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Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book
Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book

How Rocky Balboa Nearly Became a Member of G.I. Joe

Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book
Courtesy of Tim Finn // A Real American Book

Opening on May 22, 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II was a fantasy fever dream of jingoism, Sylvester Stallone’s titular character a monosyllabic redeemer of an America that had failed itself in Vietnam. A onetime Green Beret, Rambo needs little more than 90 minutes to rescue abandoned POWs and somehow salvage his country’s intervention in foreign affairs.

The movie made more than $300 million worldwide. Coleco, which had experienced a phenomenon with the Cabbage Patch Kids, snapped up the rights to produce a toy line. Neutered for young audiences, this Rambo practiced greater discretion, bloodlessly assaulting enemies in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Coleco hoped Rambo: The Force of Freedom would compete with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe for a share of the military-oriented action figure market. Hasbro, which wasn’t about to touch an R-rated film, decided to combat their potential toy aisle rival by enlisting Stallone’s other trademark character: slow-witted boxer Rocky Balboa.

It wasn’t the first time the company pursued a license for a figure that had been established outside of G.I. Joe continuity. Hasbro had released Sergeant Slaughter as a premium mail-away attraction in 1985, co-opting the popular professional wrestler’s recognition among WWE (then WWF) fans.

Slaughter was a success in toy, cartoon, and comic book form, helping reinvigorate a G.I. Joe line that had been on shelves since 1982—an eternity in action figure years. Hasbro hoped Balboa would do the same, aiming to release a mail-away premium figure in 1987 that would be available to customers who sent in proofs of purchase from other G.I. Joe merchandise.

Establishing Rocky’s place in the mythology of the G.I. Joe universe fell on Larry Hama, writer of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic and a frequent source for hammering out narrative points across the franchise’s many outlets. In a Marvel collection of character biographies titled G.I. Joe: Order of Battle #2, released in late 1986, Hama scripted a brief rundown (above) that presented Balboa as a combat trainer, filling obligations for his "Reserve time" by turning their hands into semi-deadly weapons.

Over at Hasbro, sculptor Bill Merklein was tasked with creating a wax prototype of the character’s action figure:

An in-house Hasbro artist created a mock-up of the card art, which featured the boxer wielding a stick with two boxing gloves attached to either end; another Hasbro designer, Mark Pennington, created the control art, which would have been used to further detail the figure. Curiously, Pennington appeared to take more design cues—headband, long hair—from Stallone’s Rambo iconography than he did Rocky's:

For kids not yet weaned on crossover movies, this was an exciting prospect: anyone picking up Order of Battle #2 probably imagined a scenario in which Ivan Drago would somehow be dragged into Joe nemesis COBRA’s operations.

But it was not to be. In the very next issue of Order of Battle, Marvel printed what must have been one of the few retractions over the appearance of a fictional character, explaining that Balboa’s debut in the previous comic had been a mistake. It was written with the sober language of someone who had just been yelled at by a lawyer.

How did this awkward partnership between fictional boxer and fictional military force dissolve? According to former Hasbro product manager Kirk Bozigian, Stallone’s representatives knocked him out of contention. “The reason Rocky was dropped from the G.I. Joe line is because his agents got greedy,” Bozigian tells mental_floss. “While we were designing and sculpting Rocky Balboa, a competing toy company, Coleco, was introducing Rambo action figures and vehicles to compete with us. The decision to drop Rocky was an easy one.”

Although they had recruited the more famous star, Coleco wound up enduring protests by antiwar groups angry that the Rambo toy line appeared to be glorifying combat. The accompanying cartoon lasted just a few months.

Stallone’s likeness has never appeared in any subsequent Joe revival, but Hasbro did wind up releasing a villain in 1987 dubbed Big Boa. Considering his boxing gloves and punching bag accessory, it’s very likely he was originally intended to be a personal nemesis for Rocky. Thanks to some legal red tape, he never got to take his swing.

All images courtesy of Tim Finn, author of the upcoming G.I. Joe history A Real American Book.

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When Topps Fought Terrorism with Trading Cards
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

On the morning of September 11, 2001, John Perillo looked out of his office window at 1 Whitehall Street in Manhattan and saw a plane flying at a dangerously low altitude. Almost instantly, his building began to shake. Seven blocks away, the plane had struck the World Trade Center.

It would be hours before Perillo and other New Yorkers were able to grasp the gravity of the situation. A terrorist attack on American soil stunned the world and created a widening panic and confusion before a kind of resolve set in. For Perillo, the vice president of operations at Topps Trading Card Company, and Topps CEO Arthur Shorin, it would become a time to memorialize the events of that day in the medium they understood best. Which is how Osama bin Laden came to have his own trading card.

Two kids sort through a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card set
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Although they were best known for sports cards, Garbage Pail Kids, and other entertainment properties, Topps had already recorded a significant history with real-world events. In 1950, they found success with a line of Korean War cards. More than a decade later, they memorialized the Civil War. A set reflecting on the life of John F. Kennedy following his assassination was released in 1964. In 1991, a line of cards depicting Operation: Desert Storm received endorsements from Colin Powell and General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Within a week of the attack on the World Trade Center, Topps executives decided to pursue another—and substantially more controversial—line based on current events. Titled Enduring Freedom, the line featured 70 cards of figures like President George W. Bush, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki, and bin Laden. There would be cards of military vehicles and weapons; on the back were biographies of political figures and descriptions of the hardware. The goal, Shorin told the press, was to give kids information about the rising conflict in a format with which they were already familiar.

"Kids need to get information on their own terms," he said. "This is their medium."

While the plan came together quickly, the company largely avoided depictions that might upset children or their parents. One card featured a smoke-filled view of the transformed Manhattan skyline, but no pictures of the destruction or rubble were considered. In a departure from conventional card sets, no "chase" cards—or rare inserts that prompt consumers to buy more packs—would be involved. There was some internal debate about including bin Laden, but the company ultimately decided that kids might want the opportunity to defile his image by ripping it up. It's the only black and white card to appear in the set.

"We wouldn't be surprised if they tear, stomp all over it, and dump it in the garbage," Shorin said.

A photo of a Topps 'Enduring Freedom' trading card wrapper
Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Enduring Freedom was released in October 2001, which marked a rapid turnaround time for the card industry. (Sets typically take months to come together.) Hobby shops and larger retail outlets like Walmart accepted shipments of the 7-card product, which sold for $2 per pack, but not everyone was comfortable monetizing the tragedy. Stores in Chicago refused to carry the line, citing concern over appearing insensitive. (An unrelated 2002 card set by Chestnut Publications eulogizing victims of the 9/11 attacks, which was created with their families' permission, drew related headlines and accompanying criticism.)

In interviews, Shorin argued that the cards and their explanation of America's military would be comforting to children: Topps had consulted with child psychologists to make sure the content was age-appropriate. Though they were reticent to publicize it, the company was also donating a portion of proceeds to relief efforts. They even shipped 1 million cards to troops stationed overseas.

Ultimately, the notion of potentially trivializing the War on Terror never caught on. Topps never released a planned second wave that would feature high-tech military hardware, a likely result of the cards selling only modestly. As one store owner pointed out, it wasn't that the cards were offensive—it's just that kids were too preoccupied with Pokemon to bother.

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When Michael Flatley Was 'Lord of the Dance'
Jo Hale, Getty Images
Jo Hale, Getty Images

In 1989, while speaking with the Chicago Tribune, a 30-year-old dancer named Michael Flatley outlined some significant plans he had for the future. Chief among them: franchising a plumbing business called Dynasewer, which he hoped would one day replace Roto-Rooter as the go-to company for desperate people with impenetrably clogged toilets.

Few people outside of the Chicago area have ever heard of Dynasewer, which tells you everything you need to know about Flatley’s grand plans. Instead of running a sewage empire, he embraced dancing, something he had loved and practiced since the age of 11. A little over six years later, he was selling millions of videos and made a fortune touring as the Irish-stepping star of Lord of the Dance.

 
 

The contrast between Flatley’s plumbing aspirations and his theatrical gifts isn’t as jarring as it might seem. Born in Chicago on July 16, 1958 to Irish immigrants, Flatley took cues from both his parents. His mother was an accomplished Irish step-dancer, which usually emphasizes a rigid torso and vertically-held arms along with rhythmic lower body choreography; his grandmother was a contest champion in their native Ireland. His father was a construction laborer and plumber who eventually owned his own contracting business. There was no reason Flatley couldn’t be inspired by both of their talents.

Dancing was an informal hobby for the young Flatley, and one he didn’t begin to take seriously until age 11—a significantly late start for step-dancers. To make up for lost time, Flatley practiced for hours every day in his family’s garage. The work paid off: At 17, he won the All-World Championships in Ireland, becoming the first American ever to do so.

While it was a commendable accomplishment, and one that surely thrilled the step-obsessed Flatleys, Irish stepping was not considered a viable option toward financial independence. For the next several years, Flatley assisted his father in construction work, digging ditches and contemplating a career in professional boxing, another physically demanding passion he had developed.

Then The Chieftains came calling. The Irish folk band was successful touring Ireland with an act that mixed traditional Celtic music with high-energy step routines, and Flatley acquitted himself well as a supporting player. He accompanied the group for four years, at the same time developing the Dynasewer brand as a financial cushion to fall back on, as he assumed his dancing career would be a short-lived endeavor. Even a Guinness World Record—which Flatley earned for tapping his feet 28 times in one second in 1989—was hard to monetize. (In 1998, he broke his own record when he reached an impressive 35 taps per second.)

Flatley’s fortunes changed in 1994, thanks to the Eurovision Song Contest. Looking to broadcast the distinctive art of Irish stepping, Flatley joined a new troupe and co-created Riverdance, a seven-minute number that broadened the appeal of his art by adding flashy costumes, a stage-filling number of backup performers, and a degree of sensuality.

Riverdance was a phenomenal ratings success, becoming the talk of that year’s Eurovision field in much the same way Michael Jackson had walked off with a televised Motown special in 1981 by debuting the Moonwalk. Almost immediately, Flatley and producers began assembling a full-length Riverdance stage show that was even more bombastic. Flatley, his exposed torso reminiscent of a flamenco dancer, led a wildly successful international tour and became one of the very few dancers recognizable to the general public—attention usually only afforded to actor-performers like Gregory Hines or Mikhail Baryshnikov.

For six months, Flatley was on top of the world. Then, the night before Riverdance was scheduled to open in London, he was fired.

 
 

According to Flatley, the acrimonious split from Riverdance was a result of the show’s unprecedented success. As the key creative force behind the scenes, the performer wanted to retain control of his choreography, a concession that the show’s producers were unwilling to make. In a show of force, they ousted their star from the stage.

Flatley’s legal response to that situation wouldn’t be resolved until 1999, when the two parties came to an undisclosed settlement. But it didn't take that long for the parties to realize that it was Flatley, and not the Riverdance banner, that audiences were flocking to see. Less than six months after his Riverdance dismissal, Flatley and new partner John Reid conceived Lord of the Dance, a brand-new stage attraction that featured a loose narrative—Flatley is a warrior up against sinister forces—and even more bombastic theatrics. (Reid and Flatley would part ways, rather acrimoniously, a couple of years later.) Flatley exuded so much energy that he claimed he lost 8 to 10 pounds during each performance (then ate “everything in sight to keep my weight up").

'Lord of the Dance' star Michael Flatley poses during a public appearance
Alaxandra Beier, Getty Images

Lord of the Dance was a staggering success, making $60 million in just two years of touring and selling 12 million copies on video. Flatley continued performing through 1998, before announcing his retirement from the show. He was nearing 40, and his back, feet, and joints had taken a significant amount of impact. He felt it was time to step away.

In 2005, the urge to perform returned, and Flatley debuted Celtic Tiger. He continued dancing through 2016, at which point, he told reporters, being the Lord of the Dance had led to diminished physical abilities. “My groin is gone,” he said. And his left foot sometimes fractures spontaneously.

Wealthy from touring, Flatley could sit idle and nurse his aching frame. Instead, he recently shot a film, Blackbird, which he directed and stars in alongside Eric Roberts. He also paints, albeit in an unconventional way: Flatley produces abstract works by dipping his feet into paint and moving them across the canvas.

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