Los Angeles Times

Back in the ring

When Sylvester Stallone first considered bringing back boxer Rocky Balboa for a sixth movie, even his wife tried to talk him out of it.

"My wife cries, 'Please don't do this. You're going to be embarrassed and humiliated and joked about,' " Stallone said of Jennifer Flavin's reservations. "And I knew that, and I said, 'Honey, if that's the price we have to pay, we have to pay it.' "

A line from the script for "Rocky Balboa" may hint at the 60-year-old star/writer/director's underlying reason for coming back to his most famous character. "I'd rather do something I love badly," Rocky says in the film, which opens Wednesday, "than to feel bad about not doing something I love."

It seems that 16 years after 1990's "Rocky V," both the star and his character still had some fight left in them. "Whatever was happening with me and Rocky was exactly the same," Stallone said in a recent interview at the Four Seasons Hotel.

"I believe that it's just certain individuals that feel as though they really haven't gotten everything out," Stallone said about not being ready to hang up the gloves. "… Do we ever really hit the bottom of our soul, or is there always something percolating down there that wants to come out? And either we just lack the energy or the resources to get it out. But I think there's a lot of people [who] continue to come out and [say], 'I have to; otherwise I'm going to die [having led] a really unhappy life. I'm going to be tortured because I didn't follow this dream.'"

In "Rocky Balboa," the former champ spends his time chatting about his glory days and posing with patrons at Adrian's, a Philadelphia restaurant named after his now deceased wife. And he struggles to connect with his grown son, who feels overshadowed by his father. But after ESPN televises a computer-generated matchup between Rocky and current heavyweight champ Mason Dixon, played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver, the athletes agree to fight for real. Even Rocky's son finds the idea absurd.

Stallone said the idea for the film started with fans' dissatisfaction over "Rocky V," in which the brain-damaged fighter was working as a trainer. "It really is not a satisfactory way to end the character, and I felt I disappointed a lot of people," Stallone said.

This time, Stallone said, he wanted to explore Rocky as a person-out of the boxing ring. In his original script, Adrian was still alive and Rocky was trying to raise money to keep his former trainer's gym open. But Stallone realized he needed to focus more on Rocky's internal issues.

"How do you get someone at the very, very bottom?" Stallone said. "Well, you take away the thing that he loves the most-which was his wife, which was his security, which was his past and his future-gone. So now the audience is going to hopefully grow with him as he tries to redeem himself and ascend from the ashes that are his life."

The film shows that all the fame and fortune in the world can't compensate for the loss of true love.

"He's not bitter about having his career over, or sad," Stallone said. "It's just that he has nothing to go home to. So when he tells the stories [about his career], there's a sadness because of that. If Adrian had still been alive, he would have enjoyed telling the stories over and over and over again."

The fighter's feelings of loss give "Rocky Balboa" its emotional weight, and Rocky's showdown with a younger opponent once again puts him in the role of underdog. Stallone said that's when Rocky is at his best-like many people struggling to climb to the top.

"The majority of the world, just when they start to get a foot up-bang!-the rug is pulled out from under them," he said. "What happened? … They're an underdog again. This fella represents. That's who he is."

Since the film required Rocky to get back into fighting shape, Stallone went through a similar training regimen as his character does: power lifting, ball weights and some boxing. He endured his share of bumps and bruises while working with Tarver, as both men broke bones while sparring.

"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," Stallone said.

But Stallone didn't want Tarver to hold anything back.

"The only time I would get annoyed is when he wouldn't let go," Stallone said. "Sometimes he'd hold back-fearing for my life-and I said, 'Please Antonio, you've got to make contact.' … Some of those knockdowns you see in there are legit."

Stallone has endured plenty of pain through the years while playing Rocky.

"Hulk Hogan in 'Rocky II' hit me so hard that I thought he had broken my neck," he said. Dolph Lundgren, who played Rocky's opponent in "Rocky IV," put Stallone in the hospital for six days.

Stallone has had to be a tough guy most of his career, but he has no trouble admitting he was most frightened filming his 1993 movie "Cliffhanger," about a mountaineer who thwarts a crime in the Rockies.

"Just going out on the rocks in the opening, and you're just hanging, and you're out there on a cable, like a shoelace, that was frightening," Stallone said. "You say, A: this is not natural, and B: this is really another man's job. You're going to die. You're going to die for entertainment. I don't even like rock climbing. It's one thing to fall off of Mt. Everest and you love climbing, so you say, 'Well, he died doing what he loved.' I'm dying for something I don't love. That's really foolish."

Still, Stallone insists his tough-guy image is just a reflection of the way he looks, and that he's actually "a soft touch."

"I cry at supermarket openings. Certain things really affect me. That's why I hate watching the Olympics," he said, faking a cry: " 'Oh my God, I feel so good for this family I don't even know.'

"It's ice skating. I don't even watch ice skating …"

Matt Pais is the metromix movie producer.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times