Sylvester Stallone is one of the most recognizable names in cinema, and boasts a repertoire of some of the most iconic characters in the action genre. It’s an impressive catalog by any standards, but easily his most beloved role is the one that launched him to Hollywood stardom — none other than The Pride of Philadelphia himself, Rocky Balboa. With Stallone exerting significant creative control over the Rocky franchise (which includes handling scriptwriting duties on all of its five direct sequels, in addition to directing four of them), it appears that he agrees with that evaluation. This influence has provided Stallone with the opportunity to mold the series into his own personal playground, allowing him to create these films exactly to his specifications. Perhaps the most overriding tenet has been his continual drive for authenticity, with Stallone pushing himself (and his fellow actors) to somewhat extreme lengths to deliver the ultimate cinematic spectacle. It’s an admirable goal, but following a terrifying accident on the set of Rocky IV, it’s also one that nearly cost him his life.

In a series that has always kept one foot in reality even at its most exuberant, Rocky IV is quite an outlier. It’s certainly the most cartoonish entry, and not just because its plot reads like the paranoid ramblings of a Cold War era patriot desperate for their side to emerge victorious (the atypical American hero defeats a ludicrous representation of the Soviet Union to the sound of rapturous applause). Instead, the film saw Stallone downplaying the grounded, working-class framework of previous installments to focus on what had rapidly become the franchise’s main selling points: fights and training montages. No film needs three overblown montages set to Stallone’s synthpop playlist (not to mention an unedited performance of James Brown’s “Living in America”), but when it’s all captured with such bombastic joy, who in their right mind will complain? Rocky IV is a 90-minute celebration of everything that makes these films so appealing, all contained within a time capsule of 1980s grandeur. It might be the silliest of the Rocky films, but it’s arguably the most fun.

Having said that, it’s odd that a film that can be characterized in such terms would build itself around the most brutal set piece in the franchise’s history — the death of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). His exhibition fight against Ivan “The Siberian Express” Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is a defining moment for the series, with its impact resonating for decades to come (most obviously with a trilogy of excellent spin-off films centered around his son, Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis Creed). It’s also a moment that affects Rocky greatly, leaving the once headstrong fighter riddled with guilt due to his refusal to pull Apollo out of the fight. However, such a grievance proves to be the ideal excuse for him to don his boxing gloves once again and battle it out against the toughest opponent he would ever encounter, leading to one of the franchise’s most celebrated fights. The duel between Rocky and Drago is fraught with tension, but as the fight progresses and Rocky gains the upper hand, it also becomes strangely inspirational. Apollo Creed is dead, but symbolically, he finally emerges on top.

Stallone and Lundgren’s performances are a notable reason why the scene is so powerful — specifically, the sheer ferocity with which they imbue their respective characters. It makes for an engrossing fight when viewed from an audience’s perspective. But the same could not be said for those experiencing it on set. When it came time to shoot their climactic fight, Stallone — in his third consecutive Rocky film as the director — instructed Lundgren to ignore the rehearsed choreography to allow for a more vicious (but realistic) sequence. Unfortunately for him, Lundgren (who, it should be pointed out, is a 4th dan black belt in Kyokushin karate) followed his directions exactly. While the day passed uneventfully, Stallone realized that something was seriously wrong later that evening upon feeling an immense pain in his chest. Instantly, the actor-director was shipped from the film’s Vancouver set to the intensive care unit of the Saint John’s Regional Medical Center in Santa Monica via an emergency low-altitude flight. “I knew I was in trouble when I showed up and nuns met you at the ICU,” as Stallone later recalled.

Stallone would spend nine days at Saint John’s hospital, during which time the extent of his injuries would become uncomfortably clear. An uppercut from Lundgren resulted in Stallone’s heart slamming against his chest, causing it to swell and his blood pressure to skyrocket. If not for the immediate medical attention he received, his heart would have continued to swell until it stopped entirely. Doctors informed Stallone that his injuries were typically found in car crash victims — a horrifying detail that puts the whole situation into context. Thankfully (or perhaps idiotically, you decide), Stallone has accepted this revelation with a sense of gallows humor. In subsequent years, whenever he is asked what the worst injury he received whilst making a film was, his response is the time he was hit by “a streetcar named Drago”.

Lundgren has also adopted a similarly relaxed attitude towards the incident. When asked about Stallone’s hospitalization in interviews, Lundgren’s usual reaction is to deny all responsibility as he was simply following orders (“He was the boss. I did what he told me,” as he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2020). Additionally, Lundgren has also declared that he has no idea if he is even responsible for Stallone’s trip to the ICU, positing that it was merely a consequence of the writer-director-actor being severely overworked (or, alternatively, that it was some kind of insurance scam). His lax attitude might seem uncaring, but this is an unfair assessment. Lundgren and Stallone’s friendship hasn’t been the easiest, but there’s a clear sense of mutual respect between them. With neither appearing to hold any ill feelings over this specific episode (as evident by Stallone being one of the most vocal advocates to bring Lundgren back for Creed II), it’s amazing that something that could have ended so tragically turned out completely the opposite.

If the average person landed in hospital for nine days while shooting a film, they’d probably run for the hills and never look back. Stallone, however, is no average person. He’s one of the most resilient people to ever grace Hollywood. If he could continue to film The Expendables with a fractured neck, there was no way he’d let a little thing like a trip to the ICU prevent him from making Rocky IV. As such, as soon as he was discharged, he was back on the Vancouver set ready for another few weeks of grueling fighting (albeit, much more scripted fighting this time around). Inquisitive viewers will be delighted to hear that Lundgren’s uppercut made the final cut, coming somewhere in the first 30 seconds of the sequence before the actors switched to more coordinated fighting. The quantity of blows that Lundgren trades with his opponent will make it difficult to locate, but those brave enough to go searching will find their curiosity rewarded (if such a term is appropriate, given the circumstances).

As mentioned at the start of this article, authenticity has always been at the heart of the Rocky franchise. From the original film’s grim depiction of urban decay set within the forgotten neighborhoods of Philadelphia, to the presentational style of Rocky Balboa’s final fight replicating the aesthetic of a real pay-per-view broadcast, Stallone has always sought to keep his most prized creation tethered to reality. It makes for a terrific basis, and is why the series remains such an enduring source of inspiration and hope even for viewers with no interest in boxing. His violent depiction of the franchise’s numerous fights is a central part of this approach, with Stallone making no attempt to obfuscate how dangerous this sport is. That doesn’t mean that he has to come within touching distance of the pearly gates to achieve it, but at the same time, you can’t help but admire his commitment. Rocky IV is a fan favorite for many reasons, with the conflict between Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago being chief among them. Who knew that their feud was so strong that it spilled over into the real world?

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