- Ben White
- BBC Sport correspondent in New Jersey
Chuck Wepner, 83, stands 6ft 5in tall, with broad shoulders and strong hands. His fist bones are a reminder of a life he spent punching.
His profession as a boxer has left scars on other parts of his body that also remind him of the life he spent boxing.
“I was bleeding so bad, I’ve had 328 stitches in my career, I’ve had my nose broken 9 times in 16 years, and it never bothered me, you know?” Wepner told BBC Sport, shrugging his shoulders.
In fact, he was so likely to suffer injury to his face in the ring that he eventually adopted the derisive nickname Bayonne Blader (Bleeding Bayonne). Bayonne is a town in New Jersey that Wepner still calls home. He had a not very exciting fight.
So perhaps the most famous match of his career could be called the blood-drenched one.
“Tony Perez was the referee in my fight with Muhammad Ali,” Wepner recalls their meeting in 1975.
And he went on to say: “After I fell to the ground, Tony said to me: Chuck, you’re bleeding profusely, I said .. No way, give me this round, let me finish the fight, I’m fine. Tony said .. Well Chuck, how many fingers do you see?. I looked to his hand and I said, “How many chances do I have to guess how many fingers are raised?”
Despite Wepner’s protests and the dismay of the raging crowd of 15,000 inside Richfield Coliseum, Ohio, the referee stopped the bout with just 19 seconds left in round 15.
Chuck needed 23 stitches after the game. It took Muhammad Ali 15 rounds, but, as with so much in Wepner’s life, the focus was on his injuries and the greatness of his accomplishments.
The odds of him defeating Muhammad Ali did not exceed ten percent, as a 36-year-old non-professional boxer who suddenly came from New Jersey, and he had not trained before under the supervision of a specialized coach, but he confused expectations with his performance.
Not only did Wepner approach the level of world champion and one of the greatest people to ever wear gloves, he also became the fourth person in history to knock Clay to the ground, who crushed George Foreman only 10 months earlier.
A spectator – via videoconference in a Los Angeles movie theater – was so enthralled by Wepner’s determination and his ninth-round knockout of Clay, he rushed home to draw a character in a new script he had in mind.
With all his other scripts discarded, and with one last chance to pitch a new idea, the writer went back to his draft, creating an epic story about a boxer that took 3 1/2 days of frantic creativity.
The film based on that script became the highest-grossing screenplay of 1976, won three Academy Awards in 1977, a career launch pad for creator Sylvester Stallone and one of the most popular stories of the modern era.
And for Wepner, the man whose blood and courage inspired Rocky Balboa, this was just the beginning of the next chapter.
At Dennis P. Collins Park, a grassy playground on the shores of Newark Bay across from New York, the local sheriff addressed a large crowd: “There are famous Jerseyans we know by one word of their name: There’s Frank, there’s Bruce, and there’s Chuck.”
When the latter name was mentioned alongside Sinatra and Springsteen, the 400 or so in the audience cheered and clapped for the local hero in their midst.
Wepner, dressed in a tracksuit and yellow cap, shakes his head and smiles at his place among boxing greats like Larry Holmes and Jerry Cooney, who also came to honor their friend on his big day.
As a swift wind blew across the water, the black cloth covering the soon-to-be-unveiled statue of young Wepner standing on 2,500 pounds of bronze beneath him fluttered.
“Well, I was actually born in New York, and I moved to Jersey when I was a year and a half after my mom and dad split up, and my mom raised us here,” Wepner admits.
And it was on the streets of Bayonne, a stone’s throw from Collins Park, where dockers, gangsters and oil refiners mingled, that Wepner began to learn his trade.
“Where I grew up, there were always two or three gangs, and one way or another you had to step up and beat the strongest guy to survive, which I did. I got into fights almost every week,” he says.
And Wepner wasn’t just muscle. He was also a promising athlete as he played on the high school basketball team in the local tournaments, however, when he discovered that “more money could be made by beating people up”, he committed himself to boxing.
His 3-year stint in the Marine Corps hindered his progress for a while. Wepner enrolled illegally at age 15 after watching the movie Battle Cry, and persuading his mother to add her signature to his “fake papers,” but when he entered the New York Amateur Golden Gloves competition as an 18-year-old weighing 220 pounds, he found it to his liking.
“I made my way through these guys very easily,” he says. “They’ve never seen anything like my style before.”
At Madison Square Garden, Wepner broke the nose of local talent “Bob the Pistol” and beat Staten Island police department champ James Sullivan on his way to the 1964 title.
He became a professional immediately after that, as he began a career of 52 matches, during which he won 36 matches and punched stars such as Buster Mathis, George Foreman, Joe Bugner, Ernie Terrell and Muhammad Ali Clay.
But his mid-career fight against Sonny Liston, in 1970, Wepner felt would be his ticket to the big match.
“I thought I was taking a shortcut, well it wasn’t,” says Wepner, “Sonny was so big and so strong, he broke my nose, gave me 71 stitches, and broke my jaw on the left side. I was still fighting him in the 10th round when the doctor stopped the bout.” Because I was bleeding so hard.”
Aside from the broken bones, every stitch he received in his career was an ice-cold process.
He adds, “It was painful, but I motivated myself to endure. Almost every match, I knew I was going to get injured and eight or 10 stitches? They were just scrapes.”
Being prepared to die in the ring, Wepner admits, was another staple in his armory.
“Absolutely,” he says. “I’d go there ready to die. In fact, after the Battle of Liston I went into semi-coma and shock, and my doctor told my mother I was very disoriented. I really thought about whether I wanted to continue, but then I thought, ‘I have to try’.” I have to try again, I have to try again.”
He came back, and after two wins and three losses, Wepner won 8 straight matches between 1972 and 1974 and caught the attention of Don King.
King described the match between Wepner and Clay, at Richfield Coliseum, as a “give the white man a chance” fight.
In a golden age of heavyweight boxing dominated by black men, King felt he could attract a bigger crowd if Clay faced a white American opponent to defend his title.
But King’s hopes for a match fueled by grudges, a battle between the races, are dashed by Wepner’s admiration for his opponent.
“You know, I was so happy and proud to be in the ring with Muhammad Ali,” says Wepner. “The most famous man of all time, I was so proud.”
He went on to say, “The night before the game, the owner of the Coliseum invited Clay and me to his private suite for dinner. I sat right next to Ali at a big table. We sat together for two hours talking, and he did some magic tricks. I loved him.. I loved Clay, and we became great friends.”
The next day, after James Brown misspelled the national anthem, forgot several words and changed the anthem’s ending into a call-and-response with the crowd, Wepner put aside his youthful friendship with Clay and set about implementing a plan to win.
“My strategy was to put pressure on him, wear him down, at least for the first four or five rounds, and maybe finish him off in the later rounds,” says Wepner.
He added, “So I pressed him, and my punches rained down on him. I should have won three or four of those rounds. But at the referees I had to put Clay on the ground to do that.”
The crowd, anticipating his defeat, began to respond to Wepner’s unexpected cunning. Instead of chanting “Ali, Ali” they started standing behind the underdog, with shouts of “Chuck, Chuck” echoing through the arena.
Armed with backup, Wepner discovered a hole in Clay’s defense, which he exploited in the ninth round.
Wepner retreated and delivered a strong right punch that staggered Clay.
Ali’s crew later argued that Wepner tried to slide Clay and slipped but Wepner refused.
“I knocked him down with that punch and you can hear it on replay,” he says. “It was a very strong punch. He was off balance and I knocked him down and he knows it.”
Watching Clay rise from his corner position, Wepner noticed a change.
“I could see his eyes and I thought, ‘I really pissed him off now,’ when he started punching and swearing at me,” he says.
Angered by his staggering, Clay tore Wepner relentlessly, and the crowd cheered the underdog to hold on.
Clay’s punishment made the fifteenth round shorter by 19 seconds.
The fame that came from his epic defeat at the hands of Clay and his association with the Rocky movie set Wepner’s life on a new path.
In an effort to make money, King Loebner arranged to “fight” wrestling legend Andre Rene Roussimoff – better known as “Andre the Giant” – at New York’s Shea Arena.
Although Wepner had an unusual fight, he lost to the most unusual opponent.
Later in his career, Wepner twice faced a show bear named Victor in New Jersey bar wrestling matches.
Wepner fell outside the ring after enraging the animal with repeated punches to the head.
He has done other work, besides boxing.
To further his work as an Allied Liqueur salesman, he also “solved the problems” of those who owed money to the company.
“I did some favors for my friends, you know, I used to go around asking people politely how much money they owe, and then I’d probably have to slap them in the face or something,” says Wepner.
But after retiring from boxing in 1979, Wepner frequented bars and did a lot of cocaine, which led to him failing an audition in Rocky II alongside superstar Stallone.
In 1985 he was found guilty of drug possession and sentenced to 10 years in prison, a sentence that sent him to Newark North Prison.
Prison was a struggle for survival for many of the men, but not for Weebner. “Prison gave me a break, it was good,” he says. “Everywhere I went, the guys were chanting ‘champion, champ’, saying, ‘How are you, Chuck?'”
“You know, I was with the right people in prison, you could say I ended up with some guys from the neighborhood, I knew them, they knew me,” he added.
After volunteering to manage the prison’s boxing team, a project that failed due to a “lack of talent”, Wepner was paroled after 3 years.
Then came the lawsuit against Stallone.
Wepner sued for damages for his role in the inspiration for the Rocky movie series.
The case was settled for an undisclosed amount in 2006. The settlement gave Wepner the right to officially say he was the man the film was based on, and the chance to make a film about his life without legal retribution.
Indeed, a movie was made about his life in 2016.
Actor Liev Schreiber, who played Wepner in Chuck, said: “The most interesting thing about Chuck’s story isn’t the part about Rocky, it’s how he dealt with everything that came his way. His perseverance and heart.”
He went on to say, “Every time Clay hit him in the mouth with that incredible punch, he seemed to get happier. You can’t kill a man like that. That was Chuck’s indomitable spirit. That was the story I liked, and that’s why I wanted to make his movie.” “.
It took much longer to immortalize Wepner in bronze.
His old friend Bruce Dillin, owner of the Bayonne Delin Tires garage, has turned a crowded waiting room into an unofficial Chuck Wepner museum. Beneath the “Bleeding from Bayonne” images are newspaper clippings and a pair of boxing shorts that Dylan admits Wepner likely never wore.
The garage owner reveals the idea that the sculpture was originally started as a joke. “Chuck was presenting me with a community award in front of all these local dignitaries,” he says. “I knew he was going to make a joke about me, so I laughed at him and said, ‘Bayon today announced a Chuck Wepner statue in front of City Hall to acknowledge the true role of Rocky.'”
He went on to say: “So the people got up and started clapping. Then everyone came asking: Is this true about the statue, is this true?”
Delin was shocked at this moment that not only had a statue of his friend’s immortality received widespread support, but it was also long overdue.
A statue of Sylvester Stallone has been given a prominent place on the top steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1980.
After more than two decades and countless fundraising, a statue of the real Rocky as his fictional character has finally been erected.
Not that Wepner is bitter. “I was so proud of the fact that they put up a statue of Sylvester, he deserved it, and it’s a beautiful statue,” he says. “I mean, mine is big, but his? It dwarfs my statue.”
He went on to say: “I heard they paid $350,000 for a statue of Rocky. This statue here is much less expensive.”