Before Mr. T as Clubber Lang and Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips were even a thought in Stallone’s head, he pictured Rocky traveling to Rome for a fight in front of a record worldwide audience. Telling Roger Ebert in a 1979 tell-all interview:
“Can you see it? Rocky in the Coliseum? The last gladiator? And, for training, running up the Spanish Steps? And, Rocky’s deeply religious. Can you imagine him inside St. Peter’s? I’m seriously gonna try to work in an audience with the Pope into the film. I dunno. Maybe with this Pope, he’ll go for it. If he don’t, we get another Pope.”
In 1979, Pope John Paul II made his first pilgrimage to the United States, causing a national fervor. He was greeted by President Jimmy Carter during a trip that started to resemble a rock tour. Stallone must have been a little caught up with the idea of having this new, cooler Pope appear in “Rocky III.”
Seeing a street-smart Rocky as a fish-out-of-water traipsing around Europe learning about the culture could have led to some funny moments, admittedly. That’s not necessarily a bad idea. But having Rocky die at the end of “Rocky III” would have been, which is exactly what Stallone was mulling over.