Eddie Willis (Bogart) is a formerly-well-known sports columnist who finds himself unemployed after the newspaper he writes for folds. He receives a job offer from Nick Benko (Steiger), a deeply corrupt boxing promoter, to serve as press agent and publicist for Nick's new fighter, an Argentinian lummox named Toro Moreno (Mike Lane). Eddie isn't thrilled about working for a slimeball like Nick, but, lacking better options, he accepts.
Eddie sees Toro sparring in the ring and is surprised to find out that Toro, despite his enormous size and strength, is actually a terrible boxer: slow, weak at punching, and the owner of a glass jaw. Nick then explains his real plan, which is to build Toro up into a contender by matching him up against a series of palookas who will all be paid to take a dive. Eventually this will pay off with a match against heavyweight champion Buddy Brannen, which will earn Nick (and supposedly Toro) a huge windfall. Eddie reluctantly goes along with the scam, helping build up Toro into a sensation, but is unprepared for the lengths Nick will go and the depths Nick will sink to in order to make some money.
Last film for Humphrey Bogart, made when he was already suffering from the cancer that killed him less than a year after this film was released. Real Life boxing champions Max Baer and Jersey Joe Walcott appear as, respectively, Buddy Brannen and George, Toro's trainer.
The Harder They Trope:
- Blatant Lies: Eddie tells many whoppers about Toro when building him up to the boxing press.
- Casualty in the Ring: Gus Dundee, who is coming off a fight with Brannen in which he was seriously injured—Dundee complains of headaches. The fix is in for his fight with Toro, and when Toro hits him, Gus falls into a coma and dies.
- Complete-the-Quote Title: "The bigger they come..."
- Crippling the Competition: When one of Toro's opponents balks at Throwing the Fight and looks like he's going to beat Toro, his coach puts a chemical in his towel that disables him and allows Toro to win.
- The Cynic: Nick is ruthlessly cynical, telling Eddie that there's no point in making boxing a real sport, that the boxers are actors and the rubes swilling beer in their seats won't care. His vision of boxing is pretty much identical to Professional Wrestling.
- Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Eddie, once a sports columnist of some reknown, reduced to working for a sleazy fight promoter.
- The Film of the Book: Adapted by screenwriter Phillip Yordan from Budd Schulberg's 1947 novel of the same name.
- Foreshadowing: Gus Dundee, a real boxer who just got wrecked in a title fight with Buddy Brannen, is set up as Toro's last Throwing the Fight patsy, the one that will get Toro a Brannen match. It's easy to figure out what's going to happen when Dundee complains of constant headaches.
- Hollywood Accounting: In-Universe, and applied to boxing. Eddie, who has already had enough of the whole affair, goes to Nick and demands to find out how much Toro gets from the Brannen fight. Nick's account Leo shows Eddie a scrupulously maintained, accurate to the penny set of books, which shows that after Nick's fee and Leo's fee and Eddie's fee and other fees and taxes and expenses and promotion, Toro gets a whopping $49.07. From a fight with gate receipts of over $1.2 million.
- Hollywood Hype Machine: Another Hollywood trope applied to boxing. Eddie and Nick whip up a publicity scheme that builds Toro into a household name and a leading contender for the heavyweight title. It involves Eddie's press releases, a tour bus with Toro's name on it and cutouts of Toro on the sides, and a series of fixed fights against tomato cans.
- Honor Before Reason: Right before the Brannen match a conscience-stricken Eddie tells Toro the truth, and explains that Toro needs to lay down to avoid a brutal pummeling. Toro tries to fight anyway, and does manage to knock down Brannen once, but eventually receives a brutal pummeling.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: What Toro suffers when he finally goes up against a real boxer, Buddy Brannen.
- One-Hit KO: Toro can't believe Eddie's story about how his whole career has been rigged. So Eddie has George the ex-boxer demonstrate. George knocks down Toro with one punch.
- Roman à Clef: A take on the controversial career of Primo Carnera, 1930s boxer. Like Toro, Carnera was a foreign import (he was from Italy). Like Toro, Carnera was a giant of a man who hulked over the smaller heavyweights of that era. Like Toro, Carnera was in the clutches of shady corrupt promoters. Like Toro, Carnera won a series of boxing matches that were later said to be rigged in his favor. Like Toro, Carnera takes a brutal beating when he faces a real boxer, getting knocked down 11 times before he finally gets knocked out. And just to make it more obvious, the boxer who knocks out Toro is played by Max Baer, who knocked out Carnera in Real Life, and thus is playing a fictionalized version of himself. Additionally, in the film, Gus Dundee dies after a fight with Toro, but his death is believed to really be the result of injuries suffered in his previous fight against Buddy Brannen. This happened in Real Life with a boxer named Ernie Schaaf, who died in a fight against Primo Carnera after being severely injured in a fight against Baer.
- Sports Stories: A supremely cynical take on the corruption in 1950s boxing.
- Sleeping Single: In true 1950s style, Eddie and his lovely wife sleep in separate twin beds.
- Throwing the Fight: What's happening with all of Toro's opponents, even though Toro doesn't know it and thinks he's winning fair.
- Title Drop: The film ends with Eddie putting a page in his typewriter and starting to write an expose called "The Harder They Fall" about corruption in boxing.
- Unskilled, but Strong: At the very least, Toro looks like an impressive boxer, being intimidatingly tall and strong. However, his actual skills leave a lot to be desired, as he has a terrible punching technique and a glass jaw.
- Worst News Judgment Ever: Even in the 1950s the training regimen of a heavyweight boxer didn't merit front-page headlines.