It has long been understood that the Academy Award-winning Rocky is the best in the franchise. The 1976 drama, which happens to be one of the best sports movies of all time, rang the opening bell for the successful franchise and turned its star, Sylvester Stallone, into one of the most prominent figures in Hollywood for the past half-century. But, while that is settled, there is still one debate that lingers: which is the better of the Rocky movies, Rocky III or Rocky IV?
Well, if you’ve come looking for a championship fight to decide which of these two Rocky movies is the best in the sequel weight-class, then sit down, grab some popcorn, and prepare yourself for five rounds of hard-hitting action, where we’ll break down each movie’s plot, villain, fight, montage (because of course), and signature song. Let’s go to the eye of the tiger with our hearts on fire…
The Rocky movies have long brought audiences to the theater to check out those legendary fights, but what has gotten us to keep coming back are the stories. Here, we’ll break down the plots of Rocky III and Rocky IV.
Rocky III Plot
Rocky III centers on a Rocky Balboa who is at the top of the world. He has fame, fortune, and the respect of the boxing community. But when Clubber Lang (Mr. T) arrives on the scene, steals his title, and kills his his mentor, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the once-hungry underdog has to turn to an unlikely ally to prepare for battle.
Rocky IV Plot
Rocky IV follows former boxing champion Rocky Balboa as he challenges Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) to an exhibition fight after the Soviet boxer killed Rocky’s enemy-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring. But, instead of holding the fight in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or any of the other major boxing destinations, the two square off behind the Iron Curtain.
Winner — Rocky III
Rocky IV has a captivating story, but the idea of "Italian Stallion" avenging his friend and defending his own honor works better in Rocky III, which gives the 1982 summer blockbuster the first round.
A hero’s journey is not complete with a formidable opponent standing in his way, and, luckily, both movies feature two of the franchise’s best villains.
Rocky III Villain
As mentioned just above, Clubber Lang is a monster in the ring (and outside of it considering he straight up killed Mickey). But not only is Lang a dominant physical force, he also has loads of charisma and attitude that makes him so bad he’s good.
Rocky IV Villain
I know Ivan Drago is technically human, but he fights and carries himself like a cyborg. No emotion, no personality, and no empathy for any of his opponents (even when he killed Apollo Creed in a non-championship match).
Winner — Rocky III
Both villains can carry their own in the boxing ring, but it’s Clubber Lang’s vicious personality that gives him the edge here. He comes off like a combination of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, creating an unforgettable nemesis.
A boxing movie isn’t a boxing movie without a legendary (and brutal) fight that allows the hero (Rocky in this case) to get even with this enemy. Both Rocky III and Rocky IV feature hard-hitting fights in the ring, but like the previous two rounds, there are no draws here.
Rocky III Fight
Most of the Clubber Lang fights featured throughout Rocky III see the dominant fighter knocking out his opponents in the first couple of rounds. But that isn’t the case when he goes up against Rocky Balboa in the final fight. After throwing a series of heavy punches in the early goings of the contest, Lang tires himself out and allows Balboa an opportunity to turn the tables and earn a decisive victory.
Rocky IV Fight
Ivan Drago, on the other hand, is not only incredibly strong, he also has some of the best stamina out of any of Rocky’s opponents. This brutal back-and-forth match goes on and on, eventually making it the 15th round before Rocky is able to wear down his younger and more physically-gifted adversary.
Winner — Rocky IV
Rocky IV picks up its first round thanks to the impressive showing by Ivan Drago in the film’s final fight. Sure, Clubber Lang is a beast in the ring, but what he has in strength he lacks in longevity.
The Training Montage
One thing you are guaranteed to see in a Rocky movie is an incredibly badass training montage, so much so it’s become a fan favorite over the past 46 years. Rocky III and Rocky IV both feature some kind iconic training sequences, but there can only be one.
Rocky III Training Montage
After losing his title to Clubber Lang and getting over the death of Mickey, Rocky goes back to the basics with his new trainer, Apollo Creed, in Rocky IV. This incredible montage shows Rocky going back to his old ways in a dumpy gym before racing his former nemesis in one of the franchise’s most iconic moments.
Rocky IV Training Montage
The Rocky IV training montage does an incredible job of providing a juxtaposition between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago. While his Soviet opponent is training in a state-of-the-art facility, Rocky is forced to find a more old-school approach that includes chopping down trees, running in the frigid cold, and making use of a barn instead of a gym.
Winner — Rocky IV
There is no denying Rocky III’s beach running scene as one of the franchise’s best, but it pales in comparison to the epic Rocky IV montage. One of my favorite aspects of this sequence is how it shows the passage of time through the length of Rocky’s beard.
Going into the fifth and final round, we are tied at two points apiece — Rocky III has the better plot and villain while Rocky IV has the better fight and training montage. The only way to break this tie is to figure out which movie has the better song.
Rocky III Song
Rocky IV Song
With the release of Rocky IV in November 1985 came the debut of John Cafferty’s power anthem “Heart’s on Fire,” which is admittedly a rocking song and adds a nice touch to the movie’s epic training sequence.
Winner — Rocky III
I’ll be the first to tell you that “Heart’s On Fire” is a fun song that encapsulates the synth-rock movement of the mid-1980s with one of the catchiest choruses. That being said, there’s no way anything could be out “Eye of the Tiger,” which has become one of the rare movie songs to have a life of its own.
And The Winner Is...
Well, it looks like Rocky III is our undisputed champion of the Rocky franchise, thanks in part to featuring one of the most iconic tracks of the 1980s. This isn’t to say Rocky IV is a bad movie or anything like that, but its predecessor is just in a whole other class. Plus, Rocky III has Hulk Hogan’s Thunderlips and no questionable scenes with a talking robot.
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Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop barking at the mailman, or chatting about professional wrestling to his wife. Writing gigs with school newspapers, multiple daily newspapers, and other varied job experiences led him to this point where he actually gets to write about movies, shows, wrestling, and documentaries (which is a huge win in his eyes). If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.