In 1975, a middling actor from the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City began working on a script for a film about an unknown boxer from Philadelphia who made a remarkable climb to super stardom in his sport, testing but eventually falling in a valiant effort to defeat the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed.

The film, “Rocky,” like its titular protagonist, was a remarkable overnight success, earning widespread accolades and eventually winning academy awards for Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Film Editing in 1977.

Rocky was a sensation. The character was the protagonist of six feature films of his own and was the co-star of the new spin-off “Creed” series, the second film of which came out on Thanksgiving weekend.

Sylvester Stallone had stumbled across a rarity in fiction. He created a character that resonated with a wide cross-section of people, both in this country and around the world. Many identified with the central struggle of the underdog whose hard work and determination ultimately prevailed in getting him to the top. A hero who could get back up when he was knocked down. It’s also a story of how that trip to the top can come at a great personal cost.

What Stallone might never have imagined, however, is how that fictional character became the effective patron saint of Philadelphia. In the 336 years since its founding, no persona more closely represents the city of Philadelphia than Rocky.

The iconic statue that represents the boxer’s victorious stance is one of the city’s most popular pilgrim destinations. Perhaps millions of visitors have imitated the character’s run up the Art Museum steps to throw their arms up over their heads, gazing in victory down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards City Hall. So real is Rocky that his fictional wife and brother-in-law have actual gravestones in Laurel Hill Cemetery.

So, it was both shocking and saddening for many when Stallone revealed last week that he was hanging up the hat of Rocky permanently.

“I just want to thank everyone around the whole wide world for taking the Rocky family into their hearts for over 40 years,” the actor wrote on his Instagram page. “It’s been my ultimate privilege to have been able to create and play this meaningful character. Though it breaks my heart. Sadly, all things must pass…. and end.”

For more than 40 years, Philadelphians have had Rocky, a hero who embodies the city’s spirit in a way that is both remarkable and hard to explain. In the current media climate, it’s very difficult for any work of art to ever accomplish the sort of singularity that Rocky experienced in 1976. So, it’s not likely the Creed story will ever match its parent franchise, though in its hero there’s arguably just as important a hero for these times to be found – one who more suitably represents the city today.

But here’s to Stallone, Creed’s Michael B. Jordan and the other creative people involved in the Rocky story for the last 40 years. While Stallone may have retired, Philly’s patron saint will likely live on.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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