On Wednesday, the seventh entrant in the Rocky film franchise—Creed, the story of Apollo Creed's son—will open in theaters, reminding the world yet again that Rocky Balboa is no longer an underdog. That cinematic victory, however, was hard-won.
When the original Rocky was released in 1976, TIME's critic Richard Schickel found that some emotional aspects of the story were "unbeatable." And, as the magazine had explained in a feature the week before, it had a rich back story, too: star Sylvester Stallone had written the script in three days and battled producers for the right to play the title role.
Still, he concluded, the whole plot was just too farfetched to accept:
The story is achingly familiar, and though Stallone has a certain power, he is certainly not the subtlest actor to crawl out from under Marlon's overcoat. But the picture goes most wrong in the conceit it employs to lift Rocky out of the clubs and into the big arena for his title challenge. An Ali-like champion (Carl Weathers) blows into town for a championship bout and must find a replacement for the suddenly injured contender. Rocky asks the audience to believe that the champ reaches down past all the ranked boxers and all the up-and-coming kids to give this stale ham-and-egger a chance in an engagement on which millions are riding. It is not merely improbable in a time when even a legitimate challenger like Ken Norton, who is a movie star to boot, does badly on closed-circuit TV, it is preposterous. One really cannot deal with such a howler and at the same time interest oneself fully in Rocky 's quest for a moral victory (staying on his feet a full 15 rounds with the champion). It is too bad.
Rocky, of course, managed to do more than stay on its feet. At that year's Oscars, it went home with the ultimate championship belt: the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Read the full review, here in the TIME Vault: The Contender