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How Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky IV" Co-Star Put Him in the Hospital for 9 Days

Dolph Lundgren accidentally seriously hurt the star during their fight scene.

The antagonist of Rocky IV, the towering Ivan Drago, was the perfect villain for the political climate of 1985. An imposing vision of Soviet might, he faced off against the scrappy, upstart Rocky, a working class champion from Philly, their roles mirroring the U.S.'s vision of itself: the anyone-can-make-it American dream versus the rigid uniformity of communism—never mind that the actor who played Drago to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky, Dolph Lundgren, is Swedish.

Of course Rocky triumphs over Drago in the movie's final fight, but behind-the-scenes, Stallone wasn't so lucky. Keep reading to learn how Lundgren accidentally put his co-star into the hospital for nine days while filming that climactic showdown.

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Lundgren was a European karate champion before becoming an actor.

Dolph Lundgren in 1990
Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

Before he was an internationally known actor, Lundgren was a champion martial artist. He grew up with a father who was demanding and physically abusive, circumstances he believes pushed him to get involved in contact sports like karate and boxing, according to a biography on his personal website. By age 23, he had become a European champion in Kyokushin karate.

Around the same time, he was pursuing a master's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Sydney in Australia and moonlighting as a bouncer at nightclubs. It was while on the job that he was spotted by model and singer Grace Jones, who hired him as a bodyguard. The two ended up becoming romantically involved, leading him to be cast in a small role in one of Jones' next project, the 1985 James Bond thriller A View to a Kill.

RELATED: Joe Manganiello Says Spider-Man Crew Member Offered Him $100 to Really Punch Tobey Maguire.

He beat out 5,000 other actors to play Ivan Drago.

When Lundgren found out Stallone was casting a wide net to find the right actor to play the villain in Rocky IV, a statuesque boxer from the Soviet Union, he campaigned for six months to land the role, and was initially rejected for being too tall.

Stallone explained in the 2021 behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of Rocky Vs. Drago: Keep Punching (as recounted by Screen Rant) that seeing Lundgren's headshot actually spurred him to rethink the entire film. He reimagined the villain, taking Drago from "an ape … huge, primitive, terrifying" to a more refined embodiment of physical perfection—his "flawless" physique standing in stark contrast to Stallone/Rocky's own awkwardness and flaws, the director said.

Once cast, Lundgren worked out and practiced boxing and fight choreography for five months to prepare for the role, he told Muscle & Fitness magazine.

Stallone told Lundgren to ignore the fight choreography.

Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV
MGM/UA Entertainment Co.

Stallone served as writer, director, and star of Rocky IV—his third time helming an installment in the series of boxing dramas, and his fifth film overall as director. Hoping to offer audiences a visceral experience, while filming his first fight scene with Lundgren, Stallone instructed his co-star to ignore the fight choreography they had rehearsed so that it would appear more realistic, according to a 35th anniversary retrospective published by The Hollywood Reporter.

"Just go out there and try to clock me," Stallone told Lundgren, as recounted by the magazine. "For the first minute of the fight, it is going to be a free-for-all."

During filming, Lundgren landed an uppercut on Stallone that, unbeknownst to either of them, did real damage to the star.

Stallone later realized he'd been seriously injured.

Sylvester Stallone in 1985
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

"In the first round, where [Lundgren] knocked me down, that is for real," Stallone recalled in 2020 while promoting a reissued director's cut of the film, as quoted by the Daily Mail. "'He pulverized me and I did not feel it at that moment, but later that night my heart started to swell. He had bruised the pericardial sac, which is when the heart hits the chest—like in a car accident when your chest hits the steering wheel."

The injury was serious enough that Stallone had to be admitted to the hospital—and things could have gone very badly. "My blood pressure went up to 260," Stallone explained. "They thought I was going to be talking to angels."

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Lundgren had no idea what had happened until later.

Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren in 2015
Todd Williamson/Getty Images

"We shot the last fight first and then the producer called me and said 'Well, you got two weeks off,'" Lundgren remembered in a 2024 interview with Fox News. When he asked why, he learned that Stallone had been sent to the hospital.

"He was directing, acting, fighting me, who was 10 years younger … fighting me 12 hours a day, and directing, and producing, and writing," Lundgren continued. "I think he was under a lot of pressure and stress. We both got hit. Someone named Ivan Drago punched him in the ribs and bruised his heart muscle."

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Stallone ultimately spent nine days in the hospital recovering from his injury, then returned to finish the film. And there were no hard feelings with Lundgren—not only does he co-star with Stallone in The Expendables franchise, he also reprised the role of Ivan Drago in 2018's Creed II.

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Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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