The Rocky franchise has seen a lot of characters over the span of its eight-film (and counting) run, and Sylvester Stallone killed off more than one of his co-stars with a number of the franchise’s biggest characters dying as the Italian Stallion’s story has continued. By far the most iconic boxing movies ever made, the Rocky franchise is a sports-drama institution, with the success of its original films being built upon by the Creed spin-offs. While Stallone’s Rocky has since been relegated to a supporting character – in fact, Stallone claims Rocky won’t return for Creed III – the actor, who wrote the first six films, has stayed involved with the spin-offs as a producer.
As the franchise started way back in 1976 with Rocky and has since spanned over four decades, it’s not unreasonable for some of its main characters to have passed away since. However, time hasn’t necessarily been the deciding factor for the characters’ deaths, nor has the respective actors’ availability been an issue. Instead, the Rocky franchise’s numerous deaths were all written deliberately.
Stallone has been nominated for three Academy Awards for his work on the Rocky movies (Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay for Rocky and Best Supporting Actor for Creed), so Sly clearly knows what he’s doing with the franchise. With the Rocky franchise’s cast comprised of numerous real fighters, killing so many characters off is a particularly bold move. However, each death has served a particular narrative purpose and has, in part, contributed to Rocky‘s lasting success. Here are all the characters Stallone has elected to kill off in the series to date and why.
Mickey “Mighty Mick” Goldmill
Burgess Meredith made the character of Mickey a pop culture icon, and his death in Rocky III secured the character’s legendary status. At the beginning of Rocky III, Mick insists that the up-and-coming Clubber Lang (Mr. T) is a “killer” and that Rocky shouldn’t fight him. When Rocky takes the fight anyway, Mick reluctantly agrees to coach his fighter, but a pre-fight argument sees Mick pushed by Lang, resulting in the coach going into cardiac arrest. A distracted Rocky fights the dangerous Clubber Lang anyway, only to lose his heavyweight championship. When Rocky visits Mick shortly after the fight, the coach dies of a heart attack.
Mickey’s death proves to be a galvanizing moment for Rocky. His previous comments about Rocky getting too “civilized” after winning the championship were proved by his beating at the hands of Lang, and his death is what motivates Rocky to push past his defeat and come back stronger. It also prompts Rocky to reach out to former rival Apollo Creed, who agrees to train the Italian Stallion for his rematch against Lang.
Mick’s death not only serves as a moment of painful growth for Rocky, but it also works as a reason to bring Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed back for another movie. The Rocky franchise’s returning characters are one of the films’ biggest assets, and as Rocky and Apollo’s rivalry was done, having the latter come back to coach the former serves as an excellent narrative development for the franchise. It also highlights the power of grief as a motivator for Rocky, which later becomes an integral part of the character.
Aside from the Italian Stallion himself, Apollo Creed is perhaps the most iconic character from the Rocky franchise. The embodiment of showmanship, Apollo appeared as Rocky’s opponent and rival in Rocky and Rocky II, and then as his coach in Rocky III, where the pair established a tight bond. Rocky IV sees the patriotic Apollo challenge fledgling professional Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), whose athleticism is being publicly used as an apparent example of Soviet superiority.
Creed’s resulting exhibition match with Drago is disastrous, with the gargantuan Soviet boxer viciously destroying the former champion in just two rounds. In fact, not only does Drago beat Creed to death in the ring, but he reacts with indifference as he leaves the arena, much to the disgust of Rocky, who had been acting as Apollo’s trainer for the fight. This sets Rocky on a path to revenge that sees him vacate his heavyweight title and travel to the Soviet Union in order to fight Drago.
As Rocky believes Apollo Creed’s death is his fault, it provides another pivotal moment in the character’s development. Apollo’s death is essentially a retooling of the same plot device from Rocky III – Rocky loses someone important to him and it spurs him on to fight harder – but it’s made more tragic. As Mick was old and already shown to be in poor health, his death was far less shocking than Apollo’s. Instead, the fighter is tragically killed in the ring – once again using grief as a means of forcing Rocky to push himself past his limits to achieve the (seemingly) impossible.
After killing off two of its main characters on-screen, Stallone opted to shake things up a little for Rocky Balboa. The 2006 sequel sees an aging Rocky still reeling from the off-screen death of his wife four years prior. The reasons for Adrian’s death in Rocky Balboa are mostly subtextual, although Stallone has also explained his reasoning for killing off Adrian stemmed from wanting the character to maintain her integrity instead of becoming little more than a secondary antagonist telling Rocky not to fight.
In Rocky Balboa, Rocky explains that Adrian died of ovarian cancer four years earlier, and he’s still grappling with his grief. As he’s much older than he was in previous films, he’s struggling to express the depth of his loss and sees the prospect of an exhibition fight with heavyweight champion Mason Dixon as an exercise in catharsis. It’s clear from Rocky’s dialogue in the film that the loss of Adrian has left him feeling directionless, and that being able to fight one last time is the only way he feels he can recapture a sense of who he is. By trading punches with the much younger and unbeaten Mason “The Line” Dixon, Rocky is able to begin to move past his grief in the only way he knows how.
Adrian died in 2002, roughly 12 years after the events of Rocky V. While the couple’s life together in the intervening years isn’t discussed much in Rocky Balboa, it’s explained that Adrian’s death also caused a rift between Rocky and his son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia). Their reconciliation is as much at the heart of the film’s story as Rocky’s fight with Dixon, with Adrian’s death being the precipitating factor for both.
Throughout the original Rocky films, Paulie is essentially Rocky’s sidekick. He’s Adrian’s brother and Rocky’s brother-in-law, but he’s also a fiercely loyal friend to the Italian Stallion, and regularly accompanies him to the ring throughout his career. However, as the franchise moved on to refocus on Adonis Creed, the decision was made for some Rocky characters not to return to the franchise. One such character was Paulie – who, despite his prominent role in previous movies, was unceremoniously killed off-screen.
In Creed, Rocky is seen visiting Paulie’s grave and leaving a bottle of his lifelong friend’s favorite alcoholic beverage on his headstone. It’s not explicitly stated how Paulie died, but earlier films may have addressed the issue. The character’s fondness for alcohol, combined with his advancing age, would likely have contributed largely to his death. Paulie’s death hasn’t been outwardly addressed by Stallone or Ryan Coogler, who wrote and directed Creed, but it seems that Paulie didn’t fit with the spin-off’s revised tone. With Paulie missing from the Rocky franchise, Rocky becomes the sidekick character to Michael B. Johnson’s Adonis Creed, meaning that the character’s death has allowed the franchise to move forward.
Originally appearing only briefly in Rocky as the title character’s opponent in the first scene of the entire franchise, Spider Rico wasn’t ever an overly memorable or important character. Played by Pedro Lovell, Spider Rico later reappeared in Rocky Balboa, again only briefly. In the sixth film in the franchise, it’s revealed that a brain injury has made it hard for Rico to find work, and Rocky employs him in the kitchen of his restaurant.
Despite his bout with Rico being one of Rocky’s pre-championship career victories, it’s only in a deleted scene from Creed 2 that Spider Rico’s fate is revealed. In the scene, Rocky attends Rico’s funeral and eulogizes his fellow ex-boxer. The details of his death aren’t explained, but their significance isn’t hard to surmise: Rico is what Rocky could have been. In addition, the Italian Stallion maintaining his friendship with his former opponent is also one of the more authentic aspects of the franchise’s depiction of the boxing community, with aging fighters harboring mutual respect long after their careers have finished.
With the Rocky franchise now shaping up to outlive its titular fighter, its many deceased characters are a testament to the films’ ability to capture the emotional journey of Rocky’s life and career. After all, without the deaths of certain characters, the entire Rocky franchise would have been very different, as it’s his losses, as much as his victories, that have shaped the iconic boxer. With Stallone saying that he isn’t returning for Creed III, it seems that the Rocky franchise might have one more major death to address.
Next: What To Expect From Creed 3
- Creed III (2022)Release date: Nov 23, 2022
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