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After former boxer Barney Ross enters a federal hospital in Lexington, Kentucky to overcome his addiction to morphine, he thinks back over his life: In mid-1930s Chicago, Barney cheerfully looks forward to regaining his title from Jimmy McLarnin, in a match he is sure he will win, and bets $10,000 on himself with bookie Big Ralph. Barney is a heavy gambler and a big spender, which worries his manager, Sam Pian. After Barney wins the fight, he, Sam and trainer Art Winch and their girl friends go to a nightclub, where chorus girl Cathy accidentally kicks Barney during the floorshow. Instead of being angry, Barney has flowers sent to her. Sometime later, when Barney and Cathy run into each other again in a park, he remembers how attractive he found her. Although she has a six-year-old daughter, Noreen, when Cathy reveals that she no longer has a husband, Barney begins to court her. His relationship with Cathy and Noreen grows, at the same time that his boxing career brings him more money and fame. His gambling continues, though, worrying Cathy as well as Sam. On the night of his big fight with Henry Armstrong, Barney loses his title but impresses Cathy with his courage when he refuses to let Sam throw in the towel and completes the brutal, fifteen-round bout. Afterward, Barney confesses to Sam that he bet his entire purse on himself, but refuses Sam and Art's offer of their fees for the fight. Realizing that he will no longer be a champion, Barney tells Cathy and his mother that he is quitting the ring, just as they have wanted. Some time later, Barney is running a successful bar with financial backing from Big Ralph, to whom he owes thousands of dollars. Although she still loves Barney, Cathy is repelled by his continual gambling, which she considers an incurable disease, and leaves him. That same day, Big Ralph forces Barney out of the bar in payment for his gambling loses. Some time later, Cathy begins to receive letters from Barney, who has joined the marines. When he tells her of his happiness and new resolve, she agrees to see him again in San Diego. There they reconcile and marry before Barney is shipped out to the South Pacific. At thirty-three, Barney is called "Pop" by his fellow marines fighting at Guadalcanal. One rainy night, Barney heroically fights off enemy soldiers, carries his severely wounded friend Spike McAvoy on his back and saves them both. The next morning, when his comrades find Barney and Spike, they are taken to safety but Barney, who was himself wounded, has contracted malaria. To alleviate Barney's pain, a doctor prescribes morphine, leading to Barney's craving the drug. Although the doctor stops Barney's morphine dosage, Barney has become addicted and on the way back home steals morphine from the ship's pharmacy. In Chicago, Barney is given a hero's welcome and awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Guadalcanal. His new life with Cathy and Noreen is happy, and when Spike's father, who owns a successful public relations firm, offers Barney a job, his life seems perfect. Although Barney goes without morphine for a while, the cravings soon return. Over the next months, Barney's early success with McAvoy's firm and happiness at home begin to crumble as he spends more and more money on morphine and comes under the control of drug pusher Rico. When Cathy, who thinks that Barney's increasingly erratic behavior and impatience with Noreen is due to his malaria, pleads with him to see a doctor, Barney lashes out at her, then goes to Rico. Now heavily in debt to Rico, Barney gives him a gold and diamond watch that was a gift from Sam. A short time later, McAvoy tries to talk with Barney about his attempt to borrow money from a client. Although McAvoy offers to keep Barney on the payroll while he straightens himself out, Barney becomes enraged and quits. After unsuccessfully trying to find Rico, Barney goes home, where Cathy accuses him of seeing another woman. Barney denies it, but late that night, after Rico comes to the apartment and threatens Barney if he does not pay the $2,700 he owes, Cathy catches Barney breaking open Noreen's piggy bank. When he gruffly demands whatever money she has, Cathy takes off her engagement ring and gives it to him, coldly saying she no longer needs it. As Barney desperately walks the streets to find a new drug pusher, he recognizes drug withdrawal symptoms in a disheveled man buying candy and approaches the man about obtaining drugs. The man calls his pusher, Benji, and arranges for a meeting in an alley, but when Barney hands over his money, Benji and the man try to beat up Barney. Barney knocks both men unconscious, steals the drugs and escapes through the alleys when the disturbance summons the police. After injecting himself with the morphine, Barney goes home but finds that Cathy and Noreen have moved out. As he goes to the window and contemplates suicide, Cathy comes home. She shows Barney the newspaper, which reports the arrest of Rico, whose picture she recognizes from his visit to their apartment. Barney breaks down and tells Cathy that he "is dirt," but she encourages him to try and beat what she now realizes is his addiction to drugs. Although he fears that he is not strong enough, he promises to try and tells her that, if he fails, he will not come back. Barney voluntarily enters the federal hospital in Lexington, as the story of his addiction becomes front-page news. Through weeks of agonizing drug withdrawal symptoms, Barney loses his cravings for morphine but fears that they will return. More than four months after he enters the hospital, his physician, Dr. Latham, commends Barney for his courage and tells him that he is ready to leave. After Barney passes through the hospital gate, Cathy rushes to him and they embrace.