Michael B. Jordan’s “Creed III” has hit theaters, prompting many moviegoers to wonder about the absence of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. Stallone played a pivotal role alongside Jordan in “Creed” and “Creed II,” earning an Oscar nomination for the 2015 installment. However, Stallone is noticeably missing from “Creed III.” While Rocky’s name is mentioned a few times in the script, his whereabouts are left unexplained.
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This marks the first time in the “Rocky” film franchise’s nine films and 47 years that a movie does not feature Rocky Balboa. Stallone’s departure is attributed to two reasons: he wasn’t fully onboard with the creative direction of “Creed III,” and his ongoing disagreements with longtime franchise producer Irwin Winkler.
“Creed III,” penned by Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin, with a story developed alongside original “Creed” director Ryan Coogler, takes a darker turn compared to the uplifting nature of the traditional “Rocky” franchise. As noted by Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman, the film is more of a sports drama with a “Cape Fear”-inspired thriller vibe than a conventional “Rocky” movie.
Regarding his departure from the sequel’s tone, Stallone expressed to THR, “That’s a regretful situation because I know what it could have been. It was taken in a direction that is quite different than I would’ve taken it. It’s a different philosophy — Irwin Winkler’s and Michael B. Jordan’s. I wish them well, but I’m much more of a sentimentalist. I like my heroes getting beat up, but I just don’t want them going into that dark space. I just feel people have enough darkness.”
Michael B. Jordan expressed a desire to focus on Adonis Creed in a standalone capacity for “Creed III.” The first “Creed” emphasized the relationship between Adonis and Rocky, while “Creed II” started Adonis on his individual journey. Jordan wanted “Creed III” to showcase Adonis without the presence of Rocky, aiming for the character to stand on his own two feet. He explained, “I want Adonis to stand on his own two feet. In order to do that, we had to go into the past. What were those transformative years, those childhood traumas that shaped [Adonis] today? I think the room for this story was really about Adonis Creed moving forward with his family and having him move forward.”
Sylvester Stallone’s absence from “Creed III” is attributed to his clash with Irwin Winkler, the longtime owner of the “Rocky” franchise rights. Stallone, who sold the rights to Winkler when he was a struggling actor, has long feuded with him over control of the franchise. Stallone described the emotional difficulty of cutting ties with the “Rocky” series for “Creed III,” stating that it was necessary because “you can’t make peace with someone who’s been so, so nefarious, in my opinion,” referring to Winkler. This dispute raises doubts about Stallone reprising his role as Rocky in the future.
Stallone initially expressed his frustration regarding the “Rocky” rights during a 2019 interview with Variety. Despite substantial success with the original film, earning net points on a $1 million budget that grossed $225 million globally, and securing a first-dollar gross on early sequels, Stallone revealed he had no ownership of the beloved characters.
In his conversation with Variety, Stallone lamented, “I have zero ownership of ‘Rocky.’ Every word, every syllable, every grammatical error was all my fault. It was shocking that it never came to be, but I was told, ‘Hey, you got paid, so what are you complaining about?’ I was furious.”
The dispute over the “Rocky” rights reignited in 2022 when Stallone posted an Instagram image in July featuring a portrayal of Irwin Winkler as a serpent with a knife tongue.
In the caption, Stallone remarked, “A very flattering portrait of the great ‘Rocky’/’Creed’ producer, Irwin Winkler, from one of the country’s greatest. After Irwin controlling ‘Rocky’ for over 47 years, and now ‘Creed,’ I really would like to have at least a little [of] WHAT’S LEFT of my rights back, before passing it on to ONLY YOUR CHILDREN — I believe that would be a fair gesture from this 93-year-old gentleman?”
A few weeks later, MGM unveiled plans for a new “Rocky” spinoff movie, focusing on the Drago family. Dolph Lundgren, who portrayed Rocky’s Russian rival Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV,” and Florian Munteanu, Ivan’s son in “Creed II,” were set to star. The script was entrusted to Robert Lawton. Stallone, however, publicly criticized the spinoff, asserting that he had not been informed of its development.
In an Instagram post, Stallone expressed his dismay, stating, “Another Heartbreaker… Just found this out… ONCE AGAIN, this PATHETIC 94-year-old PRODUCER and HIS MORONIC USELESS VULTURE CHILDREN, Charles And David, are once again picking clean THE BONES of another wonderful character I created without even telling me. I APOLOGIZE to the FANS; I never wanted ROCKY characters to be exploited by these parasites.
“By the way, I have nothing but respect for Dolph, but I wish HE had told me what was going on behind my back,” Stallone added at the time. “Keep your REAL friends close.”
Subsequently, Lundgren stepped in to address concerns from “Rocky” fans, urging them to ease their worries in response to Stallone’s criticism of the spinoff. Lundgren clarified the situation, stating, “Just to set the record straight regarding a possible ‘Drago’ spinoff. There’s no approved script, no deals in place, no director, and I was personally under the impression that my friend Sly Stallone was involved as a producer or even as an actor. There was a press leak last week which was unfortunate. In touch with Mr. Balboa – just so all the fans can relax…There ya go.”
While Stallone and Lundgren have reconciled their differences, the same cannot be said for Stallone and Winkler. As long as Winkler retains the rights to the franchise, it appears unlikely that moviegoers will witness Stallone’s Rocky return to the big screen.
“Creed III” is currently showing in theaters nationwide.