Stacey Keach and Susan Tyrrell deliver Oscar caliber performance while Jeff Bridges launches a brilliant career in this 1972 epic, one of the best directorial efforts of the storied career of John Huston. Keach and Bridges play fighters trying to make a go of life in the tough world of professional boxing in Stockton, a delta city in Northern California.
Keach, living in a fleabag hotel, meets young Bridges at the local YMCA, where the former professional boxer has gone to work out. After enticing Bridges to spar a little, Keach is astonished when the younger man with the fast moves reveals he has never boxed, either amateur or professional. Keach suggests that Bridges look up his former manager, played by Nick Colasanto, at the Lido Gym.
Colasanto and his trainer, played by former ranked lightweight and welterweight, Art Aragon, waste no time in turning Bridges amateur. After Bridges' first workout Colasanto tells his wife that a good looking, clean cut "white kid" like Bridges should make a good crowd draw.
Keach falls on hard times, getting fired from his fry cook's job, going out early in the morning to work as a picker at nearby farms. He also forms a romantic relationship with hard luck Tyrrell, a heavy drinker, whose live in love, played by former world welterweight champion Curtis Cokes, has gone to jail on an assault charge. The fight was brought on by resentment of his interracial romance with Tyrrell. Meanwhile Keach moves in with Tyrrell.
When Keach, spurred on by Bridges' ring progress, decides to make a comeback, in his sober state he can no longer abide Tyrrell and moves out. When Cokes finishes serving his time he moves back in with her again.
Bridges has his own romantic involvement with Candy Clark. They make love in his car. She tells him she is pregnant and they get married.
Keach gets in shape and wins the first bought of his comeback against a Mexican fighter, played by noted light heavyweight boxer Sixto Rodriguez. What Keach does not know was that his opponent had passed blood in his hotel room and could not hold up to body blows, having been injured in a previous bout. All the same, he needs the money, and so he fights Keach anyway.
When all is said and done Keach, after Colasanto has taken out deductions for expenses such as room and board for his fighter, receives one hundred dollars. Keach becomes incensed, telling Colasanto once more about the time he let him down and, to save two hundred dollars, let him travel to Panama by himself for his most important fight against a local favorite, then ranked fifth in the world. With Keach ahead his cornermen, in an effort to win the bout for the Panamanian, administered cuts over both eyes with razor blades. This resulted in the referee stopping the bout. After that Keach's wife left him and his life spiraled rapidly downhill.
With resentment for Colasanto revived, a sulking Keach hits the skids once more, returning to heavy drinking. At the film's end he sees Bridges after the latter has sought to avoid him. Bridges tells him about his second child, and that he is still fighting professionally. As they sit in the coffee shop Keach gropes for meaning in life, wondering just where he is gone, fearful of how he will turn out.
Leonard Gardner adapted the screenplay from his own novel. Each had the same hard edge as the world he describes. He should know since it was his world. Gardner grew up in Stockton, boxed as an amateur, and wrote the novel while on the bum in Mexico.