Erik Kernan (Josh Hartnett) is a sports reporter for the Denver Times whose work, while solid, is uninspiring and tame—bland copy lacking the punch of truly great journalism. When Erik asks his boss Metz (Alan Alda) why he continues to cover second-rate boxing matches and high school games and not professional events, Metz tells him, "I forget your pieces while I'm reading them. A lot of typing, not much writing."
For Erik, the problem is more than just wanting to make it to the big leagues. His late father was a beloved sports reporter on the radio, and no matter what Erik does, he can never seem to live up to his father's legacy or get out from beneath his shadow. To make matters worse, he has been the same sort of husband and father as he has been a reporter. Separated from him wife, Joyce (Kathryn Morris) and son, Teddy (Dakota Goyo), Erik sees the most important things in life slipping from his grasp.
His big break arrives at the most inauspicious of moments. While leaving one fight in the ring, he encounters another on the street, where several teenaged hoodlums are beating an old homeless man they refer to as "Champ" (Samuel L. Jackson). After they scatter, Champ tells Erik in a grizzled, high-pitched voice that the nickname is from a previous life when he was the successful professional boxer, Bob Satterfield. Erik is intrigued that this ragamuffin of a man on the ground in front of him was once a sports giant, long believed dead.
Captivated, Erik smells an incredible story. Bypassing his editor, he pitches the story to the paper's Sunday magazine where it will get him the most visibility. The magazine likes the idea and Erik begins spending lots of time with Champ, discussing his history over beers and a tape ...