The former champion lies battered and bruised on the canvas, belted to the ground by a faster opponent with a chip on his shoulder.
Months of conditioning and reconditioning, a complete change in attitude and approach has led him precisely where he was the last time he battled this challenger — flat on his back.
In the stands, his family covers their eyes and screams, “Stop the fight!”
Not this time.
The former champion gets to his feet and wades back in. More blows rain down.
The former champion takes each shot, staggers, but doesn’t fall. Instead he taunts his opponent. “You ain’t so bad. You ain’t so bad. I ain’t even breathing hard.”
The champ takes punch after punch, daring the opponent to knock him out.
The ex-champ goes on the attack and fells his opponent with a barrage of shots to the head.
Music swells, his family rushes to the ring. “Are you all right?”
“Never better,” he replies. “Never better.”
The script for the final fight scene in “Rocky III”? Oh yes.
Also a fitting parallel to Auburn’s 41-30 win over West Virginia last night.
Cast Auburn in the role of Rocky Balboa, the former heavyweight champion. After ascending to the top of the sport, Balboa grows less focused. His skills diminished.
Like Balboa, the Auburn Tigers reached the height of the game in 2004 but had been slowly slipping since.
If Auburn is Balboa, West Virginia takes on the role of James “Clubber” Lang.
The first time Balboa and Lang clash in “Rocky III”, the challenger is an underdog despite Balboa’s lackluster performances. Lang stuns Balboa, breaking his will, knocking him out and destroying the champion in humiliating fashion.
The first time Auburn and West Virginia dueled last year, the Mountaineers humbled the Tigers, 34-17, with a second-half offensive barrage that left Auburn broken and battered.
In the aftermath of the first Balboa-Lang fight, Rocky loses his beloved manager. He connects with an old friend who retools his training regimen, reshapes his approach and turns him into a different fighter.
When the clock hit zero in Morgantown, W.Va., a year ago, the career of respected Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was effectively over. The Auburn Tigers connected with former defensive coordinator Gene Chizik who retooled the Tigers, brought in a different offensive philosophy under new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and have turned the Tigers into a different team.
As the climactic battle unfolds in “Rocky III,” Lang hammers Balboa early, dropping him to the canvas twice and leading his wife, Adrian, to cover her eyes and beg for the fight to end.
In the first quarter last night, West Virginia punished Auburn with a long pass to set up one score and a breakaway run for another. Before the Tigers could blink, they were in a 14-0 hole. In the stands, fans who had braved nearly 4 inches of rain and an hour delay were distraught.
Balboa rallies in the movie, daring Lang to hit him again and again, taking his best shots. In the corner, his trainer urges him “Eye of the tiger, Rock. Take it to him, eye of the tiger.”
Auburn refused to quit. The Tigers took shot after shot but would not back down.
“You ain’t so bad. You ain’t so bad.”
When West Virginia had given Auburn all it had, the Tigers struck back.
Eye of the tiger.
As Rocky begins his comeback, Adrian leaps to her feet and begins to chant “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky …”
As Auburn delivered the knockout blow, Tiger fans picked up the chant, “It’s great to be an Auburn Tiger.”
Are you all right Auburn?
Never better. Never better.
In addition to writing and taking photos for The War Eagle Reader, Kevin Strickland serves as the sports editor for the Pickens County Herald, a weekly newspaper in West Alabama where he has covered high school and college sports for the past 15 years. In his career as a sportswriter, he has covered 12 state championship teams; followed the careers of three local football players who starred at college and played in the NFL and covered two local baseball players who played in the majors. He has won numerous Alabama Press Association writing awards including being named the state’s Best Sports Column in 2004.