Sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) is broke after the newspaper he works for goes under. He is hired by crooked boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) to publicize his new boxer, a huge, but slow-witted and untalented Argentinian named Toro Moreno (Mike Lane).
Unbeknownst to Toro and his friend and manager Luís Agrandi (Carlos Montalbán), all of his fights had been fixed to make the public believe that he is for real. After a short time, Benko gets Toro into a match against Gus Dundee (Pat Comiskey), the ex-heavyweight champ, before the title fight against Buddy Brannen (Max Baer). Dundee has agreed to lose the fight, as he is suffering headaches and neck pain from his last fight against Brannen. Dundee ends up collapsing in the ring and later dies of a brain hemorrhage in the hospital.
Feeling culpability in Dundee's death, Eddie hesitates in continuing his work in promoting Toro. Despite the misgivings of his wife (Jan Sterling), Benko has already convinced him otherwise due to Eddie wanting a huge pay-day. However, Toro feels guilty over Dundee's death and visits a priest (Paul Frees) who confirms Toro's feelings and agrees with him that he should go home to Argentina. Eddie tracks down Toro at the church and eventually convinces him to fight by telling him that this will be the last for both of them and that he will be able to take much money home to his parents.
In the meantime, Benko has planned for Toro to fight the heavyweight champ. Knowing Toro has no chance, Benko places large bets against his fighter. Toro thinks he can win, but Eddie shows him otherwise by having him knocked down by one of his handlers. Toro is then told how to lose without receiving a beating by staying away from Brannen with his long arm reach and to hug him when he is to close. But, Toro cares about what his friends and family will think about him, so he tries to fight convincingly while being brutally beaten in the process, suffering a broken jaw.
When Eddie goes to get the money owed to him and Toro, he finds out that Benko has rigged the accounting so that Toro ends up getting paid only $49.07. Ashamed, Eddie sends Toro home to Argentina with Eddie's own share of the proceeds, $26,000. When confronted by Benko, Eddie defies him, then begins writing an exposé about corruption in the boxing world.
Boxers appearing in the film:Jersey Joe Walcott as George
Max Baer as Buddy Brannen
Pat Comiskey as Gus Dundee
Joe Greb as Joey Greb
The film was originally released with two different endings: in one, Eddie Willis demanded that boxing be banned altogether, while in the other, Willis merely insisted that there be a federal investigation of the prizefighting business. The video version contains the "harder" ending, while most television prints end with the "softer" message.
The film was Bogart's last; he died early in 1957. In late 1955, during filming, he was already seriously ill with what would soon be diagnosed as esophageal cancer. Occasionally inaudible in some takes, some of his lines are reported to have been dubbed in post-production by Paul Frees, who also appears in the film as a priest.
The film was entered into the 1956 Cannes Film Festival.
The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, liked the film, writing, "It's a brutal and disagreeable story, probably a little far-fetched, and without Mr. Schulberg's warmest character—the wistful widow who bestowed her favors on busted pugs. But with all the arcana of the fight game that Mr. Yordan and Mr. Robson have put into it—along with their bruising, brutish fight scenes—it makes for a lively, stinging film."
More recently, film critic Dennis Schwartz wrote, "The unwell Bogie's last film is not a knockout, but his hard-hitting performance is terrific as a has-been sports journalist out of desperation taking a job as a publicist for a fight fixer in order to get a bank account ... The social conscience film is realistic, but fails to be shocking or for that matter convincing."
Primo Carnera later sued Columbia for $1.5 million for invasion of privacy due to the film.