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On November 25, 1975, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is introduced as a small-time boxer and collector for Anthony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), a loan shark, living in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. The World Heavyweight Championship bout is scheduled for New Year's Day 1976, the year of the United States Bicentennial. When the opponent of undefeated heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is injured, Creed comes up with the idea of giving a local underdog a shot at the title and, because he likes Rocky's nickname, "The Italian Stallion", he selects the relatively unknown fighter. He puts it in lights by proclaiming "Apollo Creed meets 'The Italian Stallion'". The fight promoter says the decision is "very American", but Creed adds it is also "very smart".
To prepare for the fight Rocky trains with a 1920s-era ex-bantamweight fighter and gym owner, Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith). Mickey always considered Rocky's potential to be better than his effort, and the two conflict over Mickey's motives for training Rocky for the big fight. Rocky's good friend Paulie (Burt Young), a meat-packing-plant worker, lets him practice his punches on the carcasses hanging in the freezers. During training Rocky dates Paulie's shy, quiet sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), who works as a clerk in a local pet store. The night before the fight Rocky confides to Adrian that he does not expect to beat Creed, and that all he wants is to go the distance with Creed (which no fighter had ever done), meaning that lasting 15 rounds (the typical scheduled length of championship fights at the time) against him would mean he "... wasn't just another bum from the neighborhood".
On New Year's Day the climactic boxing match begins. Apollo Creed does not initially take the fight seriously, and Rocky unexpectedly knocks him down in the first round, embarrassing Creed, and the match turns intense. The fight indeed lasts 15 rounds, with both fighters suffering many injuries; the match illustrates Rocky's apparently unlimited ability to absorb punishment. Rocky suffers his first broken nose, and Creed sustains brutal blows to his ribs, obviously not accustomed to such punishment. As the final round bell sounds, with both fighters locked in each other's arms, an exhausted Creed vows "Ain't gonna be no re-match," to which an equally spent Rocky replies "Don't want one." After the fight Rocky calls out for Adrian, who runs down to the ring. As the ring announcer declares the fight for Apollo Creed by virtue of a split decision (8:7, 7:8, 9:6), Adrian and Rocky embrace while they profess their love to one another, not caring about the result of the fight.