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When it comes to fictional athletes, there might not be a more famous example than Rocky Balboa. Since appearing on-screen in the Sylvester Stallone-penned Rocky in 1976, the character has had a lasting impact on society for over 40 years.

Part of this has to do with Stallone’s commitment to the role as the franchise continued into a new era. This commitment, however, almost killed him. 

Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky in 'Rocky IV'
Sylvester Stallone acting in Rocky IV | United Artists/Getty Images

The Rocky Story

In the mid-’70s, Stallone was a down-and-out actor who had little money to his name and was taking roles in softcore pornography, according to Forbes.

Stallone wanted to tell the story of a down-and-out amateur boxer who was given a chance to shine on the national spotlight. This story, which was famously inspired by the rise of Chuck Wepner, was a hit with fans and critics alike. 

Over the next decade, Rocky went from a gritty, dramatic story of an underdog set in Philadelphia to a campier, more violent movie where the punches became more realistic. That franchise continued until 2006 when a 60-year-old Stallone stepped into the ring one final time in the last film of the main series called Rocky Balboa. 

The franchise continues to have a lasting impact today. The Creed franchise, the brainchild of Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, follows Adonis Creed, the son of Rocky’s original opponent, Apollo. Apollos was killed in Rocky IV after taking on the evil Ivan Drago in the ring. It’s one of the most popular movies in the franchise. 

During the film, however, Rocky decides to get revenge and fight Drago on his home turf. In doing so, Stallone almost had his real-life echo that of Apollo on-screen, as a punch from the massive Dolph Lundgren nearly ended his life. 

Casting Ivan Drago

According to ScreenRant, when Sylvester Stallone wrote the role of Ivan Drago, he wanted a menacing, powerful figure who seemed every bit as large as he was written in the script. Lundgren fits the role perfectly. Stallone stated that he knew he had the right guy for Drago because he immediately hated him when he laid eyes on him and saw him as a perfect villain. 

Lundgren was well over six-feet-tall and had muscles everywhere. Although the character of Ivan Drago was a quiet and deadly warrior in the ring, his looks struck fear into opponents everywhere. Stallone wanted somebody who could believably kill somebody in the ring, and he almost learned how well he cast the role firsthand. 

Sylvester Stallone’s near-death experience


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Stallone opted for real hits as often as possible in Rocky IV. While the original has aged well, some of the fighting effects have not. Fighters fall to the ground after minimal contact. Stallone did not want this to be the case with the fourth film, and he told the towering Lundgren not to hold back. 

“He hit me so hard he almost stopped my heart,” Stallone told Fox News.

“I told him, ‘Why don’t we just do it? Just try to knock me out. Really cut loose as hard as you can.’ That was a really stupid thing to say. Next thing I know, I’m on a low-altitude plane to the emergency room, and I’m in intensive care for four days. And there are all these nuns around.”

Stallone recovered, and the movie was a smash hit. Recently, the characters were reunited on-screen in Creed II, which focused on Adonis as he faced Drago’s son in the boxing ring. The film was a success.

Outside of this reunion, Stallone and Lundgren have worked together multiple times since Rocky IV, and their friendship is as strong as it ever was. All of that could never happen, however, if Lundgren’s punch were any harder.