The film won an Academy Award for Editing and gained five other nominations as well, including a Best Actor for Douglas.
The drama charts the story of Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas), a boxer who pushes himself to the top of his game by knocking out opponents and back-stabbing friends. He has no qualms about deceiving the various females he encounters and he eventually double-crosses Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart), the manager who found him and helped pave his road to fame.
Michael "Midge" Kelly and his brother Connie Kelly (Arthur Kennedy) are crossing America by thumb and freight cars from Chicago to California, where they have bought a share in a restaurant. Along the way, they hitch a lift from a car carrying a top boxer, Johnny Dunne, and his girlfriend Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). They are driven to Kansas City where Dunne is fighting another contender that night.
Midge needs money and is offered a fight on the under-card for $35. After taking a beating, the promoter only pays him $10, claiming the remainder as "management fees". The fight brings him to the attention of fight trainer Tommy Haley, who tells him to come to his gym in Los Angeles if he ever needs a break. Kelly is not interested.
Once they reach Los Angeles, however, they discover they have been conned in the restaurant deal. The brothers need to secure jobs waiting tables and washing dishes. Both strike up a relationship with the owner's daughter, Emma (Ruth Roman). When Midge Kelly is discovered with her, they are forced to marry by her outraged father.
After the shotgun wedding, Kelly abandons his new wife and flees with his brother. They head to the gym run by Haley.
Kelly enters his new field with a single-minded devotion. He defeats a number of local fighters, begins touring the country and is soon ranked as a contender. He is matched with Johnny Dunne, who is in line for a championship fight. Organized crime figures lean on Kelly to throw the match, guaranteeing him a legitimate shot at the title the following year if he complies. Kelly agrees, but then goes back on his word and destroys the complacent Dunne in a single round.
Seeing which way the wind is blowing, Grace Diamond now attaches herself to Kelly. She persuades him to abandon his manager Haley and take on the management of Jerome Harris, an extremely wealthy and influential figure in the fight game with criminal ties. Realizing this is the only way he will get a shot at the title, Kelly agrees. His brother is so disgusted that he walks out. He reconnects with Midge's abandoned wife and convinces her to return to Chicago with him to help care for his aged mother.
Kelly takes the title and becomes a popular fan favorite because of his rise from humble beginnings. He soon becomes involved with the wife of his new manager, Palmer Harris, a sculptor. She falls in love with him and persuades Kelly to ask her husband for a divorce. Harris refuses and instead offers Kelly a large sum of money if he relinquishes his wife. Kelly agrees, leaving Palmer brokenhearted.
He has been fighting a number of second-rate challengers, but now he has agreed to fight Dunne, who has been making a comeback. Dunne is in good shape and Kelly quickly realizes he is going to lose unless he gets in top shape. He hires back his old manager, and Connie and Emma come back into the camp as well. Connie and Emma are now contemplating marriage, although Emma is still legally married to Midge. As they are breaking camp, Midge rapes Emma, just to show he can.
Kelly fights Dunne in the sporting event of the year. He knocks down the challenger in the first round. Dunne manages to get up and the balance of the fight shifts in his direction. He starts pounding Kelly, pummeling his face. Kelly's manager tries to throw in the towel, but Midge refuses and fights on, taking more punishment. Kelly rallies at the end of the fight and knocks out Dunne. But he is seriously injured and dies in his locker room of a cerebral hemorrhage.
After delivering a favorable, but backhanded, eulogy to a reporter, Connie and Emma walk off into the darkness, now free to move forward with their lives.Kirk Douglas as Midge Kelly
Marilyn Maxwell as Grace
Arthur Kennedy as Connie
Paul Stewart as Haley
Ruth Roman as Emma
Lola Albright as Palmer
Luis Van Rooten as Harris
Harry Shannon as Lew
John Daheim as Dunne (as John Day)
Ralph Sanford as Hammond
Esther Howard as Mrs. Kelly
The film was shot in twenty days.
RKO sued the filmmakers claiming similarities between this film and The Set Up.
When the film was released, Bosley Crowther, the film critic for The New York Times, believed the drama was not exactly faithful to the original Lardner story, which had a very hard-edge. Still, he gave the boxing drama a positive review, and wrote, "However, Director Mark Robson has covered up story weaknesses with a wealth of pictorial interests and exciting action of a graphic, colorful sort. His scenes in training gymnasiums, managers' offices and, of course, the big fight rings are strongly atmospheric and physically intense. Except that the fighting is more furious than one can credit, it is virtually all right. As the hero and "Champion", Kirk Douglas does a good, aggressive job, with a slight inclination to over-eagerness at times, which might amuse an old fight fan. Arthur Kennedy is dour as his crippled brother who distrusts the slaughterous sport, and Marilyn Maxwell, Ruth Roman and Lola Albright are attractive as the "champ's" various girls. Paul Stewart is most convincing as a quiet, hard-bitten manager. If one hasn't already seen the recently memorable "Body and Soul" which might have served as a model for "Champion", this is a stinging fight film to see. If one has seen that other, this will look a little pale."
The staff at Variety magazine gave the picture a good review and also noted the difference between the screenplay and the original story. They wrote, "Adapted from a Ring Lardner short story of the same title, Champion is a stark, realistic study of the boxing rackets and the degeneracy of a prizefighter. Fight scenes, under Franz Planer's camera, have realism and impact. Unrelenting pace is set by the opening sequence. Cast, under Mark Robson's tight direction, is fine. Kirk Douglas is the boxer and he makes the character live. Second honors go jointly to Arthur Kennedy, the fighter's crippled brother, and Paul Stewart as the knowing manager."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 92% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on thirteen reviews.
WinsAcademy Award for Film Editing – (Harry W. Gerstad)
Golden Globe Award for Best Cinematography – (Franz Planer)
NominationsDirectors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures – (Mark Robson)
Academy Award for Best Actor – (Kirk Douglas)
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – (Arthur Kennedy)
Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer – Female – (Ruth Roman)
Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White – (Franz Planer)
Academy Award for Original Music Score – (Dimitri Tiomkin)
Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay – (Carl Foreman)
WGA for Best Written American Drama – (Carl Foreman)
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2001: AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – Nominated
2005: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
Michael Kelly: "For the first time in my life, people cheering for me. Were you deaf? Didn't you hear 'em? We're not hitchhiking any more. We're riding." – Nominated
Champion was presented on Screen Directors Playhouse on NBC on March 17, 1950, with Douglas reprising his role from the film.