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What Happened To Adrian In Rocky - Her Life And Off-Screen Death Explained

The "Rocky" movies are well-known for their assortment of eccentric characters, from the grumbly Mickey (Burgess Meredith) to the spit-talking Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). However, quite possibly the most significant character in the over-45-year-old franchise outside of the titular boxer himself (Sylvester Stallone) is Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire). While not as big or bold in personality as those around her, Adrian plays a key role in motivating Rocky to go the distance. 

But she, too, undergoes a major transformation throughout the series. Starting off as a pet store employee with little to no confidence, it is through Rocky's non-judgemental love and her own agency that Adrian pushes past these barriers in order to fight her own battles. Whether she's taking care of her son, standing up to her abusive brother, Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), or talking sense into Rocky, Adrian has been able to hold her own through every up and down with the same never-say-never attitude of her husband. Sadly, she wouldn't be able to fully enjoy her golden years alongside Rocky, as Adrian dies of cancer much later on. Unsurprisingly, the untimely passing leaves a hole in Rocky's heart, but even then, he still finds ways of honoring her legacy and fighting on. 

Adrian left an undeniable impact on both Rocky's life and the iconic franchise as a whole. So it's time we take a look back at Adrian's life to better understand the legacy she left behind. 

Rocky helped her come out of her shell

At the start of 1976's "Rocky," Adrian lives with her alcoholic brother Paulie in Kensington, Philadelphia. During the day, she works at the local pet store, where she often encounters Rocky, who comes in to buy food for his turtles and interact with the animals. While there, he tells Adrian jokes and tries starting a conversation with her, but to little avail, as her shy personality halts her from fully warming up to him. It isn't until Thanksgiving that the two share any time outside of the pet store after Paulie forces her to leave the house and go on a date with Rocky. They spend some time at an empty ice skating rink, where Adrian opens up about her insecurities, stemming from her parents who told her she'd only make it using her wits instead of any physical capabilities. She later visits Rocky's apartment and despite her initial hesitation, kisses Rocky. 

Their relationship only grows as Rocky prepares for his fight with Apollo Creed. Adrian gives Rocky a dog, Butkus, to keep him company during his training and even stands up to a drunken Paulie at one point when he harasses them, telling him that she isn't a loser. At the end of the fight, the two find each other in the midst of the chaotic crowd and share a hearty embrace. Having conquered their battles, the two can now take on whatever life has to throw at them as long as they're together. 

Adrian and Rocky get married

After his legendary fight with Apollo Creed, Rocky announces his plans to retire in "Rocky II." With the money he has received from the fight, he and Adrian start their life together, beginning with Rocky proposing to her at the zoo. From there, he spoils her with expensive gifts and buys a lavish home, which quickly begins to eat away at their finances. To top it off, Adrian is pregnant with their first child. 

Rocky decides to take Apollo's offer for a rematch while Adrian goes to work at the pet store again to help make ends meet. Here, Paulie finds her in pain and she slips into a coma. Adrian is taken to a hospital where, despite giving birth to a premature, yet healthy Rocky Jr., she remains unconscious. Rocky halts his training to stay by her side, where he is accompanied by Mickey and Paulie, refusing to even see the baby until she is well again. 

Thankfully, she eventually awakens and the couple gets to see and name their newborn child. Even despite all that's happened and her own fears for Rocky's safety, Adrian encourages him to fight and win in his upcoming fight against Creed. While unable to attend the fight in person this time around, Adrian and Paulie continue to support the Italian Stallion by watching his match on television. After his victory, Rocky gives a heartfelt shoutout to his wife, saying, "Yo Adrian, I did it!"

Adrian talked some sense into Rocky

Much like the previous installments, Adrian's support is crucial for Rocky's eventual success in "Rocky III." But now, having gone through some significant development, she gives a different kind of aid to Rocky that opens his eyes to his own insecurities. 

In the film, after discovering that most of his opponents since Apollo Creed have been hand-picked by Mickey, Rocky aims to prove himself by going up against the raging Clubber Lang (Mr. T), who has been threatening Balboa for a fight for some time. However, following Mickey's untimely death on the day of the fight, Rocky loses his championship belt in a quick and humiliating defeat to Lang. Apollo Creed allows Rocky to train at his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, but even there, Rocky struggles to focus and make progress for his rematch. 

That is until Adrian steps in. While on the beach with Rocky, she tries getting to the root of his problems, to which Rocky reveals that he's afraid of losing all he has accumulated over the years. To Adrian, however, none of that matters. She expresses that, like his victories in the past, all that should count now is how much he wants this for himself. From there, Rocky is able to train with a focused mind and defeats Lang, thanks in large part to Adrian's undying strength and loyalty. 

She supported Rocky through his toughest battle

While Adrian has had her fair share of concerns over some of Rocky's previous fights, few opponents have birthed worry in her like the one in "Rocky IV." Adrian expresses her concern initially when Apollo Creed shares his plans to fight the Soviet Union's Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in an exhibition fight. In this instance, her instincts prove to be right, as Drago's overwhelming power brings a brutal and swift end to Apollo's life. 

Rocky, angered by the cold reaction from the Russians regarding Apollo's death, chooses to challenge Drago to a fight set in Russia on Christmas Day. From there, he, Paulie, and Apollo's former trainer, Tony Evers (Tony Burton), make the trip to the Soviet Union where they plan on training. At first, Adrian stays home as she is not in favor of Rocky taking such a risk. It doesn't take too long into his training, however, for Adrian to make an appearance, with her promising to be by his side no matter what. While not her most substantial role in the series, Adrian's part further helps express the film's message about seeing change as a good thing, even when the odds seem impossible. 

Adrian returned to her old stomping grounds

Adrian and Rocky have both faced plenty of obstacles in life, as well as in the ring. But "Rocky V" perhaps gave them their biggest challenge yet. Upon returning home from Russia, it is discovered that Paulie messed with the family's finances by giving power of attorney to Rocky's accountant. Adrian urges Rocky to go to a doctor before fighting again, where it is discovered that he has sustained severe brain damage from his brutal battle with Ivan Drago. She manages to persuade him to retire from boxing, worrying more about his health than any future money issues. 

The family moves back to Rocky's old Philadelphia neighborhood. To help support the family, Adrian starts working again at the pet store, much to Rocky's dismay. She also contends with the ruthless boxing promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), who constantly attempts to get Rocky out of retirement and exploit him. While Rocky is busy training up-and-coming boxer Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), he abandons the needs of his son (Sage Stallone), leading to a big blowout during the holidays. Adrian once again helps Rocky come back to his senses, noting that his efforts with Gunn have resulted in his son becoming withdrawn from the family. As this marks Adrian's final appearance in the franchise, the powerful scene brings her arc to a heartfelt and meaningful conclusion. 

Rocky made sure to honor his late wife

Over a decade after the events of "Rocky V," things have changed quite a bit for the Italian Stallion. Perhaps the most significant change in his life in 2006's "Rocky Balboa" is that Adrian has been dead for the last four years due to ovarian cancer. The memory of her remains strong for Rocky, however, as his Italian restaurant, Adrian's, is named after his late wife. In both "Balboa" and the first two "Creed" movies, Rocky continues to visit Adrian's — and later Paulie's — gravesite, oftentimes telling them what's happening in his life and bringing gifts. 

Fans may be curious as to why Adrian's character was killed off in "Rocky Balboa." Given that Talia Shire is still living and other characters such as Paulie and Tony show up in the film, it would seem natural for Adrian to stand by Rocky's side during his final match. But, in fact, it was the opposite. Writer and director Sylvester Stallone struggled to find an organic place for her in the story. 

Speaking with USA Today, Stallone explained, "In the original script [for 'Rocky Balboa'], she was alive. But it just didn't have the same dramatic punch. I thought, 'What if she's gone?' That would cut Rocky's heart out and drop him down to ground zero." 

Adrian may have not been able to follow Rocky into the new millennia, but her impact nevertheless lives on through the beating heart of the enduring franchise.