On the night of March 24, 1975, a struggling actor and screenwriter named Sylvester Stallone checked into a Los Angeles theater to watch a closed-circuit broadcast of the great Muhammad Ali whipping some big, lumbering lug of a boxer from Bayonne, New Jersey, named Chuck Wepner.
Or so he thought. For eight rounds Ali danced around Wepner as the audience called for the celebrated showman to pummel his opponent with a flurry of fists. But it was Wepner who struck the first big blow of the night, his right hand to the ribs – and possibly his foot catching Ali off-balance – sending the champ to the canvas in the ninth.
"It was like a bolt of lightning from some Greek god in the sky, and, almost instantly, Wepner became the crowd favorite," recalled Stallone. "Suddenly, he went from being a complete joke to being somebody whom everybody watching could identify with — because everybody's thinking, 'Yes, I'd like to do that! I'd like to do the impossible, even if only for a moment, and be recognized for it — and have the crowd cheer.'"
Stallone soon banged out the screenplay for Rocky, the ultimate sports underdog movie that won a Best Picture Academy Award and planted the no-longer struggling actor and screenwriter on the road to Hollywood fame and fortune.
Less is known about the boxer who inspired the story, though his life was filled with enough drama to make any would-be writer sit up and take notice.
Wepner became known as the 'Bayonne Bleeder'
Born in 1939 in New York City, Wepner was still in diapers when he moved across the harbor to the industrial town that would claim him as a favorite son. His dad, Charlie, boxed professionally, and while the inherited aggression would serve him well on Bayonne's rough-and-tumble streets, the tall, gangly boy initially gravitated toward basketball.
Wepner discovered an affinity for boxing while serving in the Marine Corps in the late 1950s, though any hopes of pursuing the sport further were derailed by the realities of being a young husband and father. Following his discharge, he became a security guard, settling for using his fists during side gigs as a club bouncer.
The self-proclaimed "undefeated" bar brawler eventually found his way back to boxing by way of the Bayonne Police Athletic League, going on to win the 1964 New York Golden Gloves heavyweight novice championship before turning pro that summer.
Wepner settled into a career of regional distinction, winning the USA New Jersey State Heavyweight title in 1967 and occasionally earning the chance to mix it up with one of the sport's big guns, like George Foreman. He also became known for his propensity to bleed during matches, stemming from a willingness to chase opponents and absorb a beating without falling over.
One exceptionally hard-hitting opponent, former heavyweight champ Sonny Liston, hammered Wepner to the point where he needed 70-plus stitches to close the gashes on his face. The day after their June 1970 bout, a new nickname was born when Jerry Rosenberg of the Bayonne Times declared Liston the winner over the "Bayonne Bleeder."
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Although he'd landed a job as a salesman for Allied Liquors, Wepner soldiered on with his boxing career through the early 1970s, even running up an eight-match winning streak that included a victory over another former champ, Ernie Terrell.
His ability to dish out and take punishment caught the eye of notorious promoter Don King, who promised Wepner another crack at Foreman. When Ali stunned Foreman to reclaim the heavyweight championship in their October 1974 "Rumble in the Jungle," King instead set Wepner up for a title bout with "The Greatest."
With the promise of a whopping $100,000 payday, Wepner took time off work to train full-time for the first time in his life. As such, although Ali, King, Stallone and virtually everyone else on the planet figured the bout would be a cakewalk for the champ, Wepner entered their bout in prime shape and ready to surprise.
He didn't win the match – Ali snapped to life after the knockdown – but the courageous showing made the Bleeder a celebrity. He fought 7-foot-4, 500-pound wrestler Andre the Giant the following year, and twice took on an even larger opponent in the form of Victor the Bear.
He was also already in his late 30s and nearing the end of his pugilistic pursuits. In September 1978, less than two years after his big-screen avatar appeared in the form of Stallone's Rocky Balboa, Wepner lost his final match to finish his career with a 35-14-2 record.
Wepner sued Stallone for using his name
Still riding high on his celebrity, Wepner took advantage of a training-free schedule to plunge himself into a self-indulgent lifestyle. With help from a grateful Stallone, he auditioned for a small role in Rocky II, but admittedly botched it after showing up on the tail end of a two-day bender.
The partying caught up with the ex-boxer when he was busted for cocaine possession in late 1985. Paroled after serving less than two years of his 10-year sentence, he returned to the warm embrace of Bayonne, reclaiming his liquor salesman job and marrying an old flame.
The next two decades passed quietly, save for Wepner suing Stallone in 2003 for using his name to "promote the Rocky movies and related products for commercial purposes without ... consent and without compensation." The two sides settled in 2006, shortly before the release of the sixth film of the franchise, Rocky Balboa.
But the limelight eventually came calling again, beginning with the 2011 documentary The Real Rocky. Five years later, Wepner finally saw something closer to his life's story – not that of the fictional "Italian Stallion" – told on the big screen via Liev Schreiber's starring role in Chuck.
Chuck didn't earn any Academy Awards, but it drew a few big-name stars into the production, generated a buzz and hit the high notes expected of a sports biopic. In other words, it was an accurate reflection of its subject, a blue-collar guy who punched his way into his own secure place in pop-culture history.