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In Manhattan's Lower East Side, young Rocky Barbella is abused by his alcoholic father, ex-boxer Nick Barbella. Running from his home life, Rocky begins a career of robbery and petty crime, which continues into his teens, when the local church protectory finally refuses to grant him asylum from the juvenile detention system. After Rocky returns on the run from the police, Nick throws him out, calling him a bum and a devil. Rocky immediately rounds up his gang members, Romolo, Fidel and Shorty the Greek, and leads them on a series of robberies. They sell the goods to a fence in exchange for natty new suits, only to be arrested during a rumble with a rival gang. After Nick refuses to provide Rocky with an alibi, the judge sentences the boy to a prison term in Mackinaw. When Warden George Niles visits Rocky in his cell, Rocky refuses his offer of help and instead burns him with a cigarette, thus earning himself a transfer to a brutal work camp. There, he beats up a guard and, while attempting to shoot him, is forcibly restrained by the other prisoners. Fellow convict Frankie Peppo advises Rocky to use his expert fighting skills to earn money in the boxing ring, but Rocky, disgusted by any similarity to his father, refuses. For assaulting the guard, Rocky is sent to Riker's Island, where the warden attempts to break his spirit by placing him in solitary confinement. However, it is not until Rocky's mother, Ida, visits and reveals that she has been in an asylum due to her worry over him, and will give up on him if he does not reform, that he tries to go straight. Within years, he earns his release, only to discover that he has been drafted into the Army. When his superior officer disciplines him, Rocky punches him, and upon realizing the depth of trouble he has once again caused for himself, goes AWOL. He returns to New York, where he tells Romolo that he hopes to earn enough money to pay off the army captain and return to basic training. To do so, he recalls Frankie's advice and searches for him at Lou Stillman's gym. Although Frankie is back in jail, Rocky volunteers to serve as a sparring partner for a boxer. When trainers Irving Cohen and Whitey Bimstein see Rocky's power and ability, they invite him to fight for them. Rocky originally rebuffs them, but upon learning that each fight pays $75, agrees. He begins to win fight after fight, but refuses to train properly, hoping to find a different job. One day, the military police find and arrest him, and despite the fact that he shows remorse for his crimes for the first time, the court sentences him to a dishonorable discharge and one year in Leavenworth prison. There, he is a model prisoner, but soon is taunted into a fight. Sgt. Johnny Hyland, who heads the boxing squad, calls him in and offers to train him toward a career in boxing, and although Rocky remains dubious, John's guidance leads him to new skills and top physical shape. Upon his release, Rocky embarks on a series of boxing triumphs, showering his mother with prize money. One day, after he complains about his father, Ma reveals that it was her insistence that Nick stop fighting, causing him to lose his self-esteem. Later, Rocky's sister Yolanda introduces him to Norma, a pretty Jewish girl, and although Rocky feigns indifference, he soon offers to walk Norma home to Brooklyn. At her house, she urges him to call her, and despite his aloofness, they are soon dating regularly. One night, she argues with him that boxing is barbaric, but agrees to watch him train. At the gym, however, Lou dissuades Norma from taking up with a fighter, and she runs off, followed by Rocky. He waits for her all day outside her house in the rain, and when she finally returns, tells her, "I never had nothing till the ring," and she realizes that she must accept his profession. He misses his scheduled fight that night, however, prompting Irving to chastise him for becoming too happy and healthy to be a good fighter. Irving urges him to marry Norma, hoping the increased responsibility will spur him on, and although Rocky is nervous, his love for Norma drives him into the courthouse. Soon, the couple has a daughter Audrey, and Rocky, who wins every bout, becomes a neighborhood hero. During the World Middleweight competition, however, boxer Tony Zale beats Rocky viciously, and when Norma breaks down in tears, Ma reminds her that to ask Rocky to stop boxing would precipitate his ruin. By the time he returns home, Norma is cheerful and rebukes him for his loss, which strengthens his resolve to win next time. He is training hard when Frankie visits, threatening to reveal Rocky's dishonorable discharge and criminal background unless he throws the Zale rematch. Rocky refuses but, desperate to hide his past from Norma and his fans, fakes a back injury to get the bout canceled. Soon, the authorities discern the attempted fix and order Rocky to identify who blackmailed him. When Rocky refuses, his license is revoked, after which the newspapers report all the details of his past. Rocky feels devastated and doomed to never be able to achieve "legit" status, but still refuses return to crime, despite Frankie's attempts to ensnare him. Although Irving soon reports that Illinois officials have refused to uphold the New York license revocation and want Rocky to fight Zale in Chicago, Rocky is afraid to fight in front of an unfriendly crowd. He trains in Chicago, but remains angry and apprehensive. Finally, Norma explodes at him that he must learn to live with his past actions, spurring Rocky to go to New York. There, he learns that most of his friends are in jail, except for Romolo, who tells Rocky "we ain't got a chance, guys like us." Rocky then visits his father, who refuses to speak to him. Incensed, Rocky calls Nick a quitter, but when Nick begins to cry, Rocky begs to help him, and Nick responds, "Be a champ, like I never was." Newly inspired, Rocky returns to Chicago and begins training in earnest. As the championship fight begins, all of the Lower East Side listens on the radio, including his parents and John Hyland. Zale has an early lead, but despite the pummeling Rocky is taking, he refuses to give up. Round after round, he insists on returning, even after the referee threatens to stop the fight. Finally, in the sixth round, Rocky finds a last reserve of strength and knocks out Zale, to become the world champion. Upon being welcomed home to New York as a hero, Rocky declares to Norma that although he will one day lose the title, no one can ever take away the true prize he has won: self-respect.