It is a biography of Rocky Graziano, middleweight boxing champion. After a prelude which shows little Rocky being beaten by his bitter, alcoholic father Nick, the story proper starts with Rocky as a young delinquent still living in Little Italy. He has a gang that keeps busy with various petty thefts. Eventually Rocky's luck runs out and he gets sent to jail. His hatred of authority and free-floating rage wind up eventually getting him sent to do hard time in Rikers Island. He completes that sentence only to be drafted into the Army and then dishonorably discharged for assaulting an officer and going AWOL.
All that rage and hostility, however, leads to Rocky discovering something: that he's really good at punching people. He starts to train as a boxer and immediately finds success. He also finds love in the person of Norma, his sister's friend, and they marry. But Rocky is not free of ghosts that haunt him as he strives to be champion.
Star-Making Role for Paul Newman, who got the part after the man who'd previously been cast, James Dean, was killed in a car wreck in September 1955. One of the first major roles for Steve McQueen, who plays Fidel, a hoodlum in Rocky's gang. Film debut of Robert Loggia, who plays Frankie Beppo, a hoodlum who causes problems for Rocky. An unknown George C. Scott is an extra, appearing as a prisoner.
- Answer Cut: Rocky has walked out of Rikers Island only to be met right outside the gate by two government types who tell him he's been inducted into the Army (it's January 1942). A panicking Rocky says "Look me up in about six months and we'll talk about this army idea again, ok?" The film then cuts to the bugle blowing reveille at Rocky's training camp.
- The Bartender: Actually a candy salesman and soda jerk, but Benny at the candy shop fills this role, doling out ice cream sodas to Rocky and listening to his troubles. Benny delivers some sage advice about how everyone else in Rocky's gang went bad.
- Big Game: Or a big fight, with Tony Zale for the middleweight title, as the climax of the film.
- Biopic: More or less accurate. The film does however have Rocky not stepping into a ring until he goes AWOL, while in Real Life Rocky had won amateur boxing contests and even had a few minor professional bouts before the war.
- Blackmail: Frankie Beppo threatens to expose Rocky's unsavory past, including his dishonorable discharge from the Army, if Rocky doesn't throw his next fight.
- In the first scene, child Rocky sees a storefront advertisement selling Hammerhill Blades (for shaving) for Father's Day, with a picture of Jack Dempsey. Angry and bitter about his awful lout of a father, Rocky throws a rock through the window. Many years later when he makes his return, Rocky sees the exact same storefront advertisement, except that it's his picture.
- In the same scene, Rocky hears a cop calling an Italian youth a "greaseball", just like one did to him years ago.
- Catapult Nightmare: We don't see the nightmare, but this is how Rocky wakes up, stressed out from Frankie's blackmail threats.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Frankie Peppo sees Rocky punch somebody in prison and recommends that he think about boxing. Planting this seed seems to be the extent of Frankie's contribution to the story—until he pops up much later, with a blackmail scheme, causing Rocky a lot of problems.
- Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Norma delivers a well-timed slap when Rocky is ranting about all the people in authority (the DA, the boxing commission) who have screwed them.
- Honor Before Reason: The New York boxing commission demands to know who tried to get Frankie to throw a fight. Because he's kind of dumb, Frankie refuses to tell. This gets him stripped of his license to box in New York.
- Ironic Echo: Which doubles as a Time Skip. Rocky and Norma's toddler girl cringes at the sight of Rocky with cuts and bandages, only for Norma to say "honey, it's only daddy." Cut to the next scene where Rocky enters with a considerably more busted-up face and a closed eye, causing Norma to recoil, and their now pre-school aged daughter to say "mommy, it's only daddy."
- Officer O'Hara: A cop with an Irish accent says "There goes another little greaseball on his way" as Rocky runs off.
- The One Who Made It Out: Rocky, who finds success as a boxer. Emphasized when he goes back home and finds, from his old gang, only Romolo at liberty. Everyone else is either dead or serving a long prison sentence. Romolo for his part is still a petty criminal.
- Match Cut: From Rocky punching a speed bag to Rocky punching the head of an opponent in the ring.
- A Minor Kidroduction: The opening scene has Rocky as a child being given an abusive boxing "lesson" by his bitter old runk of a father.
- Roof Hopping: The Rooftop Confrontation described below ends this way when the police show up. Rocky and Romolo get arrested while the others successfully flee.
- Rooftop Confrontation: One scene opens with Rocky's gang fighting on the roof of their building with a rival "Polack" gang.
- Sleeping Single: How did Frankie and Norma manage to make that baby?
- Spinning Paper: Many shots of newspaper articles recounting Rocky's boxing career, one of which actually does spin.
- Take a Third Option: Frankie Beppo and his gambling buddies demand Rocky throw a fight or they'll expose his sordid past. Rather than either fight and win or throw the fight, Rocky fakes an injury and gets the fight canceled.
- Title Drop: Rocky's last line has him saying "I've been lucky, somebody up there likes me." Norma says "Somebody down here too." Roll credits.
- Video Credits: Shows all the main cast members, but not Steve McQueen!
- Wacky Cravings:
- Rocky has to go down to Benny's candy store for ice cream because Norma is pregnant and has cravings.
- Then near the end of the movie he comes all the way from New York to Chicago with Benny's ice cream on dry ice. Norma thanks him, as she's pregnant again.