Becoming Rocky
by Bill Donahue

photography by Jody Robinson

Like all memorable characters, Mike Kunda has a terrific backstory. If he were a character in a screenplay, his biography would probably read something like this: an artistic outsider from a hardscrabble Pennsylvania town, whose big heart and even bigger imagination push him to pursue an implausible dream.

One could easily draw parallels between Kunda and the title character from Rocky, the 1977 Academy Award winner about a South Philadelphia boxer who, through determination and old-fashioned guts, “goes the distance” with the world’s greatest fighter. But there’s one big difference between the two characters: Whereas Rocky Balboa wanted only to measure himself against the charismatic champ Apollo Creed, Kunda … well, Kunda aspired to become Rocky.

“All I ever wanted was to be Rocky, so much that I would walk around school wearing the hat and the leather jacket, bouncing a rubber ball,” says Kunda, a Scranton native who now lives in Camp Hill. “I told myself I know it can’t happen, because there’s only one Rocky, and he’s not even real.”

But, just like Sylvester Stallone’s bighearted brawler, Kunda pulled off a nearly impossible feat. It took Kunda a few decades to get there, but he has, in a sense, become Rocky. Today, he is the proprietor of the “Yo, Philly! Rocky Film Tour,” which shows visitors the city as seen through Rocky Balboa’s eyes. Kunda shuttles tour participants to destinations ranging from Rocky’s Kensington haunts, to the Italian Market, to the Philadelphia Museum Art for a run up the iconic steps. Naturally, Kunda does every tour completely in character, right down to the leather jacket, fedora and his best “Yo, Adrian!”

On the Ropes
Dig a bit deeper and the 49-year-old Kunda begins to resemble Rocky in more than likeness alone. As a child, Kunda “always had this thing” for dressing up like his heroes, he says, and it wasn’t just Rocky Balboa. First came Zorro, followed by The Lone Ranger and then Superman.

“I would wear a Superman costume under my school clothes, and you could tell from five feet away I had something on beneath my flannel shirt,” he recalls. “You can imagine how understanding the kids in the schoolyard were.”

One day, after a classmate pulled off Kunda’s shirt to expose the Superman cape beneath, his worried mother told him, “Maybe don’t wear those costumes as much.” He took her advice, and for a while he was “just Mike Kunda.” Still, he took his lumps from less-than-accepting classmates. Then, when Rocky had its television premiere, Kunda found a new hero.

“I was 11 when I saw it for the first time, and as soon as those bright white letters came across the screen, my DNA was changed,” he recalls. “I took my mother’s old grease pencil and wrote ‘Italian Stallion’ across my gray sweatshirt, and of course I spelled Italian wrong.”

His grandfather, a coalminer, upgraded young Mike’s costume by giving him an old leather jacket and fedora similar to the one Rocky wore in the first film. He used the outfit as his “emotional suit of armor,” but his grandfather also told him something he didn’t want to hear: “You’re going to have to learn how to fight.”

“I had such a nice upbringing, so I never had a need for ‘The Eye of Tiger,’” he says. “My mother took me to the local karate club, and when you’re 13 and getting punched in the face nine times in 15 seconds, it’s not fun. I quit boxing in the middle of my first lesson.”

He ultimately did learn how to defend himself, and he credits his father—and, in a way, Stallone’s Rocky—for getting him there. His father bought the family a VCR, which meant the younger Kunda could watch his favorite film nonstop.

“I would watch Rocky train and fight Apollo every day, and I would emulate Rocky,” he says. “He had the worst fighting style in the history of boxing, always leaving his hands down to prove he could take a punch. But I was seeing myself standing up to the bullies and being the king of the schoolyard.”

It didn’t exactly turn out that way, he says: “I was like the Tasmanian devil—a whirling mess. What the other kids would do is stay away from me.”

Puncher’s Chance
After graduating from high school, Kunda watched his friends move on, some departing Scranton for elsewhere. Kunda, meanwhile, still had his mind set on being something he could never be. He spent several years wandering from post to post—“I had 25 jobs inside of six years,” he says—and ultimately came into the employ of a chain of optical stores. The job took him from Scranton to Camp Hill, just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg.

When Stallone announced in 2005 he’d be back in Philadelphia to film another Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa, Kunda saw an opportunity. He headed to Kensington, where the crew was supposed to be filming, figuring Stallone would be there, too. With him, Kunda brought a painting he had done of a pivotal scene from Rocky’s first fight with Apollo—the one in the 14th round during which Rocky breaks Apollo’s ribs. When Stallone made an appearance, Kunda says the painting caught Stallone’s eye, and the actor came over for a closer look.

“He asks me if I painted it, and I tell him I did,” Kunda says. “Stallone’s a full-blown artist, so he’s taking his fingertips and running them over the painting, almost as if he’s caressing a lover, and he says, ‘Do you know what this is? You’ve captured the heart and soul of Rocky. This is the first image I had in mind when I decided this is what I wanted to do.’ It always shook me that my favorite image from the movie was his first image.”

Stallone signed the painting and moved on. But it wasn’t the only time the two would cross paths.

Kunda became a regular at the Victor Café in South Philadelphia, which doubles as Adrian’s restaurant in Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the Rocky franchise. He became such a fixture, in fact, that one of the restaurant’s owners called Kunda with a scoop: Stallone would soon be coming to the restaurant to celebrate his 60th birthday. Long story short, Kunda and his wife went to the restaurant that night and wound up getting seated an arm’s length from Stallone’s table. Even better, the restaurant’s maître d’— another friend of Kunda’s— set up an informal meeting with Stallone outside.

“I know Sly is human, and he’s as flawed as any of us, but here he is, standing in front of me: the man I measured my life against for 25 years,” Kunda recalls. “My wife comes out to take a picture of us, and he puts his arm around me. … Then, in my best Rocky voice, I say, ‘Yo, Adrian.’ I could have ruined the night right there, but he looks at me, stone faced, for about four seconds, and then he starts doing his Rocky—so now both of us are doing our favorite Rocky lines in Rocky’s voice.”

Stallone then said something Kunda took to heart: “You look like me 30 years ago. You should do something with that.” They shared a few more words before heading back inside, Stallone’s arm across Kunda’s shoulder, where the birthday celebration continued.

A few weeks later, Kunda received a call from the organizers of a Rocky look-alike contest as part of Philly Loves Rocky Week, saying he was a contest finalist. But funny thing: He hadn’t even entered. That photo his wife snapped of him and Stallone at the Victor Café? As a thank-you gift, she sent it to the folks at the restaurant, who, in turn, sent it to the contest organizers. Kunda wound up winning the contest—and the grand prize: a trip to the Philadelphia premiere of Rocky Balboa, where he got to walk the red carpet along with the stars of the film.

Kunda wound up following the advice Stallone gave him that night outside of the Victor Café. The art of impersonating Rocky has since become a full-time gig for Kunda, who still lives in Camp Hill, though he says he’s in the process of moving closer. He makes the 90-minute commute to Philly almost daily. In the busy season, he does 35 to 40 tours per month, sometimes two per day, on top of appearances at conventions, conferences and other special events, as well as charity work.

One More Round
Kunda’s curious obsession recently became the subject of The Pretender, a documentary from Detroit-based FREE AGE Productions. Told by Director Jim Toscano and Editor Danny Gianino, The Pretender grew out of a chance meeting between Toscano and Kunda on a Kensington street corner during the filming of Rocky Balboa. At the time, Toscano was a part-time filmmaker who thought Kunda’s story would make a good “five-minute film.” His perspective changed as he got to know Kunda better, especially after talking with Kunda’s parents, Mike Sr. and Dee.

“What struck me was how serious his parents took him and his passion,” Toscano says. “They were always worried about him … but they were always supportive and always super proud of him. The love was just pouring out of his parents.”

Toscano thinks people will be surprised by the gravity of the film.

“It’s a serious story,” he says. “It’s sort of like a Rorschach test, because how you feel about the film seems to say a lot about the person who’s watching it; someone might gravitate toward the line where Mike talks about following your dreams, and someone else might say he’s a nut-job. He has the passion that everybody would be lucky to have. … Once you spend a weekend with Mike, it makes you want to reconnect with your own passions.”

Toscano remembers a conversation with Kunda and his wife, Sue, that made its way into the nearly hour-long film. He essentially asks them if they ever consider the “opportunity cost” of Kunda having spent so much time and energy trying to become Rocky. He paraphrases Kunda’s response: “Rather than doing what? Being an accountant? Being a doctor? No, I don’t want to do that. Everyone has their own idea of crazy, but that, to me, seems insane.”

FREE AGE will host a special screening of The Pretender in Detroit on Nov. 16, and Toscano says he expects to have a similar viewing event in Philadelphia or Scranton. Ultimately, though, he hopes to get the documentary into the film-festival circuit.

As for Kunda, he takes it all in stride.

“I can honestly tell you, I learned more from Rocky than from any school lesson I ever had,” says Kunda. “Rocky taught me you never have a choice other than to try, and I learned that it’s OK to fail. In fact, that’s when we learn our most poignant lessons. I like to think I failed forward.”

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, November, 2017.