I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Rocky III

tn_rockyiiiSome important and possibly relevant events happened in the world during the three years between ROCKY II and ROCKY III. Disco records were blown up at baseball games, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong were released, some motherfucker shot J.R. and the U.S. boycotted the Olympics in Moscow. Minutes after Ronald Reagan (THE KILLERS) was sworn into office the Iran hostages were totally coincidentally released, and the next day the first DeLorean DMC-12 was built. Later MTV went on the air. All the sudden it was 1982.

Movies had been changing too. ROCKY was the biggest movie of ’76, but of course ’77 brought us STAR WARS, and since then we’d also had THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It would be quite some time before another drama was the #1 movie of a year (not until RAIN MAN in 1989 I believe).

The ROCKY series evolves with the times, and the transition to the ’80s is a drastic one. After the traditional Bill Conti fanfare (title scrolling over championship belt) and end-of-the-last-one recap we get a moment of contemplation and then… jugga jugga jugga jugga BRRRMMMMP!…BRRMMP BRRMMP BRRMMP! electric guitars and fireworks. “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor is as purely, un-self-consciously motivational-speakerish as “Gonna Fly Now,” and even more audaciously grooving and tackily emblematic of its era. The song is so ridiculous it’s kind of a betrayal of the dirty, street level reality of the series so far, but it’s dead perfect for this slick new ROCKY of the aerobics-and-American-flags Reagan years.

The training and fighting montages were hallmarks of ROCKY and ROCKY II, so it’s fitting that III kicks off with a tour-de-force montage depicting Rocky’s reign as heavyweight champ after defeating Apollo Creed. The entire 5+ minutes of “Eye of the Tiger” play out under Rocky’s headlines, magazine covers, appearance on The Muppet Show, etc. His part II attempts to improve his reading skills seem to have paid off with many spokesperson gigs, and he and Adrian and Rocky Jr. (Ian Fried, voice of Timothy, THE SECRET OF NIMH) seem to be enjoying their riches much like the Creed family before them. Except Paulie looks resentful and keeps swigging out of his bottle.

mp_rockyiiiMeanwhile there’s a fierce-looking up-and-comer out there, Clubber Lang (introducing Mr. T), popping in and out of the montage like a shark in the water. The camera does Bruce Lee zoom-ins on him as he sits at the title matches eyeing Rocky like a predator stalking his prey. That’s why I had to mention MTV – this is a movie that introduces its antagonist halfway through a song montage! That is crazy. It starts to show Clubber taking out his opponents in clips and headlines. And while he’s jogging in the streets like Rocky used to do, Rocky is signing autographs or filming an American Express commercial. The champ gets a motorcycle for Christmas, does ads for DeLorean and Maserati, is on the cover of GQ, has his own candy bar called “Crunch Punch.”

What I’m getting at is Rocky is no longer the underdog. Now he has a pinball machine based on his life, seen at the arcade between the dragon one and the Playboy one. Paulie stumbles in, drunk and resentful, and throws a bottle through it. Rocky has to come bail him out.

When we get our first clear look at Part III Rocky it is shocking. He doesn’t even look like the same person. As Paulie says, “You get your face all fixed up. Handsome. Nice clothes.” He doesn’t mention the haircut. This is carefully sculpted ’80s Stallone, and though in many ways this is one of the most enjoyable of the series it’s also the one where he seems the least like Rocky, and the most like Generic Stallone Character. It’s not just his looks, it’s his composure. He doesn’t get as much time to be goofy. He doesn’t babble as much. Sometimes I wondered if he was actually Rambo undercover as Rocky.

New Rocky has been around long enough for ten successful title defenses, and now he’s mixing things up with a charity fight against the wrestling champion Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan, a year before the first reported cases of Hulkamania). Mickey thinks he’s crazy for doing it, which you’d think they would’ve discussed before standing in the ring during the introductions. At first I wondered how they were gonna do this – are they gonna pretend that wrestling is real, as you did back then? They wisely go with the angle that Thunderlips is defending the tradition of kayfabe by beating up the boxer to prove that wrestling is real. But then he’s doing pro-wrestling moves, including body pressing Rocky and throwing him out of the ring into the crowd, so there is not as much credibility here as there could be. (I know Stallone says he hurt him real bad, but he hurt him in the way that wrestling moves hurt. In the movie they’re supposed to be having a real fight.)

I remember when THE DARK KNIGHT RISES came out Chris Rock compared it to ROCKY III. I’m not really sure where he gets that exactly, but the way Clubber challenges Rocky is very Bane-like. He pops up out of the crowd at a ceremony to unveil Rocky’s statue at the art museum. Rocky is trying to announce his retirement and this angry dude comes out disrespecting him and his wife. Clubber is a great villain because he has that crazy Mr. T style (more menacing than lovable at that point) yet he finds some way to blend into the crowd and keep an eye on things until he decides to call attention to himself. Also because most of his dialogue is great trash talk. Of course there’s his famous prediction for the fight (“PAIN!”), but my favorite is probly “I reject the challenge because Balboa is no challenge, but I’ll be more than happy to beat up on him some more.” And also I forgot that Mr. T’s catch phrase “I pity the fool” came from this. His whole career is a ROCKY III reference.

I need to take a tangent here for a second to say that I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of Mr. T. Here’s a guy who had a career as a bodyguard, but cultivated his own personal style and gimmicky tough guy talk in a weird enough way that people started to notice him, including Stallone seeing him on TV and putting him in this movie. And then once he became a TV star all his eccentricities and catch phrases just got accepted into the culture without context and we assumed they made sense. He had his stint in wrestling (Roddy Piper hated him) and like a wrestling heel, or like Godzilla, he got popular enough that he had to turn into a good guy. So the persona we mainly know him for is not the guy that’s gonna kill ya to death, it’s the friendly giant who hangs out with kids, gives them inspirational advice and does what he can to stop their community center from getting shut down.

If you get a kick out of goofy ’80s pop culture curiosities, you absolutely must check out the VHS tape Mr. T’s Be Somebody Or Be Somebody’s Fool. It’s an inspirational tape with skits and songs, mostly involving T badly rapping lyrics written by Ice-T about respecting your mother and stuff like that. It’s pretty much for sure by far the greatest version of this type of thing ever. I’m also kind of into his cartoon, where he travels around the country as the coach of a young gymnastics team and solves mysteries. In fact, nobody steal this idea, but I have this pipe dream that if I ever wanted to do a podcast it would be called “T Time With Vern” where I would watch the episodes of the cartoon with people from the cities where they take place and then we talk about the episode and their city. The best version of this though would be if I actually recorded the episodes in the cities in question. So keep this idea on the shelf for when I have ROCKY III money.

Anyway, the thing is, Clubber is an asshole, but he happens to be right. He accuses Rocky of ducking him, only taking on easy opponents, which Mick admits is actually true, he’s never thought Rocky had the skills of a champ and he’s been protecting him. When Rocky finds this out of course hates it and decides he needs to fight Clubber before he retires.

When it comes to training for the fight we discover the true ridiculousness of decadent ’80s Rocky. His gym is now a tourist attraction open to the public. While he practices there’s a live disco band playing, people wanting autographs and kisses, Paulie selling merchandise. This is not gonna work.

That band is one of the last signs of ’70s music in the series. The Conti sound is mostly about horns, but theme-song-makers Survivor are about guitars. In fact, one of the reasons the band is called Survivor had to do with singer Jim Peterik missing a guest appearance with Chase, the band that drummer Gary Smith and bassist Dennis Keith Johnson had been in. Chase was led by trumpet player Bill Chase, who was killed along with other band members in a plane crash on the way to the show Peterik missed. These guys were survivors and horns were a casualty.

Stallone hired Survivor after hearing this song, “Poor Man’s Son”:

but luckily “Eye of the Tiger” is more rockin. It’s also more rockin than Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best,” which apparently was written for this scene but rejected. ROCKY I director John G. Avildsen used Stallone’s leftovers in THE KARATE KID.

If we were paying attention to the lyrics, “Eye of the Tiger” sort of gave away what was gonna happen. In the second verse it warned, “So many times, it happens too fast / You trade your passion for glory / Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past / You must fight just to keep them alive.” Rocky loses his grip and has his ass handed to him by Clubber Lang.

Like Rocky of part 1, Clubber is a determined outsider from a poor background, who through hard work and determination manages to (like Rocky of part II) capture the belt. Unlike Rocky he has a huge ego, believed the title belonged to him, and ran around angrily yelling about it. Otherwise you would wonder why we’re not supposed to root for him. He even positions himself as some kind of figure of rebellion, saying the government doesn’t want him to win because he’s not a puppet. But he’s no Muhammad Ali or Apollo Creed. There’s nothing charming about it. He’s just a dick.

If you pay attention, Clubber gets what he wants by mouthing off, but he also brings upon his own downfall that way. Because the same night he beat Rocky he also sealed his fate by being rude to special ringside guest former champion Apollo Creed. That was a mistake.

See, a couple times when some mayhem is going down Mickey suddenly seems to be having a heart attack. And of course that is much like coughing in a movie. It means you’re doomed. He SPOILER dies right after the championship bout, a very moving scene not only because he’s the most lovable character in the series but because Stallone suddenly gets the eye of the tiger in the acting department for a long scene of emotional yelling and crying. And he’s good at that.

Anyway, with Mickey gone and Rocky retired, suddenly here comes Apollo Creed to convince Rocky to get a rematch with Lang so he can train him and take that chump out. You can guess how I feel about this. Fight Brotherhood. Opponents working together. Carl Weathers. I love this shit.

Apollo has learned humility from his defeat in part II. He’s the one who tells Rocky about the eye of the tiger. You gotta be hungry, etc. So Apollo takes “Stallion,” as he always calls him away from his disco band and palatial training facility to L.A. and the dingy club where Apollo got his start. There are pipes leaking from the ceiling and all the fighters are black and Paulie, we start to figure out, is totally racist. But Rocky loves everyone and they love him because holy shit that’s Rocky Balboa.

So although III is the birth of the slicker, sillier ’80s ROCKY movies it’s also a repudiation of everything that came out of successful Tiger Jacket Rocky. It’s reminding Rocky where he came from, and that not having all the crap you want can help bring out the best in you. He never would’ve gone those 15 rounds with Apollo the first time if he’d been living high on the hog back then. Material items make you go soft.

Having Apollo instead of Mick adds a different dimension to the training montages. Now it’s two shiny pumped up dudes competing to look the best, and then hugging each other and stuff. I like the scene where they run slow motion on the beach together.

The fight is really good too, and again it’s great to have Apollo in our corner instead of facing him down. T is a formidable foe though. I don’t even mind that he’s Rocky’s only opponent who you can’t ever imagine showing him any respect. One thing that’s slightly goofy, there is some obvious looping of dialogue during the fight. They have mouthpieces in but they’re speaking clearly to each other! I noticed Stallone did that in II also, but I think he does it a couple more times in this one.

Just like Stallone is slimmer in the movie, the movie itself has lost weight. It’s about half an hour shorter than the first two. Alot of the fat that has to be cut to get to that is actually the quiet character moments that made ROCKY so great in the first place. But I actually think that’s okay, because we already have two of those movies. This is something different, a less human story but a more mythic one, based more in action movie archetypes, with less told through long conversations and more through music and visuals. More MTV, honestly. But I like that.

ROCKY III is no ROCKY, but it’s the best ROCKY III ever made. I love this one.

P.S.

I would be remiss not to include here one of my very favorite hip hop songs, which has various Mickey and Clubber Lang dialogue taken from this movie (sometimes re-written, sometimes just re-recorded, probly due to sample clearance troubles).

And as long as we’re at it, here’s a connection I never made before. Is this:

what inspired this:

?

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 18th, 2015 at 11:19 am and is filed under Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

30 Responses to “Rocky III”

  1. TDKR is a lot like Rocky 3 as Batman goes toe to toe with Bane without really being fully prepared for the fight which leads to a crippling defeat and sets the stage for the triumphant rematch later in the film.

  2. It’s a shame Heath Ledger died. Would’ve been rad if Joker and Batman had a friendly motivational foot race on the beach to get him ready for the big finale.

  3. I never saw the change in the series as a reflection of the times. I guess it’s because I’m a child of the 80s, so I was more familiar with this Rocky, before discovering the greatness of his beginnings.

    Man, I loved Eye of the Tiger. I was in the third grade this year and for our Christmas program the fourth graders got to sing it, while we were stuck with Do You Hear What I Hear. I was so jealous. Now all I can think of is what a weird Christmas program that was.

  4. There is a pre-sample-clearance version of that Ghostface track. It’s pretty easy to find.

  5. What the hell actually happened to Stallone to make him…change physically? Surgery? Magic? It’s kind of weird. Rocky 3 is still great, and serves as the proto-movie template for Rocky 4. Plus I love the place where they train with Apollo. It’s so well realized you can almost smell it.

    The symbolism of him throwing his helmet at his statue, it’s too good to be true. There’s so much still to love in these films, and I feel it is an underdog story in so much that it’s about a guy who doesn’t know if he’s good enough to do what he wants to do. Being paralysed with fear/indecision is something that plagues most of us at one point or other.

    It’s a shame they don’t show too much of T’s training. Like Drago is made via science, I’d suspect T would do something like masquerade as an old lady in NYC and try to get mugged. He’d then smash any fool who’d take the bait. Or maybe do some Best of the Best 2 seminar’s with Sonny Landham. Either way, he wouldn’t be doing any Mr. Miyagi shit.

  6. He went and got civilized, that’s what.

  7. Minor quibble – Mickey has his turn then gets laid up in the dressing room while the fights going on. Why the fuck didn’t they take him straight to a hospital and potentially save his life? Rocky returns to the dressing room, defeated, Mick’s lying there fighting for his life while two guys stand around (one of them a medical person of some sort cause he’s got a doctors bag). I guess it was a plot device, so Rocky could say farewell at a boxing match and not in a hospital bed. But shit, surely there are paramedics at these events, for these reasons?

    But never mind, I love seeing Stallone get all emotional. And I love that Rocky is such a softie when it comes to his wife and Mickey, and in the way he handles Paulie’s tantrums, like he really cares for these people.

    Part’s 3 and 4 got a lot of VHS play between me and my mates growing up (along with ELECTRIC BOOGALOO). It used to get us psyched to work out. Mr T may have been an arsehole in this, but he was a lean mean fighting machine, a force of nature.

  8. Frank Stallone’s PUSHIN’ is a huge guilty pleasure of mine due to it’s use in this movie. I can’t never help BUT shimmy whenever his scene comes on. This is the most feel good ROCKY of them all from a purely superficial level and not from the more spiritual level that applies to the original. Also Clubber Lang has to be in my all time top 5 rivals list. The man was spitting nothing but ether years before Nas made the notion famous.

  9. “…but luckily “Eye of the Tiger” is more rockin. It’s also more rockin than Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best,””

    What in G-d’s name, and I’m not talking about the comma error! I can certainly sympathize with those who prefer Rocky to Karate Kid (partly because I’m one of them myself), but claiming anything is more rockin than “You’re the Best” is sacrilege. My blood starts pumping only thinking about that song and the montage in Karate Kid.

  10. That montage IS hands down the greatest thing about THE KARATE KID. Well that and Elisabeth Shue in her early 20’s prime.

  11. Maggie, did we go to the same school? I remember singing Eye of the Tiger in fourth grade and another class singing Do You Hear What I Hear but now I can’t be sure of they were older or younger.

  12. That is too funny. Did you go to school in Ogden, UT?

  13. The first songs I ever loved were eighties montage songs. They are the apex of all music as far as I’m concerned. So since “Eye of the Tiger” is the king of eighties montage songs, by the transitive property, it is the king of music.

  14. Spot on review, Vern. This entry is clearly a turning point where Rocky and 80s sly kind of fuse, with Rocky becoming a larger-than-life 80s action hero and ultimately indestructible ass-kicker. Six years ago he was a 30 year-old who would be lucky to go the distance with the champ; now he’s a 30-how-old (?) bronzed god capable of beating the ass of a younger and much stronger opponent. And yet, III manipulates so many basic human and male archetypes (core fantasies and insecurities) so effectively that it is an extremely and continually compelling watch. However implausible and hackneyed, Rocky trash-talking, rope-a-doping, and generally beating Clubber’s ass in the rematch never ever gets old for me. No, I don’t hate Clubber. But I pity the fool.

    III and IV are the ones I can easily watch at least once a year, because they move at such a great clip, and no scene is wasted. The Clubber rematch and Drago matches are at once the least plausible and most satisfying fights of the series for my money.

  15. My favorite scene is after the statue ceremony with Mickey and Rocky where Mickey tells him “You can’t win! Dis guy’ll ya ta death inside o’ three rounds!” and “He’s a wrecking machine!” Then he tells Rock about how all the contenders he’s defeated were really handpicked to help him keep the title a little longer and the scene gets quiet.

  16. (adding)

    And Mickey has the great line “The worst thing happened to you that can happen to any fighter. Ya got civilized.”

  17. Oh shit Broddie, I knew I should’ve looked up who the disco band was. I didn’t realize that was Frank Stallone. So this must mean that Rocky set up a paying gig for the a capella bums on the street corner? I like that.

  18. The progression of a capella bums on the street corner to Rocky’s gym disco band is kind of similar to that of the singers in New Jack City. I wonder if Rocky III was an influence. (I’d previously assumed that it was either a clever invention of the film or derived from a classic gangster movie.)

  19. “What the hell actually happened to Stallone to make him…change physically? Surgery?”

    A nose job and a tan, mainly.

  20. Was this when steroids entered the picture too?

  21. Vern, I hope you werent joking. That sounds like an amazing podcast.

    Maggie, no, east coast. Maybe I sang it in second grade…

  22. I never read Mick’s screening fighters as a reflection of his feelings on Rocky’s fighting skills. Far from it. I always took it as a testament to the love he had for him. He got tired of seeing Rocky get beat, nearly lose sight in his eye, turn punch drunk. Mick knows Rocky could take a Clubber Lang—but by taking it to the absolute limit, and at a terrible cost. Quite simply, Mick doesn’t think Rocky needs to do that again, not after Creed. That might not of been the eye of the tiger, but it comes from an honest, caring place, which made his death all the more effective. He’s not protecting his nest egg, he’s protecting his adoptive son.

  23. I hear Creed actually answers the biggest unanswered question of in the Rocky saga, which is of course, “Who won that final fight between Rocky and Apollo?”

  24. This is my favorite of the ROCKY films. Mr. T, is great and I like the dynamic between Rocky & Apollo in this one.

    There was a Rocky video game that came out in the early 2000’s that featured classic bouts from the films and the designers went through the trouble of crafting multiple ROCKY character skins for the game. Each skin represented different eras/films and it was done with Sly’s approval to capture the actual changes to Sly’s appearance over time due to plastic surgery. I think it is nice that the developers of the game went to that much trouble to capture the changes, but odd that they would promote it as a selling point of the game.

  25. “Hulk Hogan, a year before the first reported cases of Hulkamania”

    Hilarious! People will never forgot how AIDS effected the 80’s but they are quick dismiss how rampant Hulkamania was at that time. I am no doctor but you could say Hulkamania was running wild in the 80’s.

  26. Best part of Clubber Lang singling out Rocky at the retirment press conference is when the camera focuses on Mickey and Rocky. In the background you hear Clubber going all: “I’m glad you people are seeing this here….I’ve earned this I’ve worked hard for this here…please don’t judge me by the color of my skin or the way that I look judge me by the content of my character, judge me by my pride, my determination or judge me by my fighting record”.

    I think one of the reasons I was such a big fan of Tyson back in the late 80’s is cause I viewed him as a real life Clubber Lang.

  27. I rewatched this a few years ago and was heartbroken that I didn’t like it – it was cartoony and broad and manipulative, but it didn’t manipulate as well as part 4 did. I rewatched it again this week and whaddya know – I love it again! The only real problem I still have is Mickey dying during the fight (couldn’t they have split that into like, two different sections of the movie?) but Meredith and Stallone’s acting in that scene is SO GOOD that I didn’t even mind that!

    My other main issue was Rocky acting more like a normal guy. I still think it’s weird to see him in nice suits and drive sports cars but it fits this story and the place his character is in, so I kinda like it now. (Kinda like I can forgive H20’s endless fake jump scares in the first half because it actually fits Laurie’s state of mind). Other nitpick – the weird opening with Paulie and the pinball machine is so out of place that it bothered me last time. Now I kinda love it – most other movies wouldn’t have that scene, but Stallone gives both Burt Young and Talia Shire they’re own big, almost Oscar-baity moment in this movie. They’re still characters with their own feelings, not just window dressing. It’s smart and adds another layer to these people we’ve grown to love and show’s what a generous writer and director Stallone is.

    My final ex-complaint was I felt the Apollo relationship was forced and I didn’t get why he suddenly dropped everything to play 2nd fiddle to Rocky. I have no idea what I was thinking since the movie gives him FOUR motivations to help Rocky. 1) “Retirement doesn’t suit him”. He’s bored and needs some excitement. 2) He’s a Mayweather-style BUSINESSMAN and he probably made a ton of money on the rematch. 3) Clubber Lang ran his mouth too much and he has to pay. 4) The “favor”, which leads to the incredibly iconic ending. You can tell the love and care Stallone puts into writing the Apollo character, so much that I kinda don’t want to watch IV now because of what happens. I love the later Rockys, but if this series stopped at a trilogy the freeze frame here would actually be a perfect ending.

  28. Neal, that’s good stuff. I really enjoy this one. Mr. T is such a great heel, and the film takes you through Rocky’s emotional rollercoaster so briskly and effectively. Like, in that first fight w/ Clubber, you can feel the “oh, shit” foreboding: Rocky’s no match for this guy. Then by the time we get to the rematch, we believe it (for the moment, at least) and love it when Rocky beats his ass. On more sober reflection, this is the very effective emotional manipulation doing it’s thing, because in reality I think it’s super implausible that Rocky beats Clubber ever. If Rhonda Rousey comes back and beats Holly Holm, I’ll eat my words, but Rocky beating Clubber at the rematch is some Rousey beats Holm ish. And that x50 with Drago. This is what I mean with all my talk about 80s Rocky, which is the perfect storm of (1) the fact that this has become a cash cow franchise, (2) Stallone’s rising action hero identity, and (3) the garish excesses of the 80s that were so effectively satirized in American Psycho. It’s not just the fact that Rocky wins these matches (which is implausible) but that III and IV seem to need for Rocky to win these matches against literal villains via literal knockout (plus, all the material crap, like the Paulie robot and the Porsche and the mansion and the fancy schmancy clothes.) Sly shows some self-awareness about this: III”s opening montage and Paulie’s breakdown and Rocky’s open-to-the-public training media circus all suggest some awareness that maybe Rocky is getting swept up in his own stardom. So, even here, I think Stallone injects a bit of self-awareness and commentary about excess and priorities and the difference between social vs. “existential” wins. But overall, III and IV are very much wrapped up in Rocky being the champ and knocking out cartoonish villains, even when this stretches credulity to the breaking point and seems to lose touch with essence of Rocky, which defines winning in personal and psychological vs. social (status) terms.

    Still, I pity the fool doesn’t get amped in these fights, for Apollo and Rocky joining forces, for Eye of the Tiger, etc., etc. If I was George Lucas, the only thing I’d change is maybe editing out the whole Thunderlips thing, but even that also serves the purpose of showing us that Rocky’s life is becoming a media circus.

  29. Neal, I think all the Rocky movies are like that, hitting you differently depending where you are in life. It’s like how II became my favorite after living enough life to realize that one success isn’t enough to carry you through, and what do you do when you can’t even hold a desk job or read cue cards? IV has been the most wildly fluctuating for me, going from childhood favorite, to least favorite as an adult until I put together the politics of Rocky IV and First Blood II and I’m still working out my relationship to IV.

  30. “The odds against Balboa making a comeback at 34 are very long, indeed.” – Announcer Guy in Rocky III

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