Some Rocky Inspirations: Steve Reeves and Rocky Graziano

Jun 21, 2015 | Articles

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By Charlie Ellison | Total Rocky Contributor

For many years, Sylvester Stallone has been an inspiration to all of his fans through his heroic characters such as Rocky Balboa, John Rambo and as Barney Ross in “The Expendables”, but have you ever wondered who inspired him when he was younger?

In interviews, Sly has often referenced his boyhood hero Steve Reeves who, during the 1950’s, helped to put bodybuilding into the public eye. At twelve, young Sylvester Stallone saw the movie that would shape his life and career. “I was an insecure kid. Once I saw ‘Hercules’ with Steve Reeves, it completely changed my life,” Stallone remembers. “If I had never gone to that film, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Reeves and his tremendous physique is a noted inspiration for many other famous names including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The bodybuilder and actor began his workouts while still a teenager in high school, much like Stallone who began working out at the gym and lifting weights at home while a young teen. At the height of his career, Reeves was Europe’s highest paid actor, just as Sylvester Stallone takes that top spot in 2015 with an estimated combined earnings of $58 million per year.


Another resemblance to Stallone’s character of Rocky Balboa may be found in middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano, whose life story was dramatized for the big screen in the mid 1950’s. Paul Newman made his movie debut in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), although the role was originally slated to be played by James Dean opposite his real-life girlfriend, actress Pier Angeli. Sadly, due to his untimely death at age 24 in a tragic car accident, Dean’s Graziano role was handed to fellow screen newcomer Paul Newman and ultimately made him a star.

Angeli, a delicate Italian beauty, plays a sweet and supportive love interest to Newman’s version of Rocky. You can definitely see traces of the original Rocky and Adrian in the tender moments of this great film. Click here to see the movie trailer for “Somebody Up There Likes Me”.


If you dig a little deeper, Thomas Rocco Barbella a.k.a. Rocky Graziano was born in Brooklyn, New York and later moved to Little Italy on New York’s Lower East Side. Like the character of Rocky Balboa, Graziano was a real street fighter with a troubled past in Little Italy which – coincidentally – is only 30 minutes away from Sly’s birthplace, Hell’s Kitchen. Graziano fought Sugar Ray Robinson in 1952 which in some ways is reminiscent of the Rocky vs. Apollo Creed match. Ironically, Graziano made the transition from sports to Hollywood by acting and writing for the TV show “Miami Undercover” in 1961.

The two Rockys collided in July, 1982 when Stallone and Graziano crossed paths in real life at an Atlantic City boxing match where they were photographed together. Sylvester Stallone also bears a degree of resemblance to Graziano in his mannerisms as well as his charismatic wit. Check out the video clip below which shows Graziano and his one-time opponent Sugar Ray Robinson together again to discuss the old days in the ring; you may notice some slight similarities to Graziano and Stallone.


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