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How Rocky 3 Created The Pro Wrestling Spectacle We Know And Love

10 min read
Hulk Hogan and Sylvester Stallone - Rocky 3

This past April, WWE put on the 39th instalment of its Superbowl-equivalent event, WrestleMania. The two-night spectacular took place on April 1st and 2nd – shattering event records and receiving near-universal acclaim for its culmination of thrilling storylines, such as the World Title match between top stars Cody Rhodes and Roman Reigns. However, true to its nickname of ‘The Grandest Stage of Them All’, alongside the spectacular in-ring action, WrestleMania 39 featured all of the hallmarks fans have come to expect from WWE. Most notable was their use of A-list celebrities like Bad Bunny, Snoop Dogg, and Logan Paul, who took on Seth Rollins in a match that provided a viral table spot featuring YouTuber KSI. The tactic was eerily reminiscent of Mr. T lifting Rowdy Piper in the main event of WWE’s inaugural grand stage, which allowed mainstream media to drum up headlines the next day. To top it off this year’s PPV tagline was “WrestleMania Goes Hollywood” – with promotion centred on WWE superstars mimicking popular films. It was another illustration of WWE’s desire to utilize popular culture to enhance its global appeal while also showing the varied form of entertainment it has become. Interestingly, WWE’s explosion, which celebrities like Mr. T were integral to, all started in a ring but in a Hollywood boxing ring that saw Sylvester Stallone battle Hulk Hogan and Mr. T in Rocky 3.

WWE’s link to Hollywood, specifically, is always an interesting subject. Historically, mainstream entertainment (Hollywood in particular) has long viewed pro wrestling as a lowbrow form of entertainment. This is a problem that persists to an extent, to this day, with Dwayne Johnson’s wrestling-focused film Fighting With My Family (2019) struggling for studio backing due to the stigma surrounding the word “wrestling.” However, the physical performance qualities of wrestlers and the rare crossover stars (e.g., Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) mean pro wrestlers have always found their way to the big (or small) screen one way or another. On the other hand, wrestling’s (most notably WWE’s) growing success saw A-Listers frequently find themselves in a ring (some more willing than others). But long before the first WrestleMania, Hollywood unknowingly planted the integral seeds for McMahon and WWE with a little blockbuster titled Rocky 3. Those seeds notably came in the form of two future pop-culture sensations, Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. Not only did the presentation of this duo allow WWE to create a brand with mass appeal, but it also ensured the success of their now signature event, which set the template for the style of pro wrestling that runs rampant today.

Rocky-III - Stallone & Mr. T
Rocky 3

“I understand what goes into it. I hear people say it’s not real. Really? Gravity is real. Jumping off the top rope or having 300 pounds landing on you, that’s real.” – Sylvester Stallone on Pro Wrestling (SI, 2022)

Although his film fraternity has largely had one eye raised when it comes to wrestling, Stallone has long been an advocate and admirer of the men and women dressed in spandex. He made this clear in 2022 and has repeatedly done so throughout his career, even before Rocky 3. In 1978, two years after Rocky 1 became a smash hit, Stallone released his first directorial venture, Paradise Alley, which he also penned the script for and starred in. The film tells the tale of three Italian-American brothers living in the slums of New York City in the 1940s, and to turn their fortunes around, one brother ventures into the world of wrestling while the other two help guide his career. A product of its time, the film does portray pro wrestling as a legitimate sport, but it does so while showing great respect to the business. Wrestling legend Terry Funk was handed a prominent role, playing the rugged, over-the-top antagonist Frankie “The Thumper.” Funk even supported the stunt work, helping craft the well-executed and gritty wrestling scenes in the underground club/bar, which were reminiscent of Funk’s own hard-hitting professional bouts. In addition, Stallone’s character Cosmo even uses insider terms like the word “gimmick” (usually a character portrayed by a wrestler or the storyline they’re a part of).

Unfortunately for Stallone and professional wrestling, Paradise Alley is largely a forgotten piece of cinematic history that had little impact on wrestling and its standing in the mainstream. The reasons for this could be due to the film arguably showcasing more of its carnival origins, with it being presented as more of a niche/underground sport, as Terry Funk even plays a traditional villain in the film that snarls and grimaces in most scenes and is later beat up by the protagonist. There was no clean-cut or larger than life pro wrestler on display. Therefore, for a general audience, it largely reinstated what they believed wrestling to be, which meant it only catered to people who were actually fans of the profession at the time (generally beer-guzzling elders). As well as this, the film did not receive the plaudits that Rocky did, and with Stallone being a new star in the industry, he didn’t quite possess the box office appeal he would go on to have. All of this was a far cry from what long-time WWE CEO Vince McMahon would later envision for his brand of entertainment.

In 1982, the same year Rocky 3 hit the big screen, Vince McMahon Jr. purchased WWE (then WWF) from his father, Vince Sr. Unlike his father, McMahon had a much broader vision for the company. He planned on making WWE the dominant force by swooping up premiere talent from other companies, running shows in areas of the country WWE did not previously operate, and later utilising the advent of cable TV in 1984 to produce content for a larger audience. However, McMahon did not only want to be the top wrestling promoter; he wanted WWE to be prevalent in popular culture. Author Tim Hornbaker highlights in his book Death of the Territories – in 1984, people either loved wrestling or hated it, therefore, McMahon set his sights on drawing in a family audience. In order to do so, WWE had to create an appealing visual, distancing itself from the old dingy arenas and, more importantly, have a star that appealed to the masses. Enter Sylvester Stallone and Rocky 3.

 “I think it was simply Rocky 3. He [Hulk Hogan] probably would’ve gotten to that next level anyway, but Rocky 3 with Sylvester Stallone is what put him on the map for everybody to see.” – Bruce Prichard on Hulk Hogan’s Rise to Superstardom (Something To Wrestle With, 2017)

By 1982, Stallone and Rocky were established entities in Hollywood, as, with each passing year, the franchise and its star were seemingly growing in fanfare. Therefore, appearing in the third instalment of Rocky, which became the biggest film in the franchise (at that time), grossing $270 million worldwide, would only enhance one’s notoriety or, in wrestling terms, give them the “rub.” The beneficiaries, in this case, were burgeoning wrestling star Hulk Hogan and a former bodyguard, Mr. T.

When Sylvester Stallone offered Hulk Hogan the role of wrestling champion Thunderlips in Rocky 3, Hogan was a heel (bad guy) wrestler for Vince McMahon’s father. Unlike his son, Vince Sr. did not believe in wrestlers doing films, and he fired Hogan for choosing to play Thunderlips. Fortunately for Hogan and the WWE, the future megastar’s instincts were correct. Rocky 3 presented the Hulkster, and his profession, in a spectacularly entertaining manner. The wrestling titan had a nearly ten-minute-long scene that pitted his character against Rocky in an exhibition match for charity. It’s a memorable scene full of pomp and circumstance, which starts with Thunderlips’ entrance, where he slowly makes his way to the ring, draped in a red cape and accompanied by a group of attractive women. The audience and other characters watch on in awe of his imposing stature. From the offset, Hogan’s spotlighted as a star and almost an equal to Stallone. A far cry from Andre The Giant’s presentation in The Six Million Dollar Man, where he was covered and used simply for his size. The rest of the scene showcases Thunderlips’ attributes and skills to the moviegoer, many of which would become hallmarks of Hulk Hogan in the WWE. From him dubbing his arms “the biggest arms in the world,” hitting a Leg Drop in slow motion (his now iconic finishing move), and his unmatched charisma that came through in Thunderlips’ trash talk. Audiences got to witness ‘Hulkamania’ in all its glory before the term ‘Hulkamania’ was even coined in the WWE, as the scene also concludes with Thunderlips and Rocky shaking hands and taking a picture – showcasing the gentle side of the Hulk. In addition, the boxer and wrestler bout was presented as a celebrity spectacle in the film, so style took precedence over substance. Signature moments like Rocky being thrown into the audience and Paulie smashing a chair over the back of Thunderlips – to no avail – were utilised to make the scene more appealing to the general moviegoer. It was everything Paradise Alley was not and a precursor to wrestling’s future, which would again see Hogan as a central figure – tying this grand combo of wrestling and pop culture together.

Post-Rocky 3, Hogan instantly reaped the rewards of his role. Although he was already successfully drawing crowds, which he notably did in April 1982 (a month before Rocky 3) for an AWA World Title Match that reportedly had over 18, 000 fans. The exposure from Stallone’s blockbuster naturally led to a surge in his popularity. Also, thanks to his growing presence in Japan, he quickly became an international superstar. This was evident by wrestling legend Sting explaining that before starting his own career, Hulk Hogan was the one wrestler he knew due to Rocky 3. That level of recognition was certainly a factor in Vince McMahon bringing him back to the WWE in late 1983. With the charismatic muscleman quickly becoming his champion and primary star, McMahon was able to attract the family audience he desired, as Hogan took all the manoeuvres he showed as Thunderlips (even temporarily using “Eye of the Tiger” as his entrance music) – amplified them by a hundred – and captivated the masses like few ever had before.

Away from the wrestling showcase, Rocky 3 also introduced the world to Mr. T, who, in his first major role, portrayed the primary antagonist in the film – heavy-hitting Clubber Lang. Rocky’s foe was a charismatic “hard man” with a Mohawk, eye-catching jewellery, and one-liners that instantly caught fire with audiences – “I pity the fool,” anyone? Much like the film did with Hogan, it essentially introduced all the hallmarks of Mr. T with the character Clubber Lang. A year later, the new Hollywood sensation starred as B.A. Baracus in the hit TV show The A-Team, a role that cemented his style, swagger, and superstar status. Only this time, the former bodyguard was showcased as a hero in the over-the-top action series, which helped him amass a large following with young children, as producer Stephen J. Cannell highlights in a 2008 Biography episode documenting Mr. T’s life. The spark lit by Rocky 3 – catapulted T into a position that later made him the perfect and perhaps only candidate for Vince McMahon and the WWE to bank on in their biggest gamble ever.

WWE and Hogan quickly became a powerhouse that captured eyeballs from all over, most notably MTV, which led to the birth of the legendary ‘Rock n’ Wrestling Connection’. However, it soon became apparent to WWE that they needed a marquee showcase to culminate storylines, highlight their brand, and bring their growing fan base together for one epic night. The showcase was, of course, WrestleMania, and the inaugural PPV took place on March 31, 1985, at Madison Square Garden. McMahon famously put every last penny he had into financing it, and had it not worked, the company would have likely fallen. For those reasons, the PPV essentially rested on the shoulders of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, who were front and centre on the poster, the faces of WWE’s essential TV campaign promoting the event on shows like Saturday Night Live, and they were a tag team for WrestleMania’s main event.

Hogan was, of course, WWE’s signature attraction but with Mr. T, they had a celebrity that was actually going to step into the ring alongside their Champion – recreating the unique feel of Rocky vs. Thunderlips – thus fascinating the masses with this new glitzy and extravagant presentation of wrestling. The throwback to Rocky 3 did not just end there. The stars from the film would have their own training montages in the lead-up to the big show while constantly making references to having “the eye of the tiger.” Not only that, but thanks to Rocky 3, the duo instantly clicked, meaning Mr. T put his best foot forward when preparing for his match.

When it came to the actual main event, it was indeed a spectacle from start to finish. A packed MSG watched Liberace dance with showgirls moments before the opening bell, and Muhammad Ali was a guest referee. Hogan and Mr. T defeated villains, Rowdy Piper and Paul Orndorff, with T famously lifting and spinning Rowdy Piper around in circles. The quality of the actual wrestling is rarely discussed, but the event’s magnificence is, and that’s how WWE transformed wrestling on a grand scale. It’s what fans saw yet again this year with the likes of Logan Paul and Bad Bunny meddling with top WWE stars in front of a sold-out stadium. A fan prior to WrestleMania 1 summed it up: “WrestleMania is something very important. You have a mixture of movie stars, singers, and wrestlers, so you combine the whole thing together and you have a lot of fun.” WWE’s inaugural PPV was a success, reportedly generating between $4-6 million. However, like Meltzer stated, without Hogan or Mr. T as the figureheads of this new brand of pro wrestling, it would have never captured the necessary audience. Without Rocky 3, the two may have never attained global superstardom, thus never ending up in WWE and providing McMahon with the pivotal pieces of his puzzle.

41 years have passed since Rocky 3 burst onto the big screen, and justifiably, the film still lives in many people’s hearts for a multitude of reasons. However, if one looks back in history, the film should arguably hold the most special place in the hearts of wrestling fans. Had WrestleMania 1 not succeeded – the business would arguably not be attaining success like drawing 120, 000 plus fans in two days. Therefore, this past WrestleMania going “Hollywood” was not only another illustration of its continued advancement but a full circle moment as it aligns with Rocky 3’s 41st anniversary – the film that set the template for the pro wrestling millions of fans know and love today.