Everyone knows the story of Rocky Balboa, the southpaw from Philadelphia, Penn. America’s favorite underdog-turned- champion.
The Italian Stallion’s bouts with Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang and the Russian, Ivan Drago, were the stuff of legend, even if they occurred on the silver screen. You remember the scene from “Rocky II” where Rocky and Creed both tumble to the canvas after landing competing blows. At the last second, with the fight, the title, and his career hanging in the balance, Rocky digs deep, climbs the ropes, gets to his feet, Creed falls, and Rocky emerges the champion. Rocky’s face shows the signs of the fight – he’s badly beaten up. It doesn’t matter. He lifts the championship belt high above his head, pure joy, and then delivers one of the most memorable lines in movie history: “Yo, Adrian! I did it!”
The reason the Rocky movies are so popular is because they resonate with us. He’s the ultimate people’s champion, the quintessential American success story. The long shot battling insurmountable odds, believing in himself when the experts tell him he’s a nobody, a loser. Balboa goes to work, hard hat and lunch pail, every single day, competing, punching cuts of meat in the freezer, chasing chickens so he can, in the words of his trainer Mickey, “eat lightnin’ and crap thunder.” And, my personal favorite, sprinting up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and jumping up and down while he’s surrounded by the masses. Whatever it takes. Rocky understood that. The means may have been unconventional, but the results were indisputable.
In “Rocky IV,” Cold War tensions are flaring up when Balboa faces the Russian champion, the seemingly indestructible Drago. Rocky had retired from fighting after beating Lang in “Rocky III,” but comes back to face the Soviet – not just the fighter, but their entire system – after Drago kills his best friend-turned-mentor, Creed, in the ring during an exhibition bout.
Things look bleak. Adrian can’t stand the thought of Rocky going to Moscow for what she fears will be his boxing Armageddon. She tells him, “You can’t win!” in one of the most emotionally- charged moments in the series. A few scenes later, after reconciling, Adrian looks on in full support as Rocky does what he does best – training in a remote barn, lifting hundreds of pounds of rocks over his head with a pulley, evading the communist doormen assigned to guard him by running through a stream, and screaming the name of his opponent from the top of a mountain. Whatever it takes.
The two find themselves standing toe-to-toe in the ring, the fight about to begin. It’s the away game of all away games in front of a hostile crowd, the Soviet Politburo looking on, including a Gorbachev lookalike, surrounded by an arena of Russian soldiers. Towering over Rocky, during prefight instructions, the equivalent of the coin toss before kickoff, Drago tries intimidating him, declaring stone-faced, “I must break you,” before slamming his fists into Balboa’s gloves. Rocky takes a beating in the opening round, struggling to hang on. Drago is landing punch after devastating punch. The bell signals the end of the round. At that point, outside of the guys in Rocky’s corner, nobody was betting on Balboa to win. The fight play-by-play guy says, “It’s been a one-sided fight so far,” and his analyst responds, “It will take more than luck for Rocky to survive this round, Rocky’s been hit with bombs.”
But then a funny thing happens. Rocky fights back. After nearly being KO’d early in the second round, Rocky drills Drago square in the face with a hard right. The announcer exclaims, “He’s cut, he’s cut, the Russian’s cut, and it’s a bad cut and now it’s Rocky Balboa coming after Ivan Drago.” You have to see it. Seriously. If you do one thing today, besides read this column, type “Rocky IV The Russian’s Cut” into YouTube. What the pundits and analysts said didn’t matter. Rocky was a fighter, a champion. It was in his DNA, it’s who he was. By any statistic, any metric, the Russian was the heavy favorite. One thing Rocky did better than anybody, though, was take a punch and get back up.
Rocky got up, resilient, determined, and his fight with Drago went the distance. Over the course of the bout, Rocky took his share of hard punches. He was even knocked down a time or two. Each time, every time, he bounced right back up. Heading into the last round, Rocky had the only thing he needed – a shot. There was still time on the clock, and Balboa was in the game, with a chance to win, and he chopped the big Russian down by landing a combination of body blows. Rocky didn’t win the fight with a single punch, in a single round. No, he took down Drago over the course of the 15-round heavyweight fight by swinging, and chopping, and swinging, and chopping, and swinging, and chopping until his opponent could no longer endure.
That’s the thing about champions. Metrics, statistics, the numbers, at the end of the day, they don’t win championships. The flash and style points can distract us from what really matters.
North Dakota State has won four straight national championships. This year, we’ve taken a few more punches than we have in seasons past. We’ve been sent to the canvas a few more times. Montana and South Dakota sent waves around the college football landscape when they landed punches against the team holding the title belt.
With that said, here’s the thing: Like Rocky, the Bison aren’t knocked out. Knocked down a time or two? Sure. But getting knocked down is not getting knocked out. I haven’t heard any bell yet. Until that bell rings, it ain’t over. There are a few more rounds in this fight, and like Rocky, the Bison have the heart of a champion, that ‘no-quit’ mentality. NDSU has that resiliency you can’t measure with analytics or hard numbers. It can’t be found in the tale of the tape – but it’s there, always there. It was there at Indiana State and Southern Illinois after a tough loss to USD.
Some have written the Bison off. Some are talking, saying the run of championships is over. They’re as wrong as those pundits who thought Drago was superior to Rocky in every measure. Category by category, the Russian may have had the better numbers, but it was Rocky that emerged as the winner. Give me that heart of a champion any day of the week and twice on Saturday. Everyone up for the kickoff, the march is on!