A few days before Thanksgiving in 1975, Rocky Balboa fights a man in a tiny gym's boxing ring. At first it's not looking good for Balboa, but when his opponent headbutts him, Rocky beats him down to the mat. Here's a tip if you find yourself in the ring with Rocky: don't mess with his face. He's very proud of that nose.
Rocky wins a whopping forty bucks. Boxing doesn't pay the bills (even forty dollars wasn't much in 1975) so Rocky works as a, um, "collection agent" for a local mob boss/loan shark. When he isn't collecting debts or bruising faces, Rocky is trying to charm Adrian, the clerk at the local pet store. She's the sister of Rocky's best friend, Paulie, who works at the local slaughterhouse.
After multiple failed attempts, Rocky finally succeeds on getting a date with Adrian on Thanksgiving night. The two are the only ones at the local skating rink after Rocky bribes the owner with ten bucks. Adrian wants to know why Rocky boxes. He says it's because he's a "bum" and a "moron." But she doesn't care that he's a bum, and he doesn't care that she's shy, so these two are a perfect couple. Seriously: our humble Shmoopinion is that this is the best couple in movie history.
Rocky soon has an opportunity to prove to himself that he isn't a bum, after all. Heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed, needs a new challenger. Creed has flair, and he wants the fight to be a spectacle. So he chooses Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion, knowing what good publicity it will be when he gives a local Philly boy a shot at the title.
At first, Rocky doesn't think he's good enough to fight Creed. But he realizes that he doesn't have to win to prove to himself that he isn't a bum. He simply has to "go the distance," which means fifteen rounds with the champ without getting knocked out. No one has ever done that before, and Rocky is determined to be the first.
He trains. He jogs up the steps of Philadelphia's Museum of Art. He punches slabs of meat in the slaughterhouse. Mickey, the owner of a local gym, becomes Rocky's trainer and manager.
On New Year's Day, 1976, it's time for the fight of the century—maybe even the biggest fight in American history since the Revolutionary War. Apollo Creed enters the ring dressed as George Washington. He has the skills to back up the showmanship, and he almost knocks Rocky out immediately.
But Rocky holds on. Mickey advises him to go for Apollo's ribs, and Rocky hits him so hard, he breaks a few. Rocky also gets his precious nose broken, but he keeps his cool and doesn't let that stop him.
He goes the distance with the champ. He doesn't win the fight, but he doesn't care, because he has proven his own self-worth. (Aw, shucks.) And he has Adrian. She rushes from the locker room, through the crowd, and onto the ring to embrace Rocky, swollen face and all. The two soulmates say "I love you" for the first time, and the movie ends with this romantic knockout.