This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
All boxing movies deplore the sport to some extent. They regret the blood and mayhem even while they glorify it. 'Gladiator' goes one step beyond, with its hero who hates the game and ends up bare-knuckled in the ring with the evil fight promoter who is trying to enslave him. Don King would not enjoy this story.
The Chicago-based movie stars James Marshall as Tommy Riley, a white hope from Bridgeport whose mom has died and whose dad has landed them in an unfurnished flat with gambling collectors knocking on the door. Tommy transfers to a school where some of the students want to pound him to a pulp, and a boxing manager (Robert Loggia) spots him and offers him quick money to fight.
Tommy needs the money to bail out his father, and so he gets ensnared in the underground world of a shadowy fight promoter (Brian Dennehy), who stages illegal fights, fixes the odds and makes money off the gambling. The idea of the Dennehy's illegal boxing arena is a storytelling masterstroke; it explains the small crowds at the same time it permits the boxers to fight dirty.
And they do. Hitting below the belt is just a warm-up for these violent street brawlers, who also kick their opponent's jaws, rub harmful substances in their eyes, and keep punching opponents who are already unconscious. Tommy, a talented Golden Gloves amateur, is repelled by the dangerous level of violence encouraged in the illegal ring, but Dennehy buys up his father's gambling debts and makes other threats to keep him fighting. He knows what buttons to push.