History has not given Ivan Drago a fair shake. Not even close. In all likelihood, Drago, a.k.a. The Siberian Bull, a.k.a. Death From Above, will go down as one of the defining terrors of the 1980s. Our grandchildren will remember him as a barely human manifestation of everything that was wrong with the Soviet Union. But that shit isn’t right. The elitist intellectual scholars who are in a rush to place Drago in a league with the Takagi-fortune-Stealing, non-girl-needing, Wade-murdering, Boddicker-esque villains that defined the 80s couldn’t be more wrong. At worst, he is a misunderstood abomination, the monster to the Soviet Union’s Frankenstein; a beast with incredible (and sometimes lethal) capabilities whose character is deeply buried beneath its freakish appearance and distorted by the fear it inspires. At best, Ivan is nothing short of a hero, a revolutionary, and, in 1985, one of humanity’s brightest lights.
Yeah, okay, so he caved in Apollo Creed’s head. What? That’s his fault? Fuck no. Like his wife said, he’s a professional fighter, not a killer. He never wanted to hurt Creed, who was well known and very respected in the Soviet Union. No, Ivan Drago didn’t kill Apollo Creed. Apollo Creed killed Apollo Creed, with assists from Rocky Balboa and an incompetent referee.
The fact of the matter is that Creed killed himself when he manipulated his way into fighting Drago. He had no business getting in the ring with anyone, for that matter. He was a god damned Has Been, just like straight-shooting Russian antagonist Nicoli Koloff said he was. Honestly, it could be argued that Creed was washed up before his first fight with Rocky. He eked out a controversial spit-decision victory against a struggling club fighter who only had six weeks to train for the fight. Then, a year later, he was knocked out by the same club fighter, who was boxing right-handed for the first time, nursing a surgically repaired eye, and had virtually no strategy (Run through him? Run over him? Thanks, Mick).
And that was some eight odd years before the Drago fight, when he was beaten to death in the second round by an amateur fighter. The Counte of Monte Fisto evaded exactly zero of the 41 punches Drago threw. The only reason he didn’t die sooner was because Drago wasted five or six punches on his body. And it’s not like he wasn’t warned beforehand. Rocky reminded Apollo that he was an old man, and cautioned him against mixing it up with Drago. Did he listen? Fuck no. He bitched about someone else stealing his glory. He was a fucking Has Been that died because he was everything Drago and Rocky weren’t: arrogant, boastful, flashy, superficial, lazy, and, at the risk of being redundant, black.
Speaking of Rocky, THROW THE DAMN TOWEL! It was pretty clear that Apollo was being beaten to death by the end of the first round. Drago even gave him a shake of the head, all but pleading for Rocky to shut Apollo down. What? He mumbled something to you, after suffering severe head trauma, about not stopping the fight? That’s your justification for letting him die in an exhibition match? In front of his wife? In front of James Brown? And where was the ref? Yeah, he made half an effort to get between Drago and Creed, but he obviously wasn’t trying hard enough. He probably wasn’t even a licensed ref. He was probably one of James Brown’s entourage. That fight was such a god damned circus, it wouldn’t surprise me.
Anyway, while Creed’s death wasn’t going to make anyone look good, Drago’s bad rap comes mostly from the shit stoically proclaimed as Apollo was dying in Stallone’s arms. But what does he say that’s so awful? “I cannot be defeated. I defeat all men.” Nothing wrong there. You can hear his anger at being forced into this situation bubbling up through his words, but he hasn’t crossed any lines. “I defeat real champion.” Yeah, the liberal media assumes he means he wants to fight Rocky, but he hasn’t fought Rocky. He fought Apollo. I’m pretty sure he just called Apollo a Real Champion. Pretty fucking generous words for a man who lost his last two fights to a club fighter and an amateur, respectively.
Of course, everyone got their panties in a twist when the gentle giant calmly explained that “If he dies, he dies.” Yeah, that shit sounds pretty callous until you realize that Drago knows virtually no English. I mean, the guy is doing his damnedest to explain what’s happening, but he just doesn’t have the vocabulary to expand upon his philosophy. A young guy from a small town in the Soviet Union, on his first trip to America, forced to fight a childhood hero on a stage in Las Vegas, who has a legendary fighter and trainer in his corner, and was just was dancing with Soul Brother Number One. And now his idol is dying by his hand. Fuck, man, it’s a miracle that he remembered any English at all. And who knows what he was trying to say? He was probably trying to be compassionate. Maybe he was trying to relate to Americans a Soviet parable that would bring dignity to Creed as he lay dying on the mat.
His words to Rocky before the climactic fight illustrate his fragile state of mind: “I must break you.” Must. As in, against his will. He didn’t say “I want to break you,” or “I will take pleasure in breaking you,” or even a more passive “You shall be broken by me.” He must break him. Drago was clearly shaken by the death of Apollo Creed, and wanted Rocky to understand that he was being forced into the ring.
And then there’s the fight. Drago spared Rocky’s life. There’s no two ways about it. We have all wondered, laughingly, how Rocky could survive a fight with a man that threw punches with 2150 pounds per square inch behind them. Just a stupid movie plot hole, right? Wrong. Drago was pulling punches for the entire fight. You think Drago didn’t see those readings when he punched that psi bag, or whatever it was? Of course he did, and he knew what would happen if actually unloaded on Rocky: he’d be dead by the second round.
Not only did Drago keep Balboa alive, he threw that fight. I’m certain of it. Even in the early rounds, you can see him setting the stage. Yeah, Rocky is like a piece of iron. My ass. I doubt Drago would even notice if Rocky was, in fact, made of iron. With more than 2,000 psi behind his punches, he could probably punch a hole in God.
And you know why he threw it? Because he loved America and he loved capitalism, and he wanted to bring righteous American values to his own country. The idea that Drago was representative of Soviet values was bullshit. We all remember what Drago declared before the 15th round. He bellowed at his handlers, the Soviets in attendance, and the fucking politburo: “I WIN FOR ME! FOR ME!”
For me? Does that sound like a Communist to you? It doesn’t sound like any fucking Red I’ve ever heard of. And you’ll notice that he only said that he wins. He didn’t say he wins boxing matches. That’s because he never intended to win that boxing match. His goal was to let this noble American come into Moscow and, against all odds, emerge victorious, thus displaying the magnificent virtues of capitalism for all of the Soviet Union and its citizenry to see. I mean, you didn’t see Drago rushing to stop Rocky during his climactic speech, did you? Fuck, he probably wrote it for him. The broken English is a dead give away.
Without a doubt, Drago had a plan, and it did not involve winning the fight. How else can you explain Drago lifting a man, who looked to weigh in excess of 200 lbs, several feet off the ground, with a single arm, and then going out and losing to a man who, by that point, had literally been beaten retarded (in yet another example of recklessness by American trainers; hit the one in the middle? Are you shitting me? Throw the damn towel!). Or the panicked manner in which Drago openly begs Rocky to take a swing at him in the 15th round, so he can take a believable dive?
“To the end,” Drago tells Rocky before the final round. To the end is right: the end of the Soviet Fucking Union. If that wasn’t a toast, then I’ve never heard one. And yet, Drago’s legacy is that of a scoundrel, and it is Rocky Balboa, a man who won American hearts by bludgeoning successful black men and AIDS victims, that we remember as the hero. Who is the real monster? Not the Siberian Bull. Not Ivan.
We gathered a panel of judges which included Ex World Champs in Riddick Bowe and Bonecrusher Smith as well as numerous other boxing luminaries to rank the fighters in the Rocky series and here’s what they came up with. The Definitive Ranking of Rocky fighters.