6. Rocky III – Mickey’s Death

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky saying goodbye to Burgess Meredith as Mickey in Rocky 3

As the Rocky movies essentially defined modern sports drama, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when a Rocky movie contains some actual drama. Even so, the franchise is better known for its eponymous larger-than-life fighter and its exciting (if unrealistic) climactic brawls. Though there’s often drama, it’s usually boxing melodrama rather than hard-hitting and poignant emotional moments. What’s more, the most emotional moments typically seem to come in or around the film’s final fight scenes – something which seemed to have developed into a pattern after the first two movies.

Rocky III did something unexpected, though: it delivered one of the franchise’s most upsetting scenes during its first act. After being goaded into a fight with Clubber Lang, Rocky finds himself increasingly frustrated with Lang’s aggressive persona – as does his trainer, Mickey, who suffers a heart attack moments before the bout. Rocky goes out to fight Lang without his lifelong trainer in his corner, and suffers a devastating knockout defeat. Returning to the dressing room, Rocky is just in time to be with Mickey in his final moments, and he comforts his father figure as he passes away.

Part of what makes the scene so upsetting is that it’s so sudden and so emotional – in a matter of minutes, Rocky loses his title and his trainer. It’s sold by Meredith and Stallone’s acting, too: Rocky barely holding it together as he attempts to comfort Mickey is perhaps the most powerful and intimate drama of the entire Rocky franchise. The fact that it comes so early in the film makes it unexpected, and it’s such a key part of Rocky’s development that it’s still just as powerful so many years later.