Ranking the Rocky Series: From Best to Worst

Being born in 1983, I grew up around the period where Rocky Balboa was a household name, and the movies were wildly popular. “Rocky” and the sequels are childhood favorites, and I very fondly remember watching the worn VHS copies on our VCR, and catching their airings on my local television station WPIX. With Stallone re-releasing “Rocky IV” this year with a brand new Director’s Cut, I thought it’d be fun to re-visit the original series and rank the entire franchise from best to worst.

Feel free to post your ranking in the comments.

Rocky (1976)
It’s tough to beat the original article as it’s one of the greatest underdog tales of all time. It’s a great sports action drama about a world champion confronted with a boxer hungry to prove himself. The dynamic between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed is excellent as Apollo has gone about as far as he can as a world class boxer. He’s taken by surprise when Rocky views the simple exhibition match as so much more, eventually giving way to the climactic bout. “Rocky” is engaging, unique and a great film all around.

Rocky III (1982)
Easily my favorite of the sequels, “Rocky III” is something of a repeat of the original “Rocky,” where Balboa has ended up in the same rut that Apollo was in the original. He’s a man whose shown what he can do and spends all his time trying to maintain his celebrity status. Confronted with the vicious Clubber Lang, another hungry young fighter, Rocky has to step up and defend his honor. This was the introduction of eighties icon Mr. T as the ruthless Clubber Lang, and is a fantastic “closer” to the overall saga.

Creed (2015)
Stallone and Ryan Coogler took the dormant series in the only natural direction, focusing on the long lost son of Apollo Creed. After his death, his son Adonis Creed realizes he has something to prove to himself and world. Connecting with Apollo’s old rival and friend, the somewhat hermitic Rocky Balboa, the pair form a wonderful father-son dynamic. The pair go through hell together as Adonis has to conquer his inner rage, while still grief stricken Rocky begins yet another battle, this time with cancer. Coogler’s reboot is fantastic and a brilliant return to form.

Rocky Balboa (2006)
Here creator and star Stallone he offers a less than glamorous peek at Rocky’s latter days. Rocky is now a widower, and distant father who owns a restaurant, where he repeats the same old anecdotes from his glory days as a boxer to his customers. When a new boxer rises to glory and is compared to Rocky, Balboa sees his chance to reclaim one last grasp at glory, all while re-connecting with his son (Milo Ventimiglia in place of the late Sage Stallone), who desperately pushes against any connection to his famous father. “Rocky Balboa” is a somber, riveting, and bittersweet “end” to the Rocky Saga.

Creed II (2018)
It’s not quite as good as “Creed” as the narrative tends to repeat the same beats as the aforementioned, while also feeling a gimmicky. Following up with the storyline from “Rocky IV,” Adonis meets Ivan Drago, the man who murdered his father. This follow up minimizes Rocky Balboa’s role, setting the series up to be centered on Adonis Creed and his family life, all while challenging the son of Ivan Drago to a bout. Adonis is anxious to avenge Apollo, and Ivan’s son is under immense pressure to help the once god like Ivan reclaim his respect and reputation. This amounts to tense meeting of two legacy characters, both of whom are willing to do whatever it takes for vindication. Rocky II (1979)
This is not exactly a great film even if it’s an okay sequel. The follow up falls victim to repetition; it pretty much retells and rehashes the original narrative to some extent. It even gives Rocky the win that he lacked in the original film, with a more predictable climax. While I love the exploration in to Rocky’s sudden fame, and his struggle to balance family, fame, and boxing, “Rocky II” is an awkward and confused second act and typically a sequel I either skip or zone out to most times.

Rocky IV (1985)
I don’t love (or celebrate) this as much as everyone seems to. Once upon a time I adored this, and everything about it. But these days the film has worn thin and simply hasn’t aged well with time as much as the first or second film. Whether it’s the odd camp and levity, the silly introduction of a robot, the endless MTV montages, or the preachy Cold War nonsense, I just have a tough time finishing this. In either case, you have to love Dolph Lundgren whose debut as Ivan Drago is simply iconic. 

Rocky V (1990)
Many, many fans of the series agree that “Rocky V” is such a bad film that it’s shockingly insignificant to the whole of Rocky’s legacy. Even Stallone has worked overtime to push the 1990 “end” of the series in to the back, retconning a lot of storylines, and virtually eliminating it from conversation. “Rocky V” is a dull, unpleasant, and tedious sequel that pictures Rocky as a bitter has been, and a god awful father. The focus on his son doesn’t gel with the film, and the climactic street fight is pretty bland, despite its change from the normal in ring bouts every film has closed on. This should only be seen if you’re a completist of the series.