The Real “Rocky”
Bayonne Boxing Champ Chuck Wepner – the real Rocky Balboa – Star of ESPN Documentary
By Sally Deering
At 72, Chuck Wepner of Bayonne stands 6’5”, weighs 250 lbs, has biceps like ropes of steel, and looks like he can still go a few rounds in the ring – even though it’s been 36 years since his match with Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight title.
In 1975, Wepner boxed 15 rounds with Ali and lost with a broken nose, cuts over his eyes and a bruised ego. But what the Bayonne boxer didn’t know was that an unknown named Sylvester Stallone was watching the fight on his TV set and three days later would write “Rocky” based on underdog Wepner. The film became a major hit in 1976 winning three Academy Awards and earning Stallone fame and fortune. Yo! Let’s not forget the sequels, too.
On Tues, Oct 25 at 8 p.m., “The Real Rocky” a documentary about Wepner’s life as a championship boxer and the story behind his bout with Ali airs on ESPN. (It also airs Wed, Oct 26 at 11 p.m. and Sat, Nov. 26 at 7:30 a.m. on ESPN2.) And a film based on Wepner’s amazing story is in pre-production and will star Liev Schreiber as Wepner.
The one-hour documentary is directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, an award-winning director whose feature film “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” won top documentary directing honors at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. On ESPN.go.com, Feuerzeig, who grew up in New Jersey, explained his inspiration for making the Wepner documentary.
“ I’ve been a Chuck Wepner fan ever since 1975, when I was 10 years old and my father took my brother and me to Sports Night at the Raritan High School gymnasium in Hazlet to see Chuck, aka ‘The Bayonne Bleeder,’ just months before he was set to go up against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title,” Feuerzeig told ESPN. “There were no figures who loomed larger in this 10 year-old’s imagination than Evel Knievel, Andre the Giant and, especially, Muhammad Ali – “The Greatest” – and here was a 6-foot-5 behemoth (Wepner) in a full-length fur coat…and ridiculous amount of jewelry leading us in a chant of ‘Who’s gonna beat Ali? WEPNER!’ And in that instant, Chuck Wepner became a real-life mythological figure — as real to me as the Jersey Devil that haunted the local Pine Barrens.”
These days, Wepner, the former New Jersey state heavyweight boxing champion who was christened “The Bayonne Bleeder” for the hits he took in the ring boxing Sonny Liston,and his (third) wife of 18 years, Linda are riding high from the renewed interest in Wepner’s career. They ride around in the family “Caddy” with the vanity license plates “Champ” and make guest appearances in Bayonne and other cities to promote the documentary and upcoming film. Just recently, Wepner was in Philadelphia where he raced up the courthouse steps against Stallone, a publicity stunt for the documentary and a chance to meet up with his good buddy Stallone.
On a recent afternoon, Wepner took time out from his busy schedule to talk with the Riverview Observer in his beautiful Bayonne home about the renewed interest in his boxing career, his match with Ali and the upcoming documentary and film about his life in and out of the ring.
RO: Can you talk about your early family life?
CW: My father was a cop and became a professional fighter. He was a training partner for Jack Dempsey and James Braddock. I was born in New York City and when my parents separated my mother brought me and my brother to Bayonne to live. But even though I never saw my father until I was 25, when I was growing up my mother never said a bad word about him. When we came to Jersey, my mother had her hat in her hand. We had no real place to live and a friend offered us a coal shed, which my mother converted into a room for us to live. She was a good mother who thought everyone was good. Kids today think they have a tough life – they’re full of it.
RO: Did you make amends with your dad?
CW: I was 25, just turned pro and fighting for the National Championship Golden Gloves against John L. Sullivan in Madison Square Garden. My father came up to me and said, “Do you know me, son?” I said “yes.” He said to me, “I’m cheering for you.” I beat Sullivan that night. My father and I made friends.
RO: What can you tell us about your famous bout with Ali?
CW: In Jersey City, the fight was broadcast on Closed Circuit TV at the Stanley Theater in Journal Square. I was the 40-1 underdog. I was with Ali the night before the fight at the Cleveland Coliseum, a beautiful venue for the fight. We had dinner. The next time I saw him was in the ring.
RO: Was it a knockout?
CW: No. They stopped the fight with only 19 seconds left in the round. Tony Perez was the ref. Each round was three minutes. It was the 15th round and from the 14th round on, my legs were shaking. I was exhausted. I had been in the ring with Ali for an hour. In the 15th round, when Ali hit me, I fell, but I was getting back up. That’s when Tony saw that my eyes were glazed and he stopped the fight with only 19 seconds left. Later, he told me, ‘If I had known there was only 19 seconds left, I would have continued the fight.” I was more shocked than anybody. I only got seven stitches. I got more cuts here (in Bayonne) on a Friday night. I was undefeated in bars, men’s rooms. Years ago, Bayonne was a rough town. It was a great town. It still is.
RO: Were you scared to get in the ring with Ali?
CW: I was never scared. I was nervous about not doing well. Even if I didn’t win this fight, I wanted to prove I belong there. I owe Ali for so much; I became famous from the ‘Rocky’ series.
RO: Did you see Ali after the fight?
CW: We were friends. I made appearances with him and I made friends with his daughters. He’s a great guy.
RO: What was it like the first time you saw “Rocky”?
CW: I went to a theater in New York City for the premier. I remember thinking I hope this movie is good. As the movie started going, I’m thinking this is a good movie. I never realized ‘Rocky’ would be the biggest grossing movie. Stallone made 23 billion on all the ‘Rockys’.
RO: Did you train by hitting sides of beef in a meat locker?
CW: No. Stallone added the sides of beef. It was a good idea.
RO: How do you stay in shape? Still boxing?
CW: I don’t box anymore. I don’t need it anymore. I earned a Black Belt in Ju Jitsu, but dropped that. I lift weights, keep myself decent looking so when people say ‘He’s the former champ’ they don’t see me looking old and decrepit.
RO: Can you talk about the upcoming movie about your life?
CW: It’s been in pre-production for eight years. First it was John C. Reilly who was gonna play me, then Vince Vaughn, and now Liev Schreiber. He’s right for it. He’s 6’2”, weighs 220 and he’s a good actor.
RO: You’re good friends with Sly Stallone?
CW: I love Stallone. When I was getting ready for the race up the Philadelphia Courthouse steps, he sent me an email: ‘I’ll be waiting on the steps for you.’ He was good to me. I think he’s a terrific guy.
“The Real Rocky” based on the life and boxing career of Chuck Wepner airs Tues, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. on ESPN
For more info, go to www.espn.go.com