by Keith Aksel
The moment is etched on the minds of every sports-loving American; the reigning heavyweight boxing champion handpicks a down-and-out local boy to serve as a fill-in opponent for a high-profile match to be held during America’s 1976 Bicentennial Celebration. The entire nation glues their eyes to their television sets for what proves to be an epic showdown. The match unexpectedly goes the distance, featuring a host of shocking blows to the head (along with an absurd lack of defense throughout). In the end, viewers see this underdog boxer lose a close split decision, consequently inspiring generations of Americans who follow to dig deep in life regardless of the expectations of others.
Of course, the events depicted here didn’t happen.
If you are at all tuned in to American culture, you know the story I recounted was that of the feature film Rocky, and the mentioned athletes simply actors: Carl Weathers as champion Apollo Creed, and the underdog Rocky Balboa played by Sylvester Stallone. If you didn’t know any better, it would be hard to determine that Rocky, and the story behind it, aren’t real. The Rocky story is as easily recalled by American fans as any real sporting event, and the film’s soundtrack is ubiquitous in practice gyms and sporting events nationwide. In fact, the only boxing match many Americans have ever seen is the Rocky-Apollo showdown.
In Philadelphia, the setting for the movie, Rocky’s presence is unavoidable. For instance, those innocently visiting the Philadelphia Art Museum are forced to swim through throngs of tourists recreating the iconic museum steps scene just to reach the museum’s front doors. This is to say nothing of the statue of Rocky that stands beside those steps, a symbol that rivals in detail any such depiction of Jackie Robinson or Bear Bryant. Any way you slice it, Rocky Balboa seems real.
This is just one example of many fictional American sporting events that take on lives of their own. The ragtag Indiana high school basketball team coached by Norman Dale in the 1986 film Hoosiers may have been based on a real team, but the Hickory Huskers are fictional. Still, that didn’t stop the Indiana Pacers from honoring this fake state championship-winning team with throwback uniforms in 2015. In the baseball world, the events from the 1989 movie Major League formed the extreme exploits of pitcher Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn into a common reference for real-world athletes who found themselves in prison during their careers. The old Mighty Ducks we all learned to love in the 1990s actually became a real NHL franchise, no doubt thanks to the success of the series of movies.
Considering these examples, it can be hard to divide truth from reality in American sports sometimes. In these cases, reality follows sports art, which changes the sports landscape for good. We can’t watch a real-life underdog sports story without hearing comparisons to Rocky or Hoosiers, making it seem that many Americans inadvertently slip into melding fake sports events with those that actually happened. While these fictional sports events have always been a way to escape real life, they permanently influence fan culture. Knowing the Rocky Balboa story has become as central to understanding sports in this country as the real-world Miracle on Ice of 1980, or Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles in Chicago. The events of Rocky may not have happened, but we draw inspiration from them just the same. We reference the fake greatness of Apollo and Rocky like we do the exploits of Peyton Manning or LeBron James, and thanks to the film’s soundtrack, we have music to associate with the fake athletes as well.
To take the notion further, is this phenomenon limited to the U.S.? Is there a Rocky Balboa equivalent in China, a Mighty Ducks of Sweden, or a Hoosiers of South Africa? Although I’m not certain of the extent to which fake sports events influence fan culture in other countries, I know that our tendency to blur the line between fictional sports and reality reinforces the great hold sports have in making American culture what it is. Even as thinking fans, we don’t apologize for believing in Rocky’s greatness, or rooting for Jimmy Chitwood to sink that last shot in the climactic scene in Hoosiers. We almost will these fake sports events into being. If sports fandom is truly an irrational process, as many have said, our habit of believing in the legitimacy of fictional sporting events through statues, throwback uniforms, and the like, does very little to change that perception. As we wait for the next great fictional sports movie to be released, there’s no telling how far we’ll be willing to take our fake sports fantasies in the end. A memorial for Rocky's fallen trainer, Mickey? A real-life Adrian's Restaurant, as depicted in Creed, the newest sequel to the Rocky Balboa saga? If they can make a real franchise out of the Mighty Ducks, I think these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg.