PHILADELPHIA - Rocky Balboa is as much a Philadelphia institution as the art museum steps, the Liberty Bell and Elfreth's Alley. But spare Sylvester Stallone the shots about his fictional underdog champion being as cracked and weathered as the city's other famed landmarks.
Maybe the cynics and the critics can bash another Rocky movie with the force of a Clubber Lang uppercut, but in fightin' Philly, Rocky Balboa will always stand as its heavyweight hero.
"Rocky is the man, and he's always going to be the man," said fan Tony Veney. "I'm not going to let my man down. He's got that fire in him that everyone out here wants. Never say never. Don't stop fighting until the fighting's done."
Or at least until the pugilistic movie series is over.
Veney was one of several hundred Rocky diehards who packed a downtown street Monday night to catch a glimpse of Rocky, Paulie, and the rest of the cast for the Philadelphia premiere of "Rocky Balboa," the sixth and final film of the 30-year series. With the unseasonably warm weather, the spotlights and the red carpet, a block of Philly seemed more like Los Angeles.
Only with thicker accents and bulging bellies.
"This is where he came from," Stallone said. "This is where he deserves to go out."
Only in Tinseltown could anyone believe a 60-year-old creaky former champ could go arthritic toe-to-toe with the current heavyweight champion. Only in Philadelphia would Stallone be greeted with a frenzy normally reserved for its real-life sports heroes. Then again, listening to the "Rocky, Rocky!" chants that greeted the actor, it's obvious some fans can't separate the two. No wonder Stallone said he owes so much of the movie's success to the hardened city.
"It belongs to Philadelphia," Stallone said. "It's a very unique relationship. It's something no one could have ever planned on."
Fans wearing Rocky T-shirts, boxing gloves or holding homemade signs started to line the street across the Prince Music Theater more than two hours before Stallone made his appearance. At least one of those fans took Rocky's message of going the distance to heart.
Timo Weingaertner made the trip from Frankfort, Germany, just so he could run those iconic steps and say he was at the premiere for the film, which opens Wednesday. The 24-year-old Weingaertner said he planned the trip for more than a year and called Rocky an "inspiration."
"Running the steps, it was a dream all my life," he said, as movie soundtrack music blasted in the background. "I wanted to feel like Rocky feels."
Besides filming most of the movie in the city, mostly in Kensington and South Philadelphia, Stallone has made several trips the last few months. The Rocky Balboa statue returned in September to the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not far from the steps where the fictitious hard-luck fighter made movie history. And Stallone promoted the movie at a Philadelphia Eagles game earlier this month, earning another boisterous reaction.
Not many movie characters are as synonymous with a city as Rocky and Philadelphia.
"I try to describe it to my other actor buddies, they don't understand," Stallone said. "Rocky's a real person to a lot of these people. It's like a metaphor for their lives. Every one of them feels as though they have ownership."
Even though Rocky seems a more likely contender for social security than another shot at the title, Stallone believes this film sends the gritty Philly fighter out like a true champion.
"Thirty years later, it's stronger than ever," he said.