Since 2012, the website Narrative.ly has specialized in different kinds of longform journalism, from articles to videos, all aimed at exploring places and people in-depth. Each week, Narrative.ly pins all its pieces to a theme, and this week, the site is focusing on movies. The good folks over there were kind enough to share with The Dissolve some of today’s opening article by Dena Levitz, about Mike Kunda, a man who’s been impersonating Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa since he was a kid:
February 4, 1979 was a day that fundamentally changed Mike Kunda.
CBS aired “Rocky,” marking the Oscar-winning film’s television premiere just weeks before the sequel hit theaters. Kunda, then eleven, huddled around a TV set in his family’s Scranton, Pennsylvania home and watched as rough-and-tumble Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa trained for his title shot against heavily favored champ Apollo Creed.
The scene that struck home with Kunda wasn’t when gruff manager Mickey chides, “You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder,” or when Rocky tinkers with unconventional training tactics like chugging egg yolks and punching frozen slabs of beef in a meat locker. It was when Rocky, who works as a debt collector for a sleazy loan shark, refuses to carry out an order from his boss to break a delinquent customer’s thumbs. His boss, Gazzo, scolds him, and the boss’ bodyguard taunts Rocky, calling him a “meatbag.” Deflated, Rocky yells after them, “I shoulda broke your thumbs.”
“That’s where I was hit with Rocky,” Kunda says. “He gets rejected by his own peers. He’s left to that sad music, walking down the street, bouncing the ball. I said, ‘This is a moment for me.’”
In the three decades since, five more “Rocky” movies have been released, cumulatively grossing upwards of $1 billion worldwide. Movie watchers around the globe have embraced Sylvester Stallone’s title character as the consummate underdog. It’s a particularly passionate fan base, but Kunda might be the most committed and dedicated fan of them all.
Kunda, now forty-five, estimates that he’s seen Rocky flicks 600 times all the way through—and that doesn’t include the countless occasions he’s watched snippets to draw inspiration during a challenging personal moment. Not surprisingly, the repetition has made him a walking encyclopedia of facts and dialogues about all things “Rocky”—from where Rocky’s pet turtles Cuff and Link are now (the pet store has been condemned but its owner still has the turtles) to fleeting décor details like the fact that an incongruous hunting rifle is briefly shown mysteriously hanging on a wall inside Rocky’s apartment.
Kunda and his wife even spent years figuring out where in Philadelphia the individual movie scenes were filmed and mapping them out. They did this in the 1990s, well before Google Maps and smartphones made such a task a simpler pursuit. “We’d take a picture from the TV, get it developed, look around the neighborhood, trying to find the steeple, driving up and down looking for it,” Kunda says. “Once my wife and I spent fifteen hours driving around.”
Beyond mere trivia, Kunda has managed to cultivate a professional life in which he is Rocky. Winning a high-profile Rocky look-alike contest in Philadelphia in 2006 persuaded Kunda to make a career out of impersonating his idol. So far he has 300 gigs under his wannabe heavyweight championship belt, and doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
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Kunda is half-Italian with a brown mane of hair, sunken eyes and the muscular build of his hero. Stallone might have a half-inch on Kunda and slightly broader shoulders. However, with a practiced downward curl of his lip, a makeup-derived left black eye and a few deep-throated “Yo Adrians,” the resemblance is remarkable.
This is no accident. Kunda has been playing Rocky since childhood. Not long after watching the movie he began to dress the part, sporting a leather jacket, Chuck Taylor sneakers and a fedora given to him by his grandfather. The perpetual costume didn’t exactly win him friends.
Bullying is a constant theme of his self-published memoir “Cue the Rocky Music.” Classmates “enjoyed the sport of chasing me,” he wrote in the book, a predicament that wasn’t helped by his full-throttle embrace of the on-screen persona. Other kids made fun of the Rocky costume, tried to steal his fedora and taunted, “Yo, I’m Rocky! I suck at sports but I think I’m Rocky!” Kunda tried learning how to fight and play football to fit in better and defend himself. Neither quite cut it.
“I was a beating waiting to happen,” he explains. “I should have hung a sign on my neck that said, ‘Unaware fool. Please help me.’”
In his teenage years, there was a brief period when Kunda ceased his Rocky role-playing, growing out his hair to embody another Stallone construct, Rambo. Before long, though, he was back to Balboa as a sort of security blanket-meets-tribute.
“You have to imagine, it was the ’80s and there weren’t a lot of people dressing like movie characters. They were wearing MC Hammer pants, and that was never my thing. I was never one to follow trends, I had no style,” he says. “But Rocky was this armor that I had with the coat and the hat...To me, I just wanted to pretend to be Rocky. I didn’t want to be in school. I had to be there, so I thought, ‘Let me just bring this to life.’”
For the rest of the piece, go to Narrative.ly. The site will have more cinema-related content all week.