Behind The Song: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”

I can still remember the first time I ever heard “Eye Of The Tiger” by the Chicago, Illinois-born band, Survivor. I was in 5th grade and it was 1992 in New Jersey, just about a decade after the song had originally come out. I remember hearing it on my brother’s black boombox (the one I’d later own after he went off to college) and I remember recording the song, which was playing in the A-side of the dual tape deck, onto a blank cassette on the B- side so that I could have it forever.

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Of course, there is no way to talk about the double-platinum hit song “Eye Of The Tiger,” without mentioning the Rocky franchise, and specifically, Rocky III, for which the track was specifically requested at the behest of the franchise’s star Sylvester Stallone. And because of the association and success with the popular movie, the track spent six weeks at No. 1 on the charts, blaring in many other people’s boomboxes before mine.

The song, which is so many people’s favorite workout song, oozes inspiration. But what is its origin story? Well, that begins with the band Queen, who turned down Stallone’s request to use their song “Another One Bites the Dust,” for the boxing movie. But Queen’s trash was Survivor’s treasure and the band agreed to Stallone’s ask and quickly came up with “Eye of the Tiger.” The track later went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance. It was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song.

Stallone had heard the group’s track, “Poor Man’s Son,” and knew they could accomplish the goal. But “Eye of the Tiger” is faster, more propellant. It begins with a palm-muted guitar riff, like a heart beating so fast it accelerates the body it inhabits. Then big guitar chords are accentuated by cymbal smashes. All while the heart-racing lick keeps going. Keeps going. Keeps going. Then a disco beat hits. Not only do we need to exercise, but we also need to dance!

The bass plunks along, keys chime. Then the scalpel-sharp voice of Survivor’s lead singer Dave Bickler cuts through the music with the lyrics:

Rising up, back on the street
Did my time, took my chances
Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive

So many times it happens too fast
You change your passion for glory
Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past
You must fight just to keep them alive

It’s the eye of the tiger
It’s the thrill of the fight
Rising up to the challenge of our rival
And the last known survivor
Stalks his prey in the night
And he’s watching us all with the eye of the tiger

The song builds like Rock’s endurance builds, like his muscles build, like his effort until the great climax of victory. It’s those who keep going, continuing through challenges and difficultly who outlast and earn the win. The song was a hit with people of all ages. It was popular on MTV, on radio, in the movie theater and later made a resurgence at home when Rocky III came out on VHS tape.

As co-writer Jim Peterik told Songfacts: “At first, we wondered if calling it ‘Eye of the Tiger’ was too obvious. In the initial draft of the song, we started with It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the spirit of our rival, and the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night, and it all comes down to survival.

“We were going to call the song ‘Survival’. In the rhyme scheme, you can tell we had set up ‘rival’ to rhyme with ‘survival’. At the end of the day, we said, ‘Are we nuts?’ That hook is so strong, and ‘rival’ doesn’t have to be a perfect rhyme with the word ‘tiger’. We made the right choice and went with ‘Eye of the Tiger’.”

Despite some early titular stops and starts, “Eye of the Tiger” has lasted and lasted—just like Rocky in the ring or you on the treadmill—past its origin in the ‘80s, through the mid-‘90s with my boombox, through even recent lawsuits asking political candidates to stop using it. And it will last well into today and beyond.

The song won’t get knocked out.

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

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