'I'm A Brawler,' Says Chuck Wepner, The Boxer Who Inspired 'Rocky'

May 10, 2017
Originally published on May 10, 2017 7:12 am

Chuck Wepner is realistic about his boxing abilities. He cops to being a slow learner when it comes to the techniques and finesse of boxing.

"I'm a brawler," he says from his condo in Bayonne, New Jersey. His voice, by the way, sounds exactly like a guy who calls himself a brawler. "I'm a fighter. That's why people — I used to sell out every time I fought — because people knew they were gonna get their money's worth. They were gonna see a fight."

And that's what happened on March 24, 1975 at Richfield Coliseum — just outside Cleveland. His opponent was a top-of-his-game Muhammad Ali, who had just beaten George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. This fight didn't have anywhere near that same sort of cultural significance, says Michael Ezra, author of the book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Instead, he says, it was "a big whatever," where pretty much everyone involved knew who was going to win. Ezra says for champs like Ali, the overmatched fight is sort of ingrained into boxing.

"That's how you don't get hurt. That's how you get paid. And that's how the sport functions best." There's something in it for the other guy, too, he adds. "By the peculiar mindset of boxing — the hardcore capitalism where bodies are ground up for dollars — it's actually a great opportunity."

"Great opportunity" is kind of an understatement considering what happened in the ninth round. After being completely out-matched, Wepner gets a swing into Ali's ribs and Ali falls. Wepner maintains that it was a clean knock down. Others, like Ezra, say Wepner tripped Ali. Either way, it's on the books as Ali getting knocked down.

This is a big deal because sure, Ali got knocked down. It didn't happen often. But it's a bigger deal, because watching the fight at the time was a struggling screenwriter named Sylvester Stallone. And he'd been thinking about big themes: Unfulfilled potential, being undersold, never getting your shot. You can probably guess where this is going by now — Stallone took Wepner's story and turned it into the Academy Award-winning movie Rocky.

In an anniversary edition DVD extra of Rocky, he talks about Wepner with a certain kind of romance.

"For one brief moment this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent in the fact that he lasted, and knocked the champ down. I said, 'boy, if this isn't a metaphor for life.' His entire life crystallized at that moment. He would be remembered for all eternity."

Wepner, like Rocky Balboa, lost the fight. When Rocky became a full-on franchise, Wepner got name-checked, but didn't get an actual check from the movie's success. He did meet Stallone, and became fame-adjacent — Stallone even let him read for a part in Rocky II. It didn't go well, and mostly Wepner kept on living his life as a liquor salesman, cashing in on his hometown cred here and there. That included boxing for charity but also a decent amount of drinking and drugs and sex.

In 2003 he made the decision to sue Stallone. He didn't want to do it, says Linda Wepner, Chuck's wife of 24 years — she's the one who finally convinced him. "Stallone was great and all that, but come on, that's my husband," she says. "Don't mess with me, babe." She also sounds exactly like the type of person who would say "don't mess with me, babe." In the end, they settled quickly and remain relatively close to Stallone. "I wouldn't say kissin' buddy friends, but we're friends," Wepner says. "You know, we're professional."

Today Wepner has a movie he can call his own. It's called Chuck. It just opened, and stars Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. There's more than a few differences between this movie version of Wepner and Stallone's version of him. This Wepner's a lot more mouthy, kind of a tough guy, probably closer in attitude to Rocky's best friend Paulie. The movie used to be called The Bleeder — a reference to Wepner's skill at taking a punch. He gets called that in the movie, and you can tell it stings. Today in real life, Wepner says, it doesn't hurt as much.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Boxers work to get attention all the time, especially the greatest.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW")

MUHAMMAD ALI: Yeah, you think I'm just talking, huh...

CHUCK WEPNER: It's hard to talk with a glove in your mouth.

ALI: ...You think I'm just talking, huh? And a glove in my mouth?

C. WEPNER: Yeah, right.

GREENE: That is Muhammad Ali on "The Mike Douglas Show" talking to a guy named Chuck Wepner. They're promoting a fight that Ali would eventually win but in a roundabout way, making Wepner famous, as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Chuck Wepner is realistic about his boxing abilities. He cops at being a slow learner when it comes to the techniques and finesse of boxing.

C. WEPNER: I'm a brawler, you know, I'm a fighter. That's why people - I used to sell out every time I fought because people knew they were going to get their money's worth. They were going to see a fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...From Bayonne, N.J., Chuck Wepner.

LIMBONG: And that's what happened on March 24, 1975, at Richfield Coliseum, just outside of Cleveland. It's Ali versus Wepner. And Wepner is big and slow and just taking these hits. And it's a humdrum fight, one where pretty much everyone involved knew who was going to win. For champs, the overmatched fight is sort of ingrained into boxing, says Michael Ezra, author of the book "Muhammad Ali: The Making Of An Icon."

MICHAEL EZRA: That's how you don't get hurt. That's how you get paid. And that's how the sport functions best. So for Wepner to get to share in the revenue somehow is, by the peculiar mindset of boxing, the hardcore capitalism where bodies are ground up for dollars. It's actually a great opportunity.

LIMBONG: Great opportunity is kind of underselling what eventually happened because in the ninth round, after being completely outmatched, Wepner gets a swing into Ali's ribs, and...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Yelling, cheering).

LIMBONG: ...Ali falls. There's some squibbling about whether or not Wepner tripped Ali rather than, you know, punching him down. But either way, it's on the books as Ali getting knocked down. Watching this fight at the time was a struggling screenwriter named Sylvester Stallone.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYLVESTER STALLONE: And for one brief moment, this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent in the fact that he lasted and knocked the champion down.

LIMBONG: This is from a DVD extra of the movie he wrote inspired by Wepner, which, if you can't guess by now, is "Rocky."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STALLONE: I said, boy, if this isn't a metaphor for life. His entire life crystallized in that moment. He will be remembered for all eternity, at least among the fight fans.

LIMBONG: While Wepner lost that fight, "Rocky" went on to win best picture and become a huge franchise. Wepner got name-checked, but didn't get an actual check from "Rocky's" success. He met Stallone and became fame-adjacent, but mostly his life continued as a liquor salesman cashing in on his hometown cred here and there. This includes boxing for charity but also a decent amount of drinking and drugs and sex. He ended up suing Stallone in 2003, and it wasn't a decision he made lightly.

LINDA WEPNER: He didn't want to do it, Chuck. Not at all. I said - you know what? - not for anything. You got to be kidding me.

LIMBONG: This is Linda Wepner, Chuck's wife of 24 years, who finally convinced him.

C. WEPNER: Twenty years.

L. WEPNER: And no offense to him. I mean, Stallone is great and all that. But come on, it's my husband. Don't mess with me, babe.

LIMBONG: It was a quick legal process. They settled and stay relatively close to Stallone.

C. WEPNER: I wouldn't say kissing buddy friends, but we're friends. You know, we're professionals.

LIMBONG: And now Wepner has a movie he can call his own. It's called "Chuck," starring Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. And it just opened. This movie version of him is a bit more mouthy, kind of a tough guy. But he's got a nickname that rivals Italian Stallion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHUCK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yo, Bleeder!

LIEV SCHREIBER: (As Chuck) What'd you call me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The Bleeder. That's what everybody calls you, the Bayonne Bleeder.

LIMBONG: The name, a reference to Wepner's skill at taking a punch, kind of stings the young movie Wepner. Today, in real life, he says it doesn't hurt as much. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.