I Am Rocky Balboa

How a boy named Mike Kunda grew up to become the ultimate Italian Stallion.

I Am Rocky Balboa

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, Pa., 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’s 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 him 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 anytime soon.

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.

Kunda as "Rocky Balboa."
Kunda as “Rocky Balboa.”

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 onscreen 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 read, ‘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.’”

In early adulthood Kunda went from one job to another, hating them all: cop, parking garage attendant, a lengthy stint as manager of an optical company. All told, he estimates he has been fired from about twenty-five jobs—not because he wasn’t a hard worker, but because he “just didn’t want to be there.” Kunda says he was lost, unsure how to be happy.

That all changed in 2006 when friends coaxed him into entering Philadelphia’s national search for a Rocky doppelganger, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary of the original film. Contestants paraded in front of a crowd of thousands for the chance at prize money and tickets to the premiere of the sixth movie in the series, “Rocky Balboa.” During the final round of the competition Kunda got up on stage and improvised Rocky-esque answers to questions from a panel of judges, who crowned him the winner.

Kunda took the victory as a quirky honor and figured he’d soon go back to his boring life. The contest win, however, gave him exposure. Soon a children’s camp came calling, asking for Kunda to don his Rocky uniform and do a meet-and-greet with campers. It was his first paid gig as Stallone’s fictional boxer.

Chris Wiseman, a fellow “Rocky” superfan, quickly stepped in as his manager. The two met at the Victor Café, a real-life Italian eatery that was turned into “Adrian’s” for “Rocky Balboa.” Wiseman and Kunda independently befriended the restaurant owners, aware that filming would begin shortly, each wanting to dine there before production. While waiting for their tables at the bar one night, Kunda and Wiseman got to talking and became fast friends.

Kunda with Chris Wiseman and another friend at Victor Café in Philadelphia.
Kunda with Chris Wiseman and another friend at Victor Café in Philadelphia.

Wiseman runs an entertainment company focused heavily on musicians and had never represented a celebrity impersonator. Still, he thought Kunda had a knack for emulating Balboa and, on a handshake, agreed to represent him.

“He has all the mannerisms to a tee,” Wiseman says. “I said, ‘Listen, if you’re interested, I’d like to help you. I think you can do more with this. Not only can it be profitable but it could make you enjoy Rocky even more.’ The fact that we’re both legitimate Rocky nuts, not casual fans, certainly helped.”

In that moment, Rocky went from a passion to a profession.

In Wiseman’s mind, what makes Kunda a special impersonator is a combination of attention to detail and his commitment to the role.

“It’s not just how he looks. It’s when he starts to move, the inflection in his voice, the mannerisms. All of that combined makes him the most accurate Rocky in the world,” Wiseman says. “He pays attention to the exact style of zipper Rocky wears. It makes him special.”

Kunda even managed to track down the store in California that supplied Stallone’s fedora in “Rocky Balboa.” Sometimes, he’ll wear the gray sweatsuit that the fighter wore on his training runs. Pulling this look together took five years of scouring eBay for just the right 1950s-era sweats with the particular waistband.

Mike Kunda, in character as Rocky, leads a tour of “Rocky Balboa” filming locations.

“I put grease on it like Rocky. It’s a ratted, tatted sweatsuit just like his,” Kunda says. “I want to be as close and authentic as possible.”

For a gig as Rocky, Kunda’s main responsibility is usually to work the room, whether a cramped restaurant or a cavernous convention center. Clients usually want him to talk, pose for photos, and stay in the moment as the character.

“Sometimes they want to put you in a headlock or wear the hat,” he says. “With cellphone cameras and social media they’ll often direct you, ‘Come over here, say something to my wife, to my sister.’ You gotta be witty and quick and sharp.”

Over time this has meant less quoting passages from the movie and more putting decades of “Rocky” expertise into what he calls a “mental blender with my own personality” in order to utter responses that the character might give in a specific situation.

“If some guy’s name is Paulie, I’ll go into Paulie schtick. If a girl looks like Talia Shire I’ll go into a bit about Adrian. It’s one of those things where you don’t know what to expect so you roll with it,” Kunda says. “If you can just get people to buy that there’s a type of Rocky-ism, a Rocky essence, that’s my job, and I’ve done it.”

About thirty percent of the gigs take place on the famed steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Rocky runs up in the first, second, third and sixth movies in the series. Kunda is often asked to meet up with a busload of tourists in front of the museum and then make his way up the seventy-two steps with them.

Kunda gazing out a window at Victor Café. His largest crowd was a performance for 60,000 people.
Kunda gazing out a window at Victor Café. His largest crowd was a performance for 60,000 people.

“The problem is it never works out that way,” Kunda says, explaining that random passersby find themselves compelled to join in the fun. “It’s a national pastime,” he says. “If you look anything like Rocky and you’re affecting that vibe, people are going to start to gravitate to you. I’m being paid to be with this tour group, but there may be 300 people starting to go over to me. So that gets crazy.”

To date, Kunda’s largest audience was 60,000 people during a citywide mini-marathon held two years ago.

“They had a big bandstand and wanted me to get on the stage and address the crowd,” he recalls. “It was the first time I had ever done that. I wasn’t prepared, so I riffed on running and sneakers and about the Chuck Taylors that were around in the ’70s and how they sucked. The next thing I know I had the whole crowd doing calisthenics, like Balboa aerobics. It worked.”

Other gigs can be as simple as a backyard barbecue where a number of the attendees happen to be Rocky aficionados. Kunda gets a paycheck as well as a hot dog and a beer while he banters with partygoers in a more laid-back setting.

Kunda banters with locals and tourists in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Flyers hockey team once hired Kunda to drive up to New York City with a Ben Franklin impersonator, go to the NHL’s main office, knock on the league president’s door and tell him that Philadelphia really wanted to host the All-Star Game.

“We walked through office cubicles saying ‘Hey yo, where’s the boss?’” Kunda recalls. When they reached the president’s office, “he just slaps his knees and goes, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe this.’ I tell him what the deal is. Ben opens up the parchment and reads off ‘We declare’ and goes into a Ben Franklin speech. For a number of other reasons Philly didn’t get the game, but the guy loved us.”

One key to success he’s learned is to stay away from exorbitantly long gigs. Although Kunda’s voice is similar to Rocky Balboa’s deep baritone, he does have to drop it a bit lower, which is something he can’t maintain indefinitely.

He now has enough Rocky gigs to financially support himself without having to hold other jobs. His wife, Sue, is employed as a manager at the same optical company which Kunda used to work for, and the couple, who have been together for twenty-five years, don’t have children. They live in Camp Hill, Pa., a suburb of Harrisburg, and travel back and forth to Philadelphia for Rocky-related business.

Kunda’s attachment to the Rocky character runs several layers deep, but the films’ recurring theme of redemption has always been a hook.

“The core thing is believing in yourself and trying. It’s cliché and we hear it all the time. But how many people really do believe in themselves?” he says. “Here we watch Rocky fail on screen and we feel for him because he got up and did it again. Maybe you’re not the best in the world. But you can be the best in your own life. That’s what I’m all about.”

Kunda at Victor Café.
Kunda at Victor Café.

There’s a parallel between the struggles Rocky endures to win his battles in and out of the ring and the arduous process that was behind making the movies bearing his name. Stallone, many forget, was an unknown when he wrote the script for the first movie and began shopping the project around Hollywood. Studios wanted to use the film as a vehicle for a more established actor, but he fought to play the lead himself. The overall budget was just over $1 million.

“People, a lot of times, don’t take it seriously because there are six films, but Rocky was the original independent film,” says filmmaker Jim Toscano. “It was low-budget and yet it’s got everything—it’s a boxing movie, a love story and a little bit of a mob/mafia story.”

That it was a Rocky-like story for Stallone to get the film made only heightens the movie’s appeal for Toscano, who is now producing a documentary about Kunda’s work as a Rocky impersonator. The two met on the street in downtown Philadelphia while trying to catch a glimpse of the filming of “Rocky Balboa” and bonded over their shared fandom since.

“I can’t remember not knowing who Rocky was. It was a part of growing up in my house,” says Toscano, who is from Detroit. “I’ve appreciated it because it’s an underdog story, and that’s my favorite kind of story.”

Even though he’s seen the movies 600-plus times, Kunda says he still gets something new from each viewing, and the film’s theme of never giving up and doing what you love inspires him to keep going with his impersonation business.

“I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for someone to not accept me, call me a phony, say that I am no good as a Rocky impersonator,” he says. “And that’s when I start to think, ‘You know, I’ll show you. I am going to bring my best game, and you’re going to love my interpretation of the character.’”

He’s also made his wife a fan in her own right, which brings a new kind of joy. But he says the biggest perk of emulating Balboa is hearing about others’ affinity for Rocky.

“I like hearing their stories,” Kunda says. “I get to see Rocky all over again but through their eyes.”

A few years ago Kunda began hosting an annual movie tour, based on the maps that he and his wife made two decades ago. For four or five hours he shuttles fans to the different sites, always in character as the Italian Stallion and pointing out lesser-known tidbits about the movies along the way, culminating with dinner at the Victor Café.

Kunda has also started offering one-on-one guided tours. Those who have taken him up on the offer have all been foreigners. There was a Greek boxer who brought his wife to Philadelphia as part of their honeymoon, a plumber from England who releases doves at weddings, and a guard at the Vatican who found Kunda on YouTube and requested a personalized tour.

The fedora that serves as part of Kunda's "Rocky" act.
The fedora that serves as part of Kunda’s “Rocky” act.

He now does two or three tours a month and hopes to grow this part of his impersonator business even more. He is in the process of securing a van and painting it with a fedora-inspired logo designed by his niece.

Kunda insists he is proud to be a “one-trick pony” who will only ever personify Rocky.

“All the time, people ask, ‘How long are you going to do this?’ I’ve been Rocky for seven years. Every year I double my business,” he says. “Stallone made ‘Rocky Balboa’ at sixty. If I can do this into my mid-fifties, another ten years, I would consider that very successful.”

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Shira Yudkoff is a freelance photographer based in Philadelphia who specializes in portraits and multimedia projects. Follow her on instagram to see her street shots @shirayudkoff.