Most people are familiar with the movie Rocky (1976), which portrays a down-and-out boxer who gets a shot at the heavyweight title and shocks the world by nearly winning the bout. Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay and starred as Rocky. The movie was a huge success and won nine Academy Awards, including best picture. It is generally considered to be one of the best sports movies ever, and the American Film Institute has ranked it as the second best boxing movie (behind Raging Bull). In addition, it spawned six sequels, which have met with varying degrees of success.
What most people are unaware of, however, is that the character, Rocky, as well as much of the movie’s plot, was based on an actual boxer named Chuck Wepner. Unless you were an avid boxing fan in the 1970s and 1980s you likely have never heard of Wepner. Read on and be edified.
Wepner was born on February 26, 1939 in New York City. He was raised by his grandmother in Bayonne, NJ. Money was scarce. For example, Wepner’s childhood bedroom was actually a converted coal shed. He did not have any formal boxing training. He learned to fight on the streets. As Wepner put it, “it was a tough town… you had to fight to survive.”
After graduating high school Wepner joined the Marines, where he learned how to box. He was very successful, primarily because he could “take a punch.” After his discharge, he bounced around at different jobs, including that of a “bouncer” in a club.
He turned professional in 1964. He became a successful “club fighter” in the NJ area and even managed to defeat former WBA Heavyweight Champion Ernie Terrell in one fight. But, he was not in the same class as the top boxers, losing badly, for instance, to George Foreman and Sonny Liston. His main forte was he could take punishment. In fact, he took punishment so well that it became the basis for his nickname, the “Bayonne Bleeder.”
Wepner’s big break came in 1975. Muhammed Ali’s handlers were looking to “book” a white fighter for Ali’s next bout, and Wepner happened to be the highest ranked white boxer at the time. Wepner’s pedestrian record was also a factor as Ali’s handlers were looking for a non-threatening opponent before his next big fight. The fighters’ respective purses reflected their respective status and expectations of success. Ali was guaranteed $1.5 million; Wepner got a mere $100,000. The pre-fight conventional wisdom was that Wepner was a sacrificial lamb. The question was not whether or not he could win, but how long could he last? Go the distance? Not a chance! In response to one reporter’s question as to his chances in the ring, Wepner quipped: “If I survived the Marines, I can survive Ali.”
Wepner almost made it. He did, indeed, shock the world, not by winning, but by nearly lasting the distance when few had thought he could. Ali beat him by a TKO with but 19 seconds left in the 15th and final round. Moreover, in the 9th round Wepner had scored a rare knockdown of Ali (although Ali later insisted Wepner had stepped on his foot). While Ali was down Wepner retreated to a neutral corner as required by the rules. He was brimming with confidence until his manager told him, “You better turn around. He’s getting up, and he looks pissed.”
Before leaving his hotel room to go to the bout Wepner had told his wife, who had remained behind, “Tonight, you will be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.” When he returned to the room afterwards, she asked him “Am I going to Ali’s room, or is he coming to mine?” Apparently, she, too, had a good sense of humor.
The fight with Ali proved to be Wepner’s last big moment in the ring. “I showed the world that I belonged in there,” said Wepner afterwards, and “that’s what I really wanted to do.” Three years later he retired, and went into the liquor distribution business with his wife, Linda, where he remains today.
Stallone had watched the Ali-Wepner bout. Supposedly, it had inspired him to write the script that became Rocky. At first, Stallone denied any connection, but, eventually, he agreed to a monetary settlement with Wepner. Furthermore, in a nice gesture, he offered him a role in the sequel, but it didn’t work out.
In my opinion, the parallels between the two are too compelling to be coincidental. For example:
- Wepner’s career and style of boxing were very similar to those of the fictional Rocky.
- Wepner fought a wrestler, “Andre the Giant.” In Rocky III Rocky fought the wrestler, “Thunderlips,” played by Hulk Hogan. Additionally, during the fight Andre threw Wepner out of the ring, as Rocky and Thunderlips did to each other.
- The personality of the fictional Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, bore a striking resemblance to that of Muhammed Ali.
- Wepner really did train by running up steps, although not the 72 steps at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as portrayed in Rocky. He did not, however, eat raw eggs. Anyone who does “better be wearing depends,” he once quipped. Also, he denied training by punching slabs of frozen meat. “I trained on punching [unruly bar patrons]. I was undefeated in about 87 bar fights.”
- Rocky’s fictional bout with Creed exhibited many parallels to the actual Wepner-Ali bout.
As you can see from the foregoing quotes, Wepner was very personable and had a great sense of humor. Currently, his story is being portrayed in the movie, Chuck, starring Liev Schreiber as Wepner. I have seen it, and although it was not as good as Rocky, I found it entertaining, and I recommend it. Don’t be put off by the fact that you may not have heard of Wepner. Listen to Schreiber: “I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know who Chuck was… and I was blown away when I found out.”