The story of how Rocky was made is a thing of Hollywood legend. A down-and-out Hollywood bit player named Sylvester Stallone, with only a few bucks to his name and no future prospects, scribbles away on his notepad for three days a draft script that would go on to become an Oscar-winning movie and the beginnings of a multi-billion-dollar franchise.
45 years later the Rocky franchise is still going strong, with Creed III – the latest film in the Rocky spinoff film series – setting box-office records, earning $58.7 million in the US and $41.8 million internationally during its opening weekend, becoming the biggest opening for a sports movie in the US.
Starring and directed by Michael B. Jordan, Creed III features Adonis Creed taking on his biggest challenge yet in the form of his childhood friend Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors), fighting the guilt of the past to reach a place of forgiveness in the present.
Creed III also marks the first time that Rocky Balboa himself, Sylvester Stallone, does not appear in a Rocky movie, leading many to ask why the man who created the Rocky universe has disappeared from the franchise.
The fight over the rights to ‘Rocky’
The making of the first Rocky movie is a story of triumph over adversity. It is also a precautionary tale about who you do business with, which in the case of Stallone involved producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff. Stallone famously refused to sell his script for Rocky unless he also starred in the title role, which Winkler and Chartoff agreed, yet this came at a cost with Stallone never written into the ownership of the Rocky franchise.
“It was a deal that was done unbeknownst to me by people that I thought were close to me and they basically gave away whatever rights I would have had,” said Stallone in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“At the time I was so excited to be working and I didn’t understand this is a business. Who knew Rocky would go on for another 45 years? I’ve never used one [line of dialogue] from anyone else; and the irony is that I don’t own any of it. The people who have done literally nothing, control it.”Sylvester Stallone
Stallone brought up the issue of ownership of the Rocky franchise to film studio MGM prior to the 1985 release of Rocky IV. “I said, ‘Does it bother you guys that I’ve written every word, I’ve choreographed it, I’ve been loyal to you, I’ve promoted it, directed it, and I don’t have one percent that I could leave for my children?’” Stallone said in an interview with Variety. “And the quote was: ‘You got paid.’ And that was the end of the conversation.”
Stallone did indeed become wealthy from the Rocky franchise. For the first Rocky film, he was paid $75,000 for the screenplay and acting fees, plus 10 net points which earned him a cool $2.5 million when the film became a surprise box-office success.
Stallone would go on to make millions more on the backend for the rest of the Rocky movies, on top of his acting, writing, and directing fees, which only increased as Stallone became one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars. It has also been reported that Stallone made more than $10 million on Creed and even more on Creed II, serving as a producer on both films.
For Stallone, though, the issue of obtaining rights to the Rocky franchise is not merely about money; there is a strong component of principle to his standing as an artist and filmmaker, and the legacy that he will leave for his children. As Stallone said in a now-deleted Instagram post: “Throughout history, so many artists in every industry, recording, painting, writing you name it have been destroyed by these bloodsuckers who have destroyed so many families, lining their pockets with other people!”
This was only the beginning.
Stallone comes out swinging against Winkler
On July 31 of 2022, Stallone went on an Instagram barrage with several (now deleted) posts targeting producer Irwin Winkler and his family.
In the first post, Stallone wrote: “After IRWIN controlling ROCKY for over 47 years, and now CREED, I really would like have at least a little WHAT’s LEFT of my RIGHTS back, before passing it on to ONLY YOUR CHILDREN – I believe That would be a FAIR gesture from this 93-year-old gentleman.”
Stallone really got heated when it was announced that another Rocky spinoff film was in the works titled Drago, which would focus on a backstory about Russian boxer Ivan Drago, who was played in Rocky IV and Creed II by Dolph Lundgren. It was news that clearly drove the usually calm Stallone to a new level of anger.
Accompanied by a gallery of four photos, including one which depicts Winkler as a vampire who had just feasted on Stallone’s neck, Stallone wrote: “Just found this out…ONCE AGAIN , this PATHETIC 94-year-old PRODUCER and HIS MORONIC USELESS VULTURE CHILDREN, Charles And David, are once again picking clean THE BONES of another wonderful character I created without even telling me. I APOLOGIZE to the FANS, I never wanted ‘ROCKY’ characters to be exploited by these parasites… By the way, I have nothing but respect for Dolph but I wish HE had told me what was going on behind my back… Keep your REAL friends close.”
Lundgren, who is a friend of Stallone’s and credits him with launching his acting career with Rocky IV, replied on his own Instagram alongside a photo of him and Stallone: “Just to set the record straight regarding a possible Drago spin-off, there’s no approved script, no deals in place, no director, and I was personally under the impression that my friend Sly Stallone was involved as a producer or even as an actor. There was a press leak last week which was unfortunate. In touch with Mr Balboa, just so all the fans can relax… There ya go.”
As to what triggered Stallone’s Instagram tirade? “They wanted another Rocky. And I was willing to do it. But I said, ‘After 45 years, can we change the playing field a little bit? Level it out? Can’t I get a piece of what I created all these years ago?’”
Stallone’s absence from Creed III, explained
Now we come to Creed III, the ninth film in the expanded Rocky franchise, and the first without Stallone as Rocky Balboa. On top of the exceedingly contentious issue of the rights to the Rocky franchise, Stallone not only disagreed with the tone of Creed III, but also found himself essentially written out of a franchise that had decided to move on without him.
“What it was is Michael is telling a story, highly personal, but there’s no room for me. In other words, it’s about his [Adonis Creed’s] family, about his dilemma, and about his journey that has nothing to do with boxing” said Stallone in an interview with The Independent.
“I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a whole different point of view than Rocky’s point of view. And I kept looking for, ‘Where do I insert myself, here?’ I’d basically be walking around with a bucket, ‘Ready to spit, ready to spit?’”Sylvester Stallone
When Jordan was also asked why Stallone was not in Creed III, he would sincerely compliment Stallone’s imprint on the Creed movies but would also reiterate that the purpose of Creed III was to have Adonis Creed establish himself from the shadow of Rocky Balboa.
“First of all, Sly and Rocky’s DNA is through this entire franchise. You can’t have these movies (without that). That underdog spirit, I think, connects the underdog in all of us,” Jordan said in an interview with HOT97.
“I think what we love about these movies so much is that we see somebody that’s going through hardships, that’s able to rise from the ashes and reach the mountaintop, and we connect with that. For us, we connect with characters that can do the same, and that’s what we want to do with Adonis Creed. I want Adonis to stand on his own two feet. In order to do that, we had to go into the past. What were those transformative years, those childhood traumas that shaped [Adonis] today?”Michael B. Jordan
It was a change in direction that didn’t sit well with Stallone. “That’s a regretful situation because I know what it could have been,” said Stallone in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a different philosophy; Irwin Winkler’s and Michael B. Jordan’s. I wish them well, but I’m much more of a sentimentalist. I like my heroes getting beat up, but I just don’t want them going into that dark space. I just feel people have enough darkness.”
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over
For all the venom and raw emotion that Stallone lived with during the build-up to Creed III, Stallone is surprisingly still open to the idea of returning to the Rocky universe.
Prior to the escalation in his feud with Irwin Winkler, Stallone was working on a script for Rocky 7 in which Rocky mentors a street fighter who lives in the United States illegally, a movie that will never happen – which Stallone lays blame on “certain individuals” for. Stallone was also working on a Rocky prequel series for Amazon, which would focus on Balboa as a teenager in high school. The status of that project is still in the air.
A lot of this, of course, depends on whether Irwin Winkler will still be involved with the Rocky franchise, and if Stallone can settle his differences with the producer, something which Stallone, as of now, will not do.
“You can’t make peace with someone who’s been so nefarious, and in my opinion, so horrible,” said Stallone in an interview with SiriusXM.
“Everyone made out well. They did. But it was all supposed to be neutral; no one had anything more than the other. To get the rights… how [Irwin] got that I don’t know, but that means I have to beg him. ‘Can I do this? Can I do that? All of your sons want to be producers? Oh, that’s fine!’”
“The thing is I don’t care about the money; I want to give [Rocky] to my children. I wrote it, and it would be nice to say ‘here’s a gesture darling… When I’m long gone, [the Rocky rights] is for you. This is what I made for you’. And that’s never gonna happen.”Sylvester Stallone
Creed III is in Australian cinemas now. The Rocky film series can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.