Chuck Wepner: Honouring the real-life ‘Rocky’ who floored Muhammad Ali

His vocation as a fighter scarred other parts of his body, too.

“I was a big bleeder. I had 328 stitches in my career. My nose was broken nine times in 16 years. And, uh, it never fazed me, you know?” Wepner tells BBC Sport, with a shrug.

In fact, so likely was his face to suffer injury in the ring that he eventually adopted the nickname others gave him as an insult.

The Bayonne Bleeder – Bayonne being the New Jersey town that Wepner still calls home – was a fighter who lived up to his billing.

So maybe it was fitting that the most famous bout of his career came soaked in claret.

“Tony Perez was the referee for my fight with Muhammad Ali,” remembers Wepner of their 1975 meeting.

“After I got knocked down. he says to me: ‘Chuck, you’re bleeding too much.’

“I said, ‘No way, give me this round. Let me finish the fight, I’m all right.’ So Tony says: ‘OK Chuck, how many fingers do I have up?’

“I look at his hand and say: ‘How many guesses do I get?'”

Despite Wepner’s protests and to the dismay of the febrile, 15,000-strong crowd inside Ohio’s Richfield Coliseum, the referee stopped the fight just 19 seconds shy of the end of round 15.

He needed 23 stitches after the bout and took home a mere 15th of Ali’s purse but, as with much of Wepner’s life, to focus on his injuries was to miss the greatness of his achievement.

As a 36-year-old part-time heavyweight from ‘nowhere’ New Jersey, Wepner was a 10-1 outsider prior to the Ali fight. He had never before trained under a dedicated coach. But he confounded expectations with his performance.

Chuck Wepner fights Muhammad Ali
Wepner became only the fourth man to knock down Muhammad Ali during the great’s professional career
Not only did he last nearly the full distance with the reigning world champion and one of the greatest to have ever laced up gloves, Wepner also became only the fourth person in history to knock Ali, who had destroyed George Foreman just 10 months prior, to the canvas.

One spectator – watching via closed-circuit television in a Los Angeles movie theatre – was so inspired by Wepner’s underdog pluck and the ninth-round knockdown of Ali, he rushed home to sketch out a character for a new screenplay he had in mind.

After his other screenplays were all canned and with a final chance to pitch a new idea, the writer returned to the draft, creating a redemption story about an over-the-hill boxer in a ‘frenzied three-and-a-half-day flurry of creativity’.

The movie adapted from the screenplay went on to become the highest grossing film of 1976, a winner of three Oscars in 1977, a career launchpad for creator Sylvester Stallone and one of the most famous stories of modern times.

For Wepner, the man whose blood and bravery inspired the character of Rocky Balboa, it was just the start of the next chapter.

Short presentational grey line
At the Dennis P Collins Park, a strip of grassy playground on the banks of Newark Bay across the water from New York, the local mayor addresses the crowd.

“There are those from Jersey who are so famous we know them by single word names: there’s Frank, there’s Bruce and there’s Chuck.”

When the last name is mentioned in the company of Sinatra and Springsteen, the four hundred or so people in attendance cheer and applaud the local hero in their midst.

The man himself, dressed in yellow tracksuit and cap, nods and smiles from his position between boxing greats Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, who have also turned out to honour their friend on his big day.

As a brisk wind blows in across the water, the black cloth shrouding the soon-to-be-unveiled statue of a young Wepner flaps against the 2,500lb of bronze beneath.

“Well, I was actually born in New York,” Wepner confesses. “I moved to Jersey when I was a year and a half old, after my mother and father split up. My mother raised us here in the projects after that.”

And it was on the streets of Bayonne, a stone’s throw from Collins Park – where dockers, mobsters and oil refinery workers mixed – that Wepner began to learn his trade.

“Where I grew up, there were always two or three gangs,” he says. “And, more or less you had to go up there and beat up the toughest guy to survive, which I did. I’d have a fight almost every week.”

And it wasn’t just brawn. Wepner was a promising athlete too, playing for his high school basketball team in local tournaments. However, when he found out that “more money could be made beating up people”, he committed himself to boxing.

A three-year stint in the marines held up his progress for a while – Wepner enrolled illegally at the age of 15 after seeing the movie Battle Cry and convincing his mother to add her signature to his “phony papers” – but when he entered the New York Golden Gloves amateur competition as a 220lb 18-year-old, he found it to his liking.

“I cut through those guys like butter; they’d never seen anything like my style before,” he says.

In Madison Square Garden, Wepner broke the nose of local talent ‘Bob the Pistol’ and beat James Sullivan, a police department champ from Staten Island, on his way to the title of 1964.

He turned professional straight after, embarking on a 52-fight career that would see him victorious in 36 bouts and fighting such ring luminaries as Buster Mathis, George Foreman, Joe Bugner, Ernie Terrell and Muhammad Ali.

But it was his mid-career fight against Sonny Liston, in 1970, that Wepner felt would be his ticket to the big time.

“I thought I was gonna take a shortcut,” Wepner says. “Well, it wasn’t much of a shortcut for me, ’cause Sonny was too big and too tough.

“He broke my nose, gave me 71 stitches, and cracked my left jaw. I was still chasing him in the 10th round when the doctor stopped it because I was bleeding too much.”

Aside from the broken bones, every stitch he received in his career was administered with nothing more than ice to quell the pain.

“Those hurt,” he adds. “But I psyched myself up for it. Almost every fight, I knew I was gonna get cut. Eight or 10 stitches? That was just a nick!”

Being willing to die in the ring, Wepner admits, was another key piece to his armoury.

“Jesus, absolutely. I would go in there ready to die,” he says. “Matter of fact, after the Liston fight, I was in a semi-coma and I was in shock; my doctor told my mother I was pretty banged up. I really thought about whether I wanted to continue. But then I thought, I gotta try, I gotta try again. I gotta give it one more shot.”


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