Ranking the First Four ‘Rocky’ Films

Rocky: The Knockout Collection is available on 4K Blu-ray now.

This ranking was made possible by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. Thank you for sending a copy of Rocky: The Knockout Collection! 

Hot on the heels of the fantastic Creed III, what better time to look back at the first four Rocky films — which were recently bundled and released in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray for the first time. The set doesn’t include Rocky V or Rocky Balboa — which is maybe for the best in the case of the former — but that absence is hardly noticeable when you have four classics in the bundle. 

Photo courtesy of MGM/Warner Bros.

I grew up a Rocky fan, watching my DVR recordings from when they aired on TBS on repeat — I even saw Rocky on Broadway (13-year-old me’s birthday gift from my aunt and still have the poster on the wall, and the CD on my shelf) — and fully acknowledge him as the greatest champion to ever come from Philadelphia. What stood out upon rewatch of the first four films is that they never let Rocky (Sylvester Stallone)’s character arcs get stale. In each film, he has a different journey. In Rocky, he’s just the loser getting a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the world champion; in Rocky II, he’s content living off of the fame gained from the first fight and is attempting to live a normal life; Rocky III sees his reign as the world champion, beating up on cupcake opponents, before facing a real threat and needing to rediscover the fire that fueled him for 30 rounds against Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers); and Rocky IV pits him against Soviet Russia. Sure, they all end in an epic boxing match, but you have to give them credit for always giving Rocky new obstacles to overcome.

That’s what made rewatching the first four Rocky films so fun — rediscovering a love for the films while also coming to appreciate them more with age. Check out my rankings of the first four below!

Note: The Knockout Collection’s set includes the 2021 director’s cut of Rocky IV, Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago, and this ranking will only include that version of the film.

4. Rocky II

A still from Rocky II. Photo courtesy of MGM.

Sometimes, the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” isn’t right. Rocky II attempts to recapture the magic of its predecessor with its pacing (half of the film is spent showing Rocky’s inability to transition to a normal life) but not to the same results. It’s fun watching Rocky unable to deliver lines off a cue card, but it reaches a point of monotony, and you forget that a fight is supposed to occur until an hour into the film. 

3. Rocky IV

A still from Rocky IV. Photo courtesy of MGM.

While a significant improvement over the original cut, the director’s cut of Rocky IV is still a bit clunky. It’s no secret that Rocky IV’s story is perhaps the most paper-thin of the bunch (Apollo dies and Rocky must avenge him), but the inclusion of new scenes — most of which replace scenes from the original — can occasionally feel shoehorned. In fairness, Rocky IV is already the shortest of the series (91 minutes), and the director’s cut only added two more minutes, but the shift to a more serious tone from its camp-filled original film could have used a few more minutes and scenes to really drive it home. It’s still an improvement over the original, but the most egregious change was cutting how“Hearts on Fire.”

2. Rocky III

A still from Rocky III. Photo courtesy of MGM.

Mickey’s death will always get me — Burgess Meridith was a treasure — and the story of Rocky losing his fire and needing to rediscover it is top-tier sports drama. The exchange he has on the beach with Adrian (Talia Shire) sent chills down my spine, and Clubber Lang (Mr. T) is one of the most menacing villains in the series. Excluding the Creed films, Rocky III has to be the second-best film in the franchise.

1. Rocky

A still from Rocky. Photo courtesy of MGM.

No surprise here; the quintessential underdog story, both in terms of how it was made and the beloved protagonist, Rocky is the greatest sports movie ever. What stood out the most upon rewatch of the glorious 4K transfer was that the actual boxing match is no longer than 15 minutes. Whether it was budgetary restrictions or other reasons, it works as Rocky and Apollo’s first fight remains one of the franchise’s best. 

Rocky: The Knockout Collection is available now. For more information, click here.

Andrew Korpan

Andrew Korpan

Film "critic" and entertainment journalist whose work has been featured in Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, /Film and Coastal House Media.
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