Rocky returns home from the Soviet Union, and is greeted by his son, Robert, who tells him he has made the honor roll at school. Rocky conducts a press conference, during which promoter, the main villain: George Washington Duke (a parody of boxing promoter Don King), tries to goad Rocky into fighting the new #1 contender to his championship, Union Cane, in Tokyo. After Adrian protests that Rocky will be retiring, Rocky decides, at least for the time being, not to take the fight with Cane.
Rocky, Adrian, and Adrian's brother Paulie return to their Philadelphia home to find out that Paulie had signed 'power of attorney' over to Balboa's accountant, who had, in turn, squandered most of his money on real estate flipping. Hearing that he is now bankrupt, Rocky immediately decides that he needs to take the fight against Cane. However, years of fights have taken a toll on Rocky's health, especially the last one with Drago, with his brain sustaining severe damage from all the years of punishment in the ring, and after visiting the doctor (in response to the plea by his wife), he can no longer fight without risking permanent severe injury. Rocky is forced to give up the championship, which is held up and later won by Cane, the recognized #1 contender, and moves back into his old Philadelphia neighborhood, where he, Adrian, Paulie and Robert must learn to live with next to nothing again.
Rocky returns to his old (and now abandoned) gym where he has a flashback of him training for his second fight with Apollo Creed, with his old mentor, Mickey. Things briefly look up when Rocky sees a lot of potential in a young fighter from small-town Oklahoma named Tommy Gunn and takes him under his wing. Taking in the young fighter gives Rocky a sense of purpose, and he slowly helps Tommy fight his way up the ladder to become a top contender. The cost of this new friendship results in Rocky paying little attention to Robert, who becomes withdrawn and angry. Robert also falls in the wrong crowd, and begins getting coerced by bullies in the school yard, while also training to defend himself from these people.
Tommy's rapid rise through the ranks catches the eye of Duke, who uses the promise of a title shot and Tommy's own resentment at being compared stylistically to his trainer Balboa to convince him to leave Rocky. Duke pulls up outside the Balboa house with Tommy in tow, who has now been brainwashed into thinking that Rocky hasn’t been managing him correctly and that his rise to the top has been hindered by the champ’s stupidity. When Rocky tries to tell Tommy that it's the road to the title and not the title itself that makes a great fighter, an ungrateful Tommy drives off in a huff, leaving Rocky for good. Rocky realizes that Tommy has the skills, but ultimately not the heart of a great fighter.
Adrian finds Rocky alone in the darkened street watching Tommy’s car disappear into the night, his head pounding with flashbacks of his fight with Drago, his vision disturbed. Furious, he screams his frustrations at Adrian, telling her that his life had meaning again when he was able to live vicariously through Tommy’s success. She reasons with him, telling him that Tommy never had his heart and spirit – that it was something he could never learn. When this realization hits him, an emotional Rocky embraces his wife and they begin to pick up the pieces. After having found Robert hanging out on a street corner with other kids, Rocky apologizes to his son and the two mend their broken relationship and head for home.
Under Duke, Tommy does indeed win the heavyweight title by knocking Union Cane out in the first round using the training Rocky taught him. However, it is an empty victory for Tommy as the angry crowd chants Rocky's name instead, much to Tommy's bemusement. The press tells Tommy that Cane was nothing more than "...a second-rate fighter with so much glass in his jaw he ought to be a chandelier." and that Tommy "...might win a few fights but a Rocky Balboa he'll never be." Duke himself later tells Tommy "As long as they got Balboa on the brain he'll always be champ. The man fought WARS in the ring." Duke tells him the public will never consider him the real champion because he never fought Balboa.
Tommy decides to end matters once and for all by going to Rocky's neighborhood and challenging him to a fight in the ring. Tommy and Duke, accompanied by a small camera crew, one of Duke's partners, and a bimbo Duke gave Tommy, stand outside the bar as Tommy challenges Rocky to a fight. Rocky declines and makes his way back into the bar. Tommy follows him and the two argue, Rocky telling him Duke was only using him for the bait. When Rocky proceeds to ignore him again, Tommy taunts him. Paulie intervenes and criticises Tommy for treating Rocky so badly and betraying him, even shoving Tommy away. Tommy loses his temper and punches Paulie in the face. Rocky rushes to Paulie's side, and loses his cool. Rocky asks Tommy, "you knocked him down, why don't try knockin' me down now?" Duke attempts to stop them by stating Tommy only fights in the ring. Rocky simply replies, "my ring's outside". Everyone in the bar lines up outside to see the fight. Duke tries to restrain Tommy, but Tommy grabs Duke by the coat lapel, "you think you own me, you don't own me! nobody does!" As Tommy walks to swing, Rocky throws many punches, knocking Tommy into a pile of garbage. Rocky laments he and Tommy were supposed to be like two fingers on the same hand. As Rocky turns around, and Duke helps Tommy up, Tommy jumps Rocky from behind. The bar patrons attempt to help Rocky, but are punched out by an out-of-control Tommy. Tommy tackles Rocky into the street.
Rocky is initially beaten down by Tommy and is seemingly out for the count, lying on the street, his head bleeding badly. His head pounds again with nightmarish visions of his fight with Ivan Drago, with visions of Mickey’s burial. It is then that he hears his old mentor’s voice telling him to go one last round. It echoes: "Get up, you son of a bitch, cause Mickey loves you." Rocky finds the strength to get back up, telling Tommy, "one more round." Rocky uses his street skills to knock Tommy out, with Robert, Adrian, Paulie, and the whole neighborhood cheering him on, eventually knocking the younger fighter into the grill of a bus. After the fight is done, Duke walks up to Rocky stating he'll sue him if he tries to fight, but Rocky punches Duke in the gut, knocking him onto the hood of a car and tells him "sue me for what?"
Rocky and Robert meet up the next day at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Rocky gives Robert the cuff-link given to him as a gift from Mickey, they make their way to the museum, and the film ends with a shot of Rocky's statue looking out over Philadelphia.
As a result of, and in response to, Rocky V's poor box office performance (and the general dissatisfaction with the end of the franchise), Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed, and starred in Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final chapter to the saga released 16 years after this movie, in an attempt to redeem the character for a final chance to come back as a hero again, and do the story justice by bringing it full circle. It succeeded by grossing over $70 million at the U.S. box office as well and $85 million abroad and getting largely positive reviews from both fans and critics.
On February 15, 2008 in an interview with Jonathan Ross on the BBC, Stallone was asked by Ross what marks out of 10 he would give each of the Rocky films. When he came to Rocky V, Stallone instantly replied that he would give the film zero, and reiterated that this was part of his motivation in making Rocky Balboa.
Rocky's priest friend Father Carmine (Paul Micale) makes his second of two appearances in the Rocky series, the first being in Rocky II.
The character "Tommy Gunn" was played by real-life boxer Tommy Morrison. Morrison's nickname in boxing was "The Duke" similar to George Washington Duke who becomes his manager in the movie. Morrison is also the grand-nephew of John "The Duke" Wayne.
Michael Williams (III), like Tommy Morrison, was a real-life boxer. He and Morrison were to have an actual match about a month after Rocky V was released, but had to be canceled when Williams was hurt. The match was being hyped as "The Real Cane vs. Gunn Match."
Tony Burton briefly reprises his role as Duke at the beginning of the film. However, during his scenes, Rocky refers to him as "Tony." In the credits, Burton is credited as playing "Tony," as opposed to "Duke" (perhaps to avoid confusion with the George Washington Duke character) Rocky V is the second time in the series to do so, with the first being Rocky II as Apollo asked "What are you afraid of Tony?" Rocky Balboa names Burton's character, "Duke Evers." Most fans take this to imply that his name is Tony 'Duke' Evers.
Scenes with Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith, were trimmed in the final film when Rocky fights Tommy. Mickey appeared in ghost form on top of the railway bridge, giving words of encouragement. In the final film, this was made into flashbacks. The speech Mickey gives to Rocky in the flashback sequence is based on an interview with Cus D'Amato given in 1985, shortly after Mike Tyson's first professional bout.
Jodi Letizia, who played street kid Marie in the original Rocky (1976), was supposed to reprise her role here. Her character was shown to have ended up as Rocky predicted she would: a whore, but the scene ended up on the cutting room floor. The character would eventually reappear in Rocky Balboa (2006), as a bartender and confidante to the aging Rocky. Actress Geraldine Hughes took over the role.
The image of Gunn's first professional fight, the pullback from the mural of Jesus over the boxing ring, mirrors the opening shot of the first Rocky movie. Adrian goes back to working at the pet shop she first worked at in the original Rocky.
The golden glove necklace featured so prominently in this film was first seen in Rocky III, then again throughout Rocky IV. As a promotional gimmick, replicas of the necklace were distributed to moviegoers at the Hollywood premiere of Rocky V at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. The famous red, white and blue boxing trunks first worn by Apollo Creed in his fight with Rocky in the first film make their fifth and final appearance in this film. Rocky's leather coat introduced in Rocky IV makes its second and final appearance in the franchise at the start of the movie. The Ring Magazine belt in Rocky's basement and the identical belt Morrison wins in the ring have changed slightly from the previous movies; they are missing the four side panels showing famous champions George Foreman, James J. Corbett, James J. Braddock, and Jersey Joe Walcott.
According to Sylvester Stallone, pro wrestling legend Terry Funk helped choreograph much of the street fight between Rocky and Tommy Gunn. Sylvester Stallone originally intended for Rocky to die after defeating Tommy Gunn in their streetfight, however according to him, the director, and the studio they had second thoughts and eventually, Stallone rewrote the ending.
In the TV series The Simpsons, Bart refers to Rocky V in the episode "Lemon of Troy". Bart is in a place where every door has Roman numerals. All the doors have man eating tigers except door number 7. Having walked out of the class when that subject was taught earlier in the episode, Bart says to himself, "Where have you seen Roman numerals? Wait a minute! I know! Rocky V! That was the fifth one. So Rocky V + Rocky II...equals...Rocky VII: Adrian's Revenge!"
Anticipated to be one of the big hits of the 1990 holiday season, Rocky V finished second in its opening weekend to Home Alone and never recovered.
Rocky V made almost twice as much overseas and thereby a total of $119.9 million worldwide.