Rolling with the punches: underdogs and losers in Rocky and Fat City

Let me tell you the condensed history of my relationship to my hometown team. Until a couple of years ago my hometown team had not won anything since the 1980s. My dad and I bonded through the team as if watching them lose brought us together. At school and work, we were teased and clowned because we chose to support a losing team. For decades, it always felt that it was my dad, my team and me against the world. It felt as if no one wanted to see us triumph. Yet, in December 2012, against all odds, in a cardiac final that went all the way to penalty kicks, my hometown team won after 24 years (all of my life back then), and for the first time, I cried tears of joy while embracing my equally weeping father. This might all look like empty words to you, but they mean the world to me.

There is a particular unscripted excitement that comes with underdog victories in sports that translates perfectly to sports-centred cinema as a foolproof equation. If I were to crown an undisputed champion of this type of film it would have to be boxing movies, as these films retell stories of physical and personal self-improvement that overflow with sentimentality. Today, I shall focus on two films that might seem fundamentally different but are ultimately emotional companions: the 1976 film Rocky (dir. John G. Avildsen) and the 1972 film Fat City (dir. John Huston).

Rocky centres around Rocky Balboa’s journey from being a washed-up boxer scraping for a life in the streets of Philadelphia to getting a shot at the world title against a bigger-than-life character embodied in Apollo Creed. On the other hand, Fat City contemplates Billy Tully’s fall from grace and his efforts to get back in the ring in rural California. Upon first glance, Avildsen and Huston’s films have different structures and plots, where the first focuses on the lack of chances and a one-in-a-million opportunity, the latter centers itself on the missed opportunities and the toll these take on you. However, I argue that both films develop their plots following the same narrative device: the isolated and nostalgic working-class man.

Both Rocky and Tully are working-class men inhabiting in-between spaces outside from the cosmopolitan bubbles that loom over them; Rocky, on the post-industrial background of a cultural hub such as Philadelphia and Tully on the periphery of the monolithic capital-oriented north-Californian cities of San Francisco and Sacramento. Rocky and Fat City centralize the two main characters in physical and emotionally demanding jobs that are, in a way, unique to the post-modern atmosphere of the society they live in. Both characters utilize their body to their favour as a money collector and a fruit picker respectively, which in turn burns out their mental and physical strength and minimizes their chances of success on their true passion: boxing.

Rocky and Tully are caught in a vicious circle where they burn out their bodies because they need resources, but they need resources for this same reason. The monetization of the main characters’ bodies, evidential of the post-modern societies and spaces they inhabit, is one of the main driving forces in both films. Rocky and Tully’s quotidian life is an eternal cycle of labour through the instrumentalization of their bodies that ultimately pushes their psychological states to the limit. Consequently, both characters end up isolating themselves due to mental and physical exhaustion.

As a self-defence mechanism, we find both Rocky and Tully frequently on the move from one space to another by themselves. They find refuge in solitude as they roam from one gig to another, from their local bar to the gym and back to the bar, in an effort to appease the itch to feel something as they run away from the urgent responsibility of facing their failures. In a way, they understand they have the talent to make it in the boxing world, but they cannot help but feel their best years are fleeting away in nonsensical unsatisfying periods of barely getting enough to make ends meet.

This idea is reinforced by the statements their peers ingrain into them. On repeated occasions, we hear both Rocky and Tully being called bums and losers, as if the soul-draining situations they are caught in were their fault. This is where we witness that isolation is not the only valid and necessary self-defence mechanism Rocky and Tully need to carry the weight of living on their shoulders. To conserve the last vestiges of sanity that remain in their bodies, Rocky and Tully turn to nostalgia, to their past golden years and accolades, to their untamed and unsmudged masculinity. They repel the undeniable fact that they have indeed lost one too many times in life with stories of how they were never knocked down, how their punches are the strongest, how they are, in short, winners when they step in the boxing ring.

Thus, the underdog narrative in Rocky and Fat City utilizes as key elements nostalgia and isolation to generate affection towards storylines that might seem generic and formulaic. On paper, everyone understands at the core what an underdog story entails, a journey with bigger-than-life obstacles and challenging opposing forces in the path to success. However, these two films are permeated with the aforementioned concepts of isolation and nostalgia that elevate the underdog narrative to another level by generating stronger sentimental reactions from the audience. We cannot help but feel for these two battered self-conscious men.

The way Rocky and Fat City can convey the nostalgic isolated underdog tale is through a rigorously composed mise-en-scene and framing. In terms of the boxing ring –a place you would assume the characters frequent more than it is actually shown– it is easier to see how the mise-en-scene and framing can convey a sense of isolation. The fighters are indeed alone in the ring with nothing more than shorts and gloves scrambling against another man whose only goal is to inflict pain on them. The darkened backgrounds and high-key overhead lighting establishes an eerie arena where two lone men put their bodies on the line. Avildsen and Huston tend to interchange between hand-held extreme close-ups of the fighters’ bodies showcasing the exploitation of their physique, to medium-long and long shots of the fight from outside the ring, reinforcing the idea that they are truly instrumentalized bodies isolated in a lightbox for the (diegetic and nondiegetic) audiences’ delight.

On top of the more obvious isolation of the ring, Avildsen and Huston tend to shoot their characters as flâneurs, floating around the aforementioned in-between spaces in total solitude and silence. Rocky and Tully are framed in long shots as they walk along wide, polluted and colourful streets. Their silhouettes rush from place to place, sometimes avoiding, and sometimes partaking in the chaotic commotion their peers are involved with. The conscious decision by the directors to frame their characters amongst their fellow inhabitants in these liminal spaces aids to further comprehend that Rocky and Tully’s lives have far astride from the glamorous world of a champion (i.e Apollo Creed’s antiseptic looks and environment). This is pivotal in the essence of the nostalgia both boxers shield behind; they know their former selves would never belong here. Thus the cold and far framing of the characters in their flâneur-like lifestyle is referential to their unbelonging, they are too good to be where they are, but not enough to be where they want to be.

By the same token, the mise-en-scene in Rocky and Tully’s living quarters is fundamental for the underdog narrative. Both fighters are stuck in grimy stark studio apartments that are decorated by an ensemble of empty liquor bottles, dirty clothes, and posters of fighters. Avildsen and Huston create small claustrophobic environments where the main characters cannot escape their reality. They have to face their isolation in the crowded musty confined spaces they live in, and the posters on the wall and any boxing paraphernalia (gloves, gym bags, punching sacks, etc.), which are plentifully scattered in their apartments is nothing short of a constant reminder of the nostalgia they cling to.

Rocky and Fat City undoubtedly share narrative and formal elements that situate both films on the same line in terms of an underdog tale. However, the films differ in the ultimate affective reaction we have to them. Actively participating in an underdog journey integrates our sentimentality into the equation. There is a personal emotional exchange that occurs as we live through the subject of the film. This is a reflexive retroactive traffic of feelings that derive from the subject’s victories and defeats that appeals to our hearts defying any logical explanation.

The sentimentality ascribed to Rocky is one of tenderness. It is true that Rocky ends up losing his final fight against Apollo but his emotional health is miles from where he started. Rocky’s intense training regimes and efforts to connect with Adrian and Mickey pay off as he survives in the ring against a much better-prepared fighter. This is why by the end of the film we do not feel defeated even if the outcome of the fight is not what we expected, as Rocky truly grows and escalates to be a better person, beating his ever-looming isolation and conquering the nostalgia he clung to by demonstrating he is a worthy boxer and human being. When Rocky runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts to the beat of Bill Conti’s iconic orchestra soundtrack, we understand that he has indeed climbed the ladder of failure and has metamorphosed into a winner.

On the other hand, Fat City leaves a bitter flavour in our mouths, a sour sadness that revolves around Tully’s inability to change. Towards the end of the movie, he beats his opponent in the ring, but even in victory, he seems fazed out by something greater, and cannot conquer the overbearing weight of the life he lives. Minutes before the end, after returning to alcohol and his isolated lifestyle, Tully encounters his fellow younger gym partner, Ernie, on the street. They decide to share a cup of coffee and the same feeling floods him again. Deep and long silences are shared by both men before Tully mutters “what if we are all happy,” insinuating that maybe this is where he peaks, this is the happiest he will be, and his dreams of fighting and grasping the glamorous life of champion are nothing but dreams. Tully is unable to grow, even when the chances are given to him.

Rocky and Fat City are layered films that expand into much more concepts and subjects than what I described in this essay. It would have been valid to expand on their religious narratives, Catholic imagery and the violence-redemption cycle that occurs on them; also, both movies pivot around ultra-Americanized patriotism subverting and reinforcing the American Dream showcased by the fighters’ opponents, two BIPOC men embodied in Apollo Creed and Lucero. But those might be the subjects for another essay.

In short, these films are two sides of the same coin, two outcomes that come with underdog tales. Some of them are “Cinderella” stories where victories are achieved, some others are stark moments of realization where the facts of life leave insipid and vapid tastes roving in the air. In life, just like the story I told you in the beginning, both sides seem to take turns. Sometimes we are dragged by the mud, and other times we are euphorically floating over the earth.