With Christmas Day rapidly approaching, I tried desperately to recall a sporting memory from the festive period, and December 25 in particular. And then it dawned on me; the most famous occasion I could recall actually happened on Christmas Day itself. Admittedly it is a fictitious event, and extremely unrealistic, but this week I have decided to revisit the classic bout between Ivan Drago and Rocky Balboa from Rocky IV.
The report below has been written as if the event was real. It is a significant departure from my usual blogs, but I hope you enjoy reading this, as much as I did writing it.
Wow! Many felt Balboa was crazy to take this fight in Moscow, myself included amongst the dissenting voices. But in a performance so brave that it seemed to extend the limits of humanity, the former heavyweight champion of the world not only silenced his doubters in defeating Ivan Drago, he also turned a hostile home crowd in his favour, so much so that come the end of almost 15 rounds of brutal boxing, cries of "Rocky, Rocky" were resonating around the auditorium. There are worse ways to spend your Christmas Day than this.
Whether victory here in Moscow tonight can provide Balboa with full closure over his part in Apollo Creed's tragic death is questionable. Yet the impression that the great man was doing it for his close friend was beyond doubt. It wasn't just the members of the boxing press who were appalled with the comments made by the Russians in the immediate aftermath of the so-called exhibition bout in Las Vegas, and America at large wanted revenge. However, those close to Balboa, and the vast majority of his fans, were rightly worried that Rocky was risking his own life in his attempts to avenge the events of that fateful night. Derailing the Siberian Express looked an impossibility.
To prepare for this war - and it is no exaggeration to describe this fight as such - Balboa went back to basics, his training camp in Krasnogourbinsk so remote and apparently primitive that it made you wonder if the man had taken leave of his senses. But Balboa knew that such a build-up to the fight would stand him in good stead, and if by some miracle he could last the distance, that he would need to dig down to the deepest parts of his soul to simply survive against this Russian machine.
The contrast to Drago's preparation could not have been more different. Technology from the space-age, machines beeping repeatedly, wires attached to Drago's body with monitors checking his every detail. And boy did it work; when Drago took to the ring after a rousing reception, his physique was staggering, a man mountain of Russian granite, muscles bulging, and a look in his eye that was so terrifying he would have beaten 99% of his opponents before any punches were thrown. Fortunately, Rocky Balboa is no ordinary fighter.
Only Balboa will know how he got through the first round. Regularly caught by Drago's long jab, the American was unable to get close to his opponent, and as the round progressed it looked frequently as if this would be Balboa's last. At one point, Drago even seemed to enjoy soaking up numerous stomach punches thrown by Balboa, before going on the offensive and flooring the Italian Stallion (although we could have done without the punch thrown by the Russian as his opponent sat on the canvas). Somehow, Balboa got up, his spirit beyond question as he staggered back to his corner.
It was pretty much the same at the start of the second, with Balboa on the receiving end of more bombs. Drago demonstrated his strength further by throwing Balboa to the floor, the American's anger resulting in a foolish charge towards Drago that should have ended in a count for the visitor, only for the referee to ignore the apparent knock down. The barrage continued, many feeling the referee should have stepped in to prevent any more punishment.
And then it happened. Balboa, still pinned into the corner and taking a fearful battering, unleashed a right hand that stunned Drago and immediately silenced the crowd. The Russian was cut, and probably as shocked as most of us at ringside, as Balboa moved in, belief emanating from every part of his body.
The mutual antipathy spilt over in some ugly scenes come the end of the round, both fighters and corners involved in a fracas that does the image of the sport no good. But in this powder keg of an arena it was understandable. This was not just man against man; it was East versus West, and the battle lines had been drawn for the rest of the evening.
Balboa's impetus was slowed, however, the next three rounds easily going the way of Drago, with Balboa almost down in the fourth and then floored in the fifth. But in what was fast becoming a classic, back came Balboa, a fine sixth round seeing his confidence build, so much so that he started to goad Drago in the seventh (surely not the wisest of moves). Another good round in the eighth from Balboa suggested that all was not well in the Russian camp. If Drago had hoped that Rocky would go away, then he was in for an unpleasant surprise.
The pattern was now set for the rest of the evening. Furious exchanges between the pair, Drago often on top - Balboa was again floored in the eleventh round, only for a referee seemingly out of his depth to let it go - as the fight snowballed into a slugfest, a pub fight that left you breathless. The heart shown by Balboa had to be seen to be believed, indeed those very fans who had given him such a rough ride on his walk to the ring, were now singing the name of Rocky come the end of round twelve, undoubtedly much to the annoyance of Drago's entourage and the watching Politburo.
For all his bravery, it looked as if Balboa would still come up short, heavily down on all three scorecards as the fight neared its conclusion. At the end of the penultimate round, which saw unnecessary exchanges after the bell, the chants of "Rocky, Rocky" were now very clear, but the new crowd favourite would need a miracle to end the bout victorious. Drago for his part just had to stay on his feet, but the already weary looking Russian hardly helped his own cause by getting involved in an altercation with his manager Nicoli Koloff. Another crazy incident in a night that was just about to get a whole lot more insane.
Strangely, Balboa did not come out with all guns blazing, the long jab of Drago again keeping the smaller man at bay. It was all part of the master plan though, Balboa taunting his opponent and biding his time until he had judged that Drago had shot his bolt. Bit by bit Balboa moved forward, throwing great combinations, the back and forth nature of the fight continuing in a quite frankly thrilling and scary fashion.
Balboa's body shots, mocked by Drago at the start of the fight, were now paying dividends. Drago was visibly wilting under the pressure, as Balboa's punches acted like an axe to a Siberian pine tree, gradually chopping down the Russian's legs from underneath him. Astonishingly, the impossible now looked possible, the Russian defenceless as Balboa searched for the decisive punch. When it arrived, Drago crashed to the canvas, the whole boxing world feeling the vibrations. It seemed like an eternity for the referee to reach the ten count, but when Drago's final attempt to raise himself via the ropes ended in failure, Balboa had pulled off the Miracle of Moscow.
Raising his arms skywards, Balboa was lifted up by his trainer Duke Evers, both men cherishing not only the most unlikeliest of comebacks, but also celebrating the sweetest victory. The ring became a sea of bodies, all trying to get close to their new hero, before Balboa was embraced by his wife Adrian. They say sport and politics should not mix, yet Balboa chose his moment of triumph to begin a speech so stirring that it would bring the Russian Premier to his feet.
"During this fight, I've seen a lot of changing," stated Balboa. "The way you felt about me, and the way I felt about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that's better than 20 million. If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change". Of course it may be too idealistic to believe that Rocky's words will pack as much weight as his punches, but the events of this evening should certainly prove an eye opener to the politicians of both nations.
The word great is overused, but there can be no debate that a great boxer with a heart the size of a lion won a great fight here in Moscow. If it is to be Balboa's swansong, then what a way to go out. Surely there can be no more to prove for a man who came behind the Iron Curtain and pulled off a stunning win not only for himself, but for his great friend Apollo Creed. Wow!