Stallone goes to bat for boxing

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MEXICO CITY -- Boxing today is suffering from an image problem, "Rocky" star Sylvester Stallone said Thursday, as he visited Mexico to promote the fictional fighter's return to the ring in a new film sequel.

"It's a horrible image. It's worse now," he said when asked about the damage done to the sport by bad-boy fighters like convicted rapist and ear-biter Mike Tyson and a scarcity of world-class fighters and out-sized personalities like boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

"I don't know if it's just bad management or whatever, or the cream is not rising to the top, but you'd have to think that boxing is a reflection of the promoters," Stallone said.

Aged 60, but retaining his muscular body, Stallone defied critics by bringing his much-loved character Rocky Balboa out of retirement for a sixth Rocky movie, titled simply "Rocky Balboa," 30 years after the first one became an international hit.

"I wanted to create an awareness for boxing again because it had gone downhill a little bit," he told a media briefing.

Heavyweight boxing has been in decline for years. One reason fewer young athletes may be taking it up is that critics complain the sport can cause devastating brain damage.

Stallone's original 1976 movie tells of a lovable small-time boxer in Philadelphia dubbed "The Italian Stallion" who, in one of Hollywood's favorite underdog stories, gets a once-in-a-lifetime chance to prove himself by fighting a heavyweight champ.

It became a surprise smash hit, winning an Oscar for best film and making Stallone, who wrote the story and played the lead, a star. Four other Rocky movies followed before Stallone set aside the character for a spell.

In the sixth film -- which uses a retired fighter as Rocky's young opponent and real fans for the crowd -- an aging Rocky decides he has enough punch left for one last fight. He ends up in the ring with the reigning heavyweight champ.

Next to some of today's gentler movie heroes, the scenes of sweat-drenched brutes thumping each other as the crowd chants "Rocky!" are a flashback to the late 1970s and 1980s.

But it's not about thoughtless aggression, Stallone said.

"Rocky Balboa" is a mature film aimed at people his age who can empathize with Rocky's need to purge himself of old demons.

"Yes it's brutal, but you know that they're going in there on an even pace. It's not a strong man attacking a stranger," he said of boxing in general, which he admits his wife hates.

And for fans of the first film who have taken a few of life's lessons on the chin over the years, Rocky represents an everyday guy and his opponent represents life, he said.

"Life is stronger than us. It beats on you and you fight back and you get knocked out and at the end you're bloody but still standing. That's really the relevance of this movie."

Stallone is also working on a comeback sequel of his other 1980s hulk-like character "Rambo."
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