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Despite the fact that Pat Quaid has become a lonely alcoholic since his wife died, his son, San Francisco grocery clerk Eddie, assures him that they will always stick together. Eddie is in love with pretty student Julie Walsh, but one night, Julie's father Mike accuses Pat, who has just been jailed for a bar fight, of being a slob and declares that the Quaids are not good enough for his daughter. When Julie cannot bring herself to oppose her father, Eddie storms out. He then discovers that he must raise twenty-five dollars to bail Pat out, and after everyone refuses to lend him the money, Eddie enters an amateur boxing match. Upon hearing about the match, kindly detective Jim McBride brings Pat from the jail to witness how far his son will go to help him. Eddie wins the bout handily, and afterward, Pat, who once boxed under the name Packy Glennon, encourages Eddie to try to become a champion fighter. Seeing Pat's pride, Eddie bargains with his father that he will fight as long as Pat quits drinking, and McBride agrees to invest in a trainer for Eddie in return for a percentage of his winnings. McBride then takes Eddie and Pat to Bernie Browne, an ex-fighter who, after becoming a title-holder, was jailed for killing a couple while driving drunk. Bernie is now a book salesman who despises brutality, but, impressed with Eddie's skill in the ring, agrees to teach him the ropes. Bernie initiates a tough training regimen, predicting correctly that Eddie will lose his first few professional fights but keep working until a champion emerges. Three years later, Eddie, using the name Packy Glennon, prepares to fight Al Gorski in the middleweight world championship. The night before the match, Julie calls, and a bitter Eddie invites her to the victory party proposed for the following night. During the fight, Eddie struggles to stay on his feet until he finally regains strength and knocks out Al, after which everyone rejoices except Bernie, who worries that Eddie will become as cocky as he himself once did. At the party, Jack Lindsay and Lorraine Evans attach themselves to Eddie, basking in his fame, and later Al shows up with his wife to congratulate Eddie graciously. When Julie arrives, she wants to heal their past wounds, but Eddie assumes she is only interested in his celebrity, and shouts that she does not deserve him. After she runs out, Pat reveals that her father recently committed suicide, and Eddie runs after Julie, catching her in the street. He apologizes, but she exhorts him to leave her alone, and later that night, Bernie chastises Eddie by reciting "uneasy is the head that wears the crown." Soon after, Eddie is training for a re-match with Al when Pat brings Julie back, and after spending the evening together, they kiss, in love again. During the next championship fight, Eddie, who has not trained as hard as Al, is beaten badly, and saved from possible permanent injury when the referee rules a technical knockout. Afterward, Eddie publicly praises Al and agrees to another match, but in private, he and Pat grumble that the referee, Tommy Dillon, called the fight too early, costing Eddie the title. Bernie tells them that they should be happy Eddie is still alive, but as he trains him for the rematch, Eddie and Pat go to the press behind Bernie's back and threaten to have Dillon blackballed. Bernie discovers this when Dillon shows up before the next fight, refusing to back down. Although Bernie is furious, stating that Eddie wants to turn the ring into a square jungle, Eddie pushes Dillon to think twice before stopping the next fight. By the day of the fight, both Eddie and Al are in top form. Al quickly takes the lead, but suddenly Eddie snaps back into form and begins beating Al severely. This time, Dillon does not ring the bell, and the fight goes on until Al falls, seriously injured. Al's trainer turns to Dillon, and the referee publicly blames Eddie, who leaves the ring to loud jeers. In the dressing room, Bernie turns his back on Eddie, and although Pat tells his son that they are still the victors, Eddie shouts back that his blind ambition to be a winner has possibly led him to kill a man. Lorraine follows as Eddie hides out in a motel, and the two drink all night. Pat and McBride find him days later, passed out in his motel bed, and inform him that Al, though brain-damaged, is alive. Eddie returns to San Francisco but there explains to Julie that he is dead inside. Meanwhile, Pat goes to Bernie to beg him to talk to Eddie about how to live with himself. When Bernie refuses, Pat accuses him of being willing to help only when Eddie was a winner, and remembering how it felt to hate himself, Bernie instructs Pat to bring Eddie to a boxing match the next night. There, Eddie almost refuses to go inside, but finally takes his seat. Before the fight begins, the referee brings out Joe Louis and, to Eddie's shock, Al. Eddie is about to sneak out when Bernie appears beside him and whispers in his ear. When Al then announces that he has forgiven Eddie and invites him into the ring, Eddie slowly joins him and they hug. Eddie recites to the crowd the Talmudic quote Bernie has just whispered to him: "A child comes into the world with hands clenched, wanting everything, and a man leaves it with his hands wide open, wanting nothing." Eddie opens his hands to the crowd, and they rise to their feet in an ovation.