Even a great movie or TV show isn't above throwing in one ridiculous, larger-than-life character who almost ruins any element of realism in the plot. The genius who's too smart, the hero who's too cool, the rebel who breaks the rules but somehow never gets punished for it.
Hey, you know where else you find ridiculous characters like that? Real life.
The Ridiculous Premise
We're so used to Sylvester Stallone playing sneering, invincible killing machines that we forget that the whole point of Rocky was that the guy was a vulnerable, everyday schlub who worked odd jobs because he stunk at boxing. Hell, half of you reading this probably only saw the sequels and don't even realize the original Rocky ended with him losing the match.
Despite punching so much meat
No, the inspirational -- and laughably unrealistic -- part of the story was that this Philadelphia doofus and part-time boxer somehow got a shot at the flamboyant world champ, knocked him down, then went toe-to-toe for the duration of the fight, taking the best the champ could dish out. At the end, Rocky's face is a swollen, bloody mess, but he hangs tough and for one night proved he could hang with the best.
The real guy's name was Chuck Wepner. In 1975 he was a liquor salesman in New Jersey by day, boxer by night. And he got the same deal as Rocky. A lottery ticket of a fight that, if he won, would make him the champion of the world. It was considered such a big deal at the time that Wepner made the cover of Sports Illustrated, despite the fact that he looked like this:
"Take some of the light off his face? Or maybe throw a bag over it?"
Remember how by the end of his climactic fights, Rocky's face always looked like an animal you've never seen before had been run over by a truck? And the unrealistic amounts of blood leaping off of Rocky's face in slow motion every time he got punched? Wepner's boxing nickname was "The Bayonne Bleeder" because his face would spurt blood pretty much the moment a boxing glove touched it (Wepner had more than 300 stitches in his face -- he was apparently not the most elusive boxer of his era).
Instead of Apollo Creed, Wepner simply had to face one of the best boxers in the history of human civilization - Muhammad Ali. The champ wanted an easy fight as a warm-up to a real match later, so we're guessing he was looking at a list and picking between "The Bayonne Bleeder" and a guy named "Brittle Ribs Ranalli." Ali and Wepner would split the purse 94% to 6% in Ali's favor.
Just as in Rocky, Ali toyed with Wepner early on and just as in the film, Wepner knocked Ali down, shocking the boxing world.
And seriously, look at the guy
Ali got up, and spent the rest of the fight using Wepner's face as a speed bag. But just like Rocky, Wepner would not go down. Finally, in the 15th and final round, the refs stopped the fight. Wepner's face looked worse than Rocky's -- he'd need 23 stitches after it was over. But he stayed on his feet.
A young Sylvester Stallone watched that match on TV, and immediately pounded out the screenplay for Rocky, spawning an Academy award-winning film, five sequels and an entire generation of scrappy underdog protagonists in sports movies. Wepner would live on in obscurity, only capturing the public eye when he emerged from retirement years later to fight a Soviet superman and single-handedly end the cold war.
The Ridiculous Premise
Two things about the character of Sherlock Holmes clearly mark him as the figment of a writer's imagination:
A) His nearly magical crime-solving skills, including the ability to glance at a stain on the carpet and from that somehow deduce the killer's height, weight, age and current location;
B) The fact that he's not a cop but is allowed to solve crimes because he's so awesome at it.
"Don't argue. Clearly, I have the best hat."
That second one is something you might not have caught if you haven't read the stories. Holmes doesn't work for the police department, he doesn't have a badge and he has no authority to make arrests. In the stories, people hire him as a private investigator, and Scotland Yard calls him in to work under the table on cases that were too difficult to solve.
And according to Guy Ritchie's version, he was handy in cases that involved homoerotic pit fighting.
It's a classic fantasy of the armchair amateur sitting in his drawing room, puffing on a pipe and solving puzzles that baffle the professionals. And about as likely as those novels about crime-solving cats.
Sherlock Holmes, and basically every other character like him, ever can be traced back to this dude:
That's Eugene Francois Vidocq, the guy who invented modern criminology and who was, by the way, the world's first private detective. Before forensic science existed, the guy had his own laboratory -- he invented chemicals to detect forged documents and came up with the technique of making plaster casts of footprints. It is claimed that the guy was studying musket balls to match them to a murder weapon more than a decade before the science we now know as ballistics was even invented.
He created the first "database" of criminals and their modus operandi on organized index cards. Not that he needed them -- he is said to have memorized the face and details of every single bad guy he ran across.
How Holmes-esque was the guy? Police claimed that Vidocq showed up at the scene of a burglary in 1831, glanced at the damage done to the door and immediately told them the name of the thief. And he was right.
But the manner in which he got that job in the first place is even more ridiculous. On one hand, it's true that Vidocq studied crime his whole adult life. On the other, those studies consisted of being a criminal. Finally, at age 34, he found himself in prison and agreed to turn informant for the police, who hid his early release by staging an elaborate fake escape. Seriously, with everything this guy did, you can perfectly picture a glib Robert Downey Jr. in his place.
Turns out this film was pretty accurate.
Once back in the world, Vidocq put together his own private group of undercover detectives -- most of whom were ex-cons like himself -- and went about solving crimes, Holmes-style. Vidocq was a master of disguise and would slip into criminal gangs under fake identities. Which is to say, he revolutionized the concept of going undercover. By 1817, he and his crew were catching more than 800 criminals a year (compare that to Holmes' leisurely pace). By that point, the police were so impressed (and somewhat pissed off by how bad he was making them look) that they put his team (of ex-criminals, mind you) on the payroll. But he still took private cases on the side, and in 1833, he started the world's first private detective agency.
Today his legacy is carried on by the Vidocq Society, a club of crime experts who get together in their spare time and solve cases just for the hell of it. One 1984 murder went unsolved for 14 years until the club got a hold of it. Sixteen months later, the killer was getting sentenced to life in prison without parole.