Ivan Drago. It's a name synonymous with raw villainy. And why shouldn't it be? Drago is the man who beat Apollo Creed to death in a non-title boxing exhibition, and when questioned about Creed's fate as he entered his final throes, famously uttered "If he dies, he dies." It's colder than a Russian winter, and it fuels the story of Rocky IV. Yet, when the film reaches the climactic battle, I find myself rooting for Drago. Sure, he seems villainous, but I happen to think he's merely misunderstood. Furthermore, I think the real villain here is Rocky himself. Heresy, I know, but it's not an unfounded claim. Let's start at the beginning.
1. The Americans are Jerks.
Ivan Drago and company come to America with a single goal: to show the world that Russia deserves to compete in the world of boxing. Cold War tensions aside, there is nothing villainous about it. They merely wish to exhibit the skills of an athlete who they feel has earned his place, and to do so they wish to stage a no-stakes exhibition with Apollo Creed. During the press conference, the Russian camp is nothing if not respectful. They are quiet, assured, and happy to let any smack-talk glance off of their shoulders, which is a good thing because the Americans act like a bunch of cocky jerks. The Russians are openly mocked, and their entire culture is expressly deemed inferior by everyone on the American side, including Rocky. It's a huge ego-trip, and it feels yucky. But when it comes to ego-trips, nothing beats...
2. Apollo Creed's behavior is a huge problem.
On the night of Creed v Drago, Creed stages a live James Brown performance as his ring entrance. No, Creed doesn't just walk to the ring to the sounds of Living in America. He takes to the stage alongside James Brown and they perform the song together, with Creed decked out in his signature Uncle Sam outfit. While showboating is nothing new for Apollo Creed, this extremely gratuitous performance is way too much, and comes across as jingoistic bullying. During this insanity, Drago just silently awaits the bell, unaffected by Creed's tomfoolery. Even as Creed mocks and antagonizes his opponent directly, the Drago maintains his cool. Ask yourself, if any real-life boxer entered the ring like this, wouldn't you kinda be hoping that he gets beaten to death, or at least close to it?
3. "If he dies, he dies" is misunderstood.
After being beaten to a pulp, it becomes clear that Apollo Creed might not survive. When asked about the boxer's fate, Ivan Drago (who knows very little English) states his famous line. Most seem to read it as "Good, let him die, who cares?" but I think it's just a language barrier issue. To me, it sounds like Drago means to say "I am but a boxer, not a doctor, and one of the risks we pugilists take as a matter of course is that of severe injury, and sometimes death. Yes, my esteemed opponent may expire, but this is not something over which I have any control, nor is it something over which I should harbor any guilt, as I was just doing my job."
4. Rocky's motivation is false to his character.
Rocky, despite being a bit dimwitted, has been educated by experience, and is absolutely not the type to do anything out of vengeance. When he initially agreed to train Creed for his bout with Drago, he questions Creed's own motivation, asserting that it should not be about beating Russia, but rather about Creed being his best self. Rocky has always been, since day one, competing against himself. Yes, victory is nice, but even a loss is satisfactory if he knows he gave his all. In fact, if the franchise has a thesis statement, it is precisely that. But Rocky's fight with Drago exists solely out of vengeance. While it could certainly be argued that Rocky feels guilt over having abstained from throwing in Creed's towel, guilt does not lead to one standing on a Russian mountain top yelling "DRAGOOOOOOO! DRAGOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"
This is not Rocky. This is a monster.
5. Rocky leaves his son home alone on Christmas in the care of a robot.
It's as simple as that. Rocky, Paulie, and eventually Adrian spend Christmas in Russia while their young son watches the fight on TV back in the states. We can clearly see that Paulie's robot is left in charge. This is just terrible parenting, and all in the name of vengeance. Sorry, but the Rocky I know would never EVER abandon family, especially not on Christmas, and robotics in 1985 were just not advanced enough for proper childcare (although it does seem abundantly clear that Paulie has a pretty, um, adult relationship with the thing).
Sure, Drago's training montage shows that he uses steroids, but this manufactured "evil" is simply not enough to outweigh the despicable behaviors of the Americans, or of Rocky himself. We are all human, and we all falter, and As such I forgive The Italian Stallion's transgressions, but in Rocky IV, he deserved to lose.