To me, “Rocky III” has always been the most meaningful film in the series – the one that offered a true-life lesson. Forget the over-the-top performance from Mr. T and some of the movie’s sillier excesses and consider that this was the first time in the series that Rocky Balboa actually had something to lose. More importantly, he lost something and fought his way back, finding personal as well as professional redemption.
In “Rocky I” he was supposed to be happy to be in the ring with the champ and his going the distance was a huge triumph. In the second movie, Rocky got a rematch for the title and a payday, but he still had nothing to lose if he got beaten.
The true measure of Rocky as a man happens a little bit after he loses the title in “Rocky III.” Just a few minutes earlier, Rocky had been humiliated by Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, his manager/mentor had died and everything he had protected had been taken away from him. He had a rematch with Lang scheduled and Apollo was training him, but Rocky – who had gained so much in life – was afraid to lose it all and did not know how to pull himself off the canvas.
The key moment of the movie comes with Adrian Balboa lecturing her husband and telling him that losing would be okay as long as he loses with no excuses and no fear. With the help of his family and friends, Rocky regains his title, collapsing from exhaustion and knowing that even if he had failed, his effort was his redemption.
There’s a similar moment at the end of “Return of the Jedi,” when Darth Vader, an evil man who had caused the deaths of millions, won’t allow his son to be killed. Vader gives up being the second-in-command to the ruler of the universe and lays down his life for Luke Skywalker’s. In a single heroic move, becomes the man he had once been. His sacrifice may not have made his sins okay, but as an audience we absolved him as did his son and those he had betrayed earlier in the story.
Like these fictional characters, you are going to make a bad mistake or maybe you’ll fail miserably at something. Perhaps you will hurt someone you love or let down those closest to you. You will break hearts, crush dreams and find yourself wondering whether things will ever be right again. Life will send you disease, death and misery that you don’t deserve along with some that you do.
Some of us will lose children. Others will lose spouses. We will all lose our parents and some of us will be lost too soon ourselves. We will hurt and be hurt, leave and get left. Some of us might avoid causing pain to others, but most of us won’t be so lucky. Everyone will be touched by disease, divorce, despair and distress.
Our value as people comes not from the suffering we endure, but from the resiliency we show in the face of it. You measure a man not from how he handles triumph, but how he picks himself up after failure.
When you fall down, get up. When you get knocked down, get up. If you push someone else down, pick them up. Life will knock you down, people will knock you down and you will stumble over your own feet, but you’ve only lost when you don’t get back up and take another swing.