and they cough, and I have to smack them on the back. And they get what? What do they get? […] Shell shock. They get shell shock.”
Cuff and Link are also incredibly loyal. They’re still with old Rock in Balboa. Fun fact: They’re even played by the same turtles.
Parting Wisdom: In the first film, they’re all about love, compassion, and the benefits of bad jokes. In the last one, they’re a testament to the enduring human and reptilian spirits. Cuff and Link might be a little beaten up, but they’re still going strong, just like their old man.
Film(s): Rocky Balboa
Rocky and Punchy, Balboa’s answer to Butkus, the beloved but intermittently vanishing bull mastiff from I and II, don’t get off to the best start. When Rocky and his reluctant new mentee, Steps, go to the pound to pick him out, Steps names the beleaguered (or “cute ugly,” as Rocky describes him) mutt Punchy in an effort to mock the former and future boxer’s broken state. Rocky, bless his heart, doesn’t seem to catch the insult. Probably because he’s too punchy.
But Punchy the dog soon picks up where Butkus left off, training by Rocky’s side. He even lets Rock triumphantly hoist him into his arms after another famous stair run — something Butkus was too heavy to do in the original.
Parting Wisdom: A lesson in second chances. Punchy is even more down and out than Rocky when we meet him, but the fighter sees potential — and a metaphor for his own life — in the pooch.
Film(s): Rocky, Rocky II
Butkus Balboa’s contribution to the Rocky franchise is borderline negligible and somewhat confusing. In both the first and second films, he hangs out and trains with Rocky for a while and then is promptly never seen again.
Butkus Stallone, however, plays a much larger part in the greater Rocky mythos.
As the legend goes, Stallone was forced to sell poor Butkus when he was at his lowest point and used part of the proceeds from the sale of the Rocky script — not to mention a lot of begging and maybe even some threats — to get him back again. Butkus’ temporary owner also scored a bit part in the picture for his efforts.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Butkus played a major role in the genesis of Rocky’s most iconic scene. Originally, Stallone wanted the boxer to carry Butkus up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but when the large bull mastiff proved too heavy, Stallone decided that Rocky should just run up the stairs on his own. And thus one of the most famous scenes in movie history was born.
Parting Wisdom: Bull mastiffs don’t make great sandbag substitutes. But great things can come in the wake of failure.
04. Apollo Creed
Film(s): Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV
After two films’ worth of bitter rivalry fueled by approximately 94% animosity and 6% professional respect and admiration, Creed and Rocky buried the hatchet after Mickey died and Creed convinced Rocky to work with his team. The pair became fast friends and training buddies after that, taking many a long run on the beach together in their finest crop tops. And when their efforts resulted in Rocky’s victory against the cocky young James “Clubber” Lang (Mr. T), the pair celebrated with one final friendly, private, and unofficial match between them.
Rocky went on to be in Creed’s corner for his match against the terrifying Soviet behemoth Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. After Apollo died in his arms, Rocky was moved to take on Drago himself and avenge his friend’s death.
It’s one of the better friendship arcs out there. And, if you prefer your romance barely sublimated, it’s also the finest love story this side of the Fast and Furious franchise.
Parting Wisdom: In Rocky III, Creed helped Rocky rediscover his eye of the tiger. Which worked out well for both Rock and Survivor.