Ivan Drago is often revered as Rocky’s most feared opponent, living in infamy as the man who killed Apollo Creed and as one of the greatest boxers of all time. And yet… I’m not sold. I’m not. I don’t think Drago was that great of a boxer. I don’t even think he was Rocky’s greatest opponent.
Drago has a few convincers that vault him to the forefront of the conversation about Rocky’s nemeses. The first is the eyeball test. The dude is a monster, tall and jacked and prone to superhuman feats of strength in a Soviet gym while steroids are plunged into his buttcheeks. If intimidation won boxing matches, Drago would be the heavyweight champion to this day. But we are all aware that looks alone don’t win titles, we need to see it in the ring.
But most of what Drago does in the ring in Rocky IV is not seen. It is done in the shuttered boundary lines of the Soviet Union. To be fair, the Soviet Union was known for producing some of the greatest athletes of that time, but also to be fair, America has a long history of kicking their asses.
*flag drops down behind me while the star-spangled banner plays on a pan-flute*
We know that Ivan Drago was the undisputed champion of the USSR, but the problem is that we do not know what that means. Poverty and hunger were rampant in the USSR at this time, so any opponent who doesn’t have the blessing of the government like Drago does (and I have a hard time believing the government picked more than one boxer to back) would be vastly inferior to the attention and nurturing Drago received. In this context, Drago shooting up the ranks of the Soviet boxing league and remaining undefeated while he does it doesn’t provide us with a convincing argument that he is an awesome boxer.
So let’s look at what we do see Drago do.
It might be too soon, but I want to start with Apollo Creed’s death. This is the scene that serves as the main convincer that Drago is unbeatable, and also provides Rocky with an internal struggle as to whether he should face him. But I think they overblew it. Sure, it was sad that Creed died. There are some real man-tears soaked into the floors of theaters everywhere because of this moment. But I hesitate to attribute too much to Drago in the aftermath of the encounter. Creed had been one of the greatest boxing champions of all time. But the key wording here is ‘had been.’ Creed was way past his prime, even older than Rocky based on his long title reign before he ever boxed the Italian Stallion.
Plus, Creed’s fatal flaw was how he overlooked his opponent. He seemed to not take the fight seriously in the way he talked about his opponent, his entrance, and the way he taunts the big Russian. Therefore, we can probably assume he didn’t train as hard as he could have for the fight. And if there is anything we have learned from the Rocky franchise, it is that if you do not have the eye of the tiger in training, you don’t stand a chance in the ring. So Drago, in context, massacred a past-his-prime, over-confident, and undertrained former champion. What do we take away from that? We still only know for sure that Drago is an incredibly hulked up heavy hitter who ran through the boxing ranks of a malnourished country.
Then we see him battle Rocky. A retired Rocky… in the USSR… This should just be another exhibition on Drago’s way to fighting the heavyweight champion of the world, that is, if Drago is as good as we think he is. But it doesn’t happen that way. Rocky drills Drago and ends his title chances, the Cold War, and Drago’s marriage all on Drago’s home turf in front of the Premier of the USSR. This fight was gifted to him, and he blew it. And I don’t think it is entirely because Rocky is that good. Some of it is due to the fact that Rocky is made of iron, he was highly motivated after Drago killed his best friend, and Rocky is the all-time big match competitor, but it would be hard to ignore that this loss shows that Drago was overhyped as well. Objectively speaking, if Drago was as good as he was portrayed, and as we believed, Rocky should definitely, one hundred percent, have lost this fight. But he didn’t, which means Drago wasn’t.
Not convinced? Think about it this way… Rocky, at the height of his title reign and fitness got demolished by Clubber Lang (though extenuating circumstances due to Mickey’s questionable health after his fall throws an asterisk next to this fight). How do we then say that Drago, who never beats a much older and rustier Rocky, is the more feared opponent? Or take Creed. Rocky was never more motivated, focused, and in shaped (in combination) than in his fights with Apollo Creed, and he still went 1-1 against him, yet some will claim Drago, who never beat Rocky is the most fearsome opponent.
And thanks to the new installments of the Creed movies, we also get to see Rocky dismantle Drago from the corner, coaching the inferior specimen into a title victory over Drago’s son, in a match between two fighters in their prime. The extrapolation of Rocky’s superiority is borderline insulting at this point.
I guess some might not consider Drago as Rocky’s greatest opponent overall. Maybe just as his biggest challenge considering his circumstances. But I gotta say, however you want to spin it, it seems like we are giving him too much credit. Drago feels like an overhyped bust. I have no proof to show me he was anything but a one tricky pony with a strong right hook. Clubber Lang would’ve eaten him for breakfast.
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