hobart logo
On Failing: Rocky Versus Rambo photo

I watched the first Rocky movie thirteen years ago, alone, on a green plaid couch, in my childhood home – 415 Buren Place in Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ve loved Balboa ever since. He’s my longest running obsession, with Billy Joel a close second. I have a thing for droopy-eyed men.

It was cloudy out, and our basement didn’t get much light, so I sat in the dark, my brows furrowed, my mouth tense, watching. My mom passed by to do laundry, and she stopped to comment on Rocky’s mumbly way of speaking.

Shhh, Mother, I said, in my head. I wanted to be alone, mostly because I was embarrassed by how beautiful Sylvester Stallone was. I actually remember putting both hands over my eyes and peeking through my fingers when he kissed Adrian.

That movie essentially ruined my life. For one thing, I did some research and realized that Stallone was forty-six years older than I was, which meant we could never be together. Also, by age 10, I was already a bona fide quitter.

I quit piano. I quit voice lessons. I quit tap dance. I quit baton. I quit soccer, and I quit basketball.

Quitting always felt the same – a few days of regret and mild self-loathing, and then relief. I was totally okay with quitting. Quitting was easier than failing. But then I watched Rocky. And Rocky did not quit. I still remember my dissatisfaction with the ending of the movie, when Apollo wins, when Rocky screams for Adrian. Most of the cinematic nuances were lost on my ten-year-old self.

No, no, no, I remember thinking. Don’t be sad, Rock. They got it wrong. You won. 


By age twelve, I’d seen almost all of the Rocky movies, plus whatever other Stallone movies happened to be on television. Demolition Man, Assassins, and Antz come to mind. I watched the beginning of Rambo, but I got freaked out by that trap he sets with the little wooden spikes, the one that ends up impaling a guy’s leg, so I stopped watching.

Not many people know that Stallone wrote most of the movies he starred in. He wrote Rocky, and he co-wrote the script for Rambo: First Blood. For the ending, they filmed a suicide scene, but then Stallone changed his mind, and John Rambo lived on for three more movies.

We also moved to Kansas when I turned twelve. No one wanted to move, but my parents told me I could have a horse, and that I’d make lots of friends, and that I could decorate my room however I wanted. When we arrived in Manhattan, I changed my mind about the horse, but for my bedroom I chose “Purple Paradise” for the walls, and I bought a poster. Rocky in his sweats, black and white, running, winded smile, the crowds behind him, and the tag line, His Whole Life Was a Million to One Shot.


At age fifteen I started boxing in a hallway-sized gym sandwiched between La Fiesta and Beer Googles. My mom dropped me off at six and picked me up at eight. I felt very cool about the whole boxing thing, very badass, though in hindsight it’s probably funny that I could throw a right hook but not drive a car.

It was supposed to be a group fitness class – The Fundamentals of Boxing for Beginners – but only two of us showed up. Me and Jewels.

Jewels was younger than me. In my memories, her skin and hair are shockingly white, and her eyes are outlined with black eyeliner. I like this image because it makes her seem much scarier than your average thirteen-year-old girl.

The first thing you learn when you box, besides the names of all the punches, is that power comes from your shoulders. Most people think you snap your elbows in and out to throw a punch, because that looks powerful and fast and like it’s the right thing to do, but that’ll slowly destroy the tendons in your arm. Your shoulders last much longer. 

Jewels and I trained hard. We did weights, cardio, shadow boxing, speed bag, big bag, and jump rope nonstop for two hours, three times a week. Sometimes we jumped rope for so long my ears would pop and sting and I’d feel something wet and gritty inside my ear canal.

Eventually Jewels and I had to spar, and it did not go well. For one thing, I had a considerable height advantage that made everything lopsided. It was like Ivan Drago versus the Italian Stallion, except with reversed complexions, and Jewels was obviously the bad guy. After a lot of glove-on-glove scraping and pushing off each other, Jewels punched me in the throat, I punched her in the mouth, she cursed, and we were done. The match was declared a tie by Brett, our coach – a small, muscled college guy with deep acne scars.

The truth was that neither of us won. We were clumsy and scared. We missed easy shots and took the wrong ones. Here’s what I learned about the Fundamentals of Boxing: Getting punched in the throat by a well-trained 13-year-old boxer sucks, but boxing in general is much worse.

A boxer holds their body in rigid, unnatural positions – one leg forward, core engaged, arms up and tucked in, fists touching their temples, head down, eyes up. A boxer makes embarrassing “gish” sounds whenever they swing. A boxer anticipates impact to some of the most fragile parts of their body over and over and over again – their head, their lungs, their heart. Real boxers don’t quit. If they quit during a fight, they’re as good as brain-dead.

After the fight, Brett made us do forty million lunges and a ten-minute wall sit. I’m not exaggerating with forty million, because I distinctly remember trying to walk to my mom’s car parked outside and falling forward when I tried to lift my legs. Eventually I stopped trying to walk and pressed my hands against the rough cement. I heaved, and hot water bubbled out of my mouth.

When I flung myself into the car, I closed my eyes. I could sleep right here, I thought. I could fall sleep in this sweat soaked bra and shirt and shorts and never wake up. I was so tired that dying actually sounded pretty good. I opened my eyes. 

My mother was horrified.

“Carm, is this too much?”

I looked down because my legs were shaking.

“Tell me the truth,” she said. 

I don’t remember what I said, but the truth was, yes, it was too much.

A lot of people don’t know about the original ending of Rocky, the one that Stallone wrote before it was rewritten over and over again. In Stallone’s story, Rocky is disillusioned and enraged – he’s mad about boxing, and about life in general – so he throws that fight with Apollo. He quits and lets him win. Then he goes on to live a comfortable, happy life with the money from that fake fight and buys a pet shop for Adrian.

This is possibly the worst, most uninspiring ending to an underdog movie ever conceived. But it’s comforting that it was his first idea.

Boxing was the most excruciating, surprising, furious experiment I’ve ever tried with my body, and I wasn’t good at it, even after months – almost a year – of training. I failed, with no relief and no regret, but when I looked in the mirror, my shoulders looked unfamiliar. I turned and saw deep line starting near my neck, cutting through my arm, and fading somewhere near my elbow. 

image: Aaron Burch