All the President’s Men. Bound for Glory. Network. Taxi Driver.
These are stellar films, and all four were up for the Best Picture Oscar at the 49th annual Academy Awards on March 28, 1977. Unfortunately, they were edged out by an underdog picture about an underdog boxer from Philadelphia.
That gem of a film is Rocky, released on November 21, 1976—which means that 40 years have come and gone since Rocky Balboa stepped off the silver screen and into our cultural conscience as a tenacious fighter who refused to quit. He was—and is—the quintessential underdog that we still cheer for time and again with each viewing. Regardless of what you feel toward the movies, Rocky is a hero in the American psyche.
As a film franchise, it’s safe to say that Rocky is no longer an underdog fighting for position in a crowded marketplace. According to The Guardian, four of the five highest-grossing boxing movies of all time are Rocky films. But let’s return to the original film for a moment and consider the shoestring production budget.
A November 1976 article from The New York Times reports that Rocky was shot in a mere 28 days with a paltry $1 million budget. Critics were divided on the story too. Some liked it and some didn’t. But this underdog movie went on to secure the 1976 Best Picture Oscar and an opening weekend of $5 million in ticket revenue. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a society, we love underdogs, the long shots who go the distance and prevail. Rocky Balboa is one such underdog, and his story from unknown to world champion is a study in maturity, persistence, character formation and wisdom.
Consider these four lessons from the legendary underdog and what they might mean for your walk with Christ.
Underdogs are overlooked.
Rocky struggled to punch through a life of mediocrity. He sought significance, validation, vindication. After coming to his senses, he enlisted the help of Mickey Goldmill, a former boxing champion who knew a thing or two about success. He trained hard to fight the boisterous but blistering Apollo Creed, and the two giants threw down for 15 brutal rounds in the championship fight that Apollo had arranged.
As I gathered some initial research for this article, I noticed that the name David came up as a synonym for the word underdog. Yes, that David—of David and Goliath. The shepherd boy who delved into battle against the giant Goliath and slew him in front of his cocky Philistine army.
Prior to this epic showdown, David was literally overlooked as his father Jesse neglected to mention his name in front of the prophet Samuel. Jesse seemed to believe that one of his other sons would be a better choice as the future king of Israel (I Samuel 16). But God said otherwise. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Rocky and David were overlooked underdogs, but they would become mighty warriors as they matured.
Underdogs are persistent.
The champion Apollo Creed falsely assumed that the challenger Rocky Balboa would be quick defeat, a lightweight, flash in the pan fighter who would fizzle out after a few solid rounds of good boxing. But the Italian Stallion displayed a second trademark quality of underdogs: persistence.
He persisted in his training. He pounded the pavement on the streets of Philadelphia. He pushed his body to the limits. Rocky persisted in the ring too—15 rounds worth. The underdog boxer refused to stop even when Mickey told him to remain on the bloodied mat.
Like David, Moses is another underdog in the Scriptures. God called Moses to lead the oppressed Israelites out of Egypt, but Moses actually persisted to be relieved of this task. He felt unqualified and ill-equipped to undertake and lead such a momentous pilgrimage of people. After much prodding, along with some anger from the Almighty, Moses agreed to go (Exodus 3-4).
Enlisting the help of his brother Aaron, the two men traveled to Egypt to garner an audience with the cruel pharaoh. Moses demonstrated remarkable persistence in front of the unflinching ruler. He asked the pharaoh multiple times to let the Israelites be free, but his words fell on deaf ears. The pharaoh’s refusal to listen cost the nation dearly. Eventually, Moses directed God’s people from the oppressive leader. His persistence provided a supernatural payoff for the Israelites: freedom to journey to a land of promise.
Underdogs Press On To Win.
Though written off as an overlooked bum, a “tomato,” Rocky persisted in his efforts to succeed. He contemplated his crummy life, put a plan into motion, trained hard and fought the reigning champion Apollo Creed with great gusto. The match ended with a split decision that led to Creed being declared the winner, but Rocky paid no mind to the results as he embraced Adrian, the love of his life. Finding love was victory enough for the Italian Stallion.
David, Moses and Joseph stand out as distinct underdogs, though there are many more to be found in the Scriptures. David slew a giant and became a great king; Moses led the nation of Israel out of Egypt and to the edge of the promised land; and Joseph helped a country navigate a severe famine by making great preparations in advance. Furthermore, he spared the lives of his brothers, the very brothers who had small regard for his life and his grand plans. He forgave them and welcomed them into his home.
An Underdog We Can Believe In
And then there’s Jesus, an underdog who transcended time and space to reconcile us back to the Father. Wait? Jesus as an underdog? Indeed. The Son of God became a man (while still fully God) to show us what a counter-culture way of life looks like (Philippians 2:5-11). During his time on earth, however, Jesus was repeatedly dismissed as a man who claimed to be God, but couldn’t be the Messiah. And yet He was.
Jesus upended the norms of the day. He told us to pray for those we don’t like; to recognize that lust is both a physical and a spiritual condition; that anger results in judgment; and that giving should be done without pomp and circumstance (see Matthew 5-7). In claiming that He was God, the carpenter from Nazareth—where “nothing good came from”—he died as a criminal on a tree.
Thankfully, the story didn’t end on the cross and in the grave. A slab of rock couldn’t hold God.
He exited the grave on the third day, thus dealing death the supreme, knockout punch. Our mortal bodies will cease to function one day, but the risen Christ, our intercessor, has made it possible to live beyond the physical.
The underdog from Nazareth emerged the most victorious in all of eternity. With a foundation underscored by complete and full trust in Jesus, we too can stand in victory and wallop the enemy’s every effort to knock us out, to keep us down.
After all, we are more than conquerors in Christ. Eye of the tiger, you know?