Nearly 25 years ago while Bob Rooney was vacationing in Maine, he ducked into a restaurant for lunch. A former heavyweight boxer, Rooney didn’t mind being noticed and wasn’t ashamed of where he was from. That may account for the T-shirt he wore that afternoon, which read: Where the Hell Is Bayonne?
He wasn’t expecting an answer, yet as he walked by the bar he heard someone shout, “I know where Bayonne is. That’s where Chuck Wepner is from.” It’s amazing, Rooney thought; in the middle of Maine, people know about Chuck Wepner.
Even if you don’t remember Wepner, you know his story. He’s the no-name from nowhere who got a shot at the title. He’s the man Sylvester Stallone credited as his inspiration for his seminal work. Stallone’s sixth installment chronicling the celluloid journeyman-turned-champ, Rocky Balboa, opens in theaters this month. Without the Bayonne Bleeder, there would be no Italian Stallion.
Back in January 1975, promoter Don King offered Wepner, then a 36-year-old brawling heavyweight, the chance to fight Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship. Although Wepner was then still the world’s eighth-ranked heavyweight and had once fought Sonny Liston—and received more than 120 stitches in his face for the privilege—he was about three rounds past his prime. At the time, he was living in an apartment in Bayonne, the town where his mother and grandparents had raised him, and paying the rent as a salesman for Allied Liquors. It was as if King had opened a boxing directory, looked under “easy wins,” and landed his finger at random on Wepner’s name. King was looking for a fight to keep Ali in shape, to get him primed for a high-profile, high-paying rematch with George Foreman, whom Ali had just beaten to reclaim his title. King didn’t want the champ to be challenged.
But if King had asked around Bayonne, he’d have known that choosing Wepner was a mistake.
Wepner started boxing for the privileges. He was seventeen, a Marine Corps recruit stationed in North Carolina who left Bayonne because he wasn’t ready to work on the waterfront as a longshoreman. “Back then, not like today, joining the armed forces still seemed glamorous,” says Wepner. “I wanted an opportunity.”
Wepner joined the crash crew, putting out fires and saving pilots on planes that had crash-landed. He also made the boxing team, which got him a little more to eat, an extra weekend pass, and a little more time to work out. Wepner, whose father had been a fighter many years earlier, had always been a jock: Boxing came naturally to him. He wasn’t the strongest puncher, but he seemed to be able to stand up longer and endure more pain than his fellow Marines. And growing up in the Bayonne projects had taught him a bit about self-preservation. “I loved those Marine fights,” says Wepner. “I used to choke guys; you could do anything you wanted, as long as you were the guy standing at the end of three rounds. Those were battles of attrition.”
By the time Wepner left the Marines, he was a 20-year-old husband with one child and another on the way. After his discharge he wanted to take time off, but his mother had other ideas. The day after he got home, she told him that he was going to work the midnight security shift at Western Electric. Needing extra cash to support his family, he moonlighted as a bouncer at a club. He didn’t go looking for fights, but didn’t walk away from them, either. “I was undefeated in bathrooms, telephone booths, and alleys,” he says.
One summer night in 1964, while Wepner was working at a Bayonne club called Tony Meda’s, the Police Athletic League boxing coach came by and told Wepner that he needed a Golden Gloves heavyweight. He wondered whether Wepner would be interested. As he’d done when he joined the boxing team in the Marines, Wepner thought, Why not? Four months later, he was the national Golden Gloves champ.
Boxing was never his passion, but when you’re 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds with a long reach, it’s a better way to supplement your income than by corralling drunks outside a bar. For several years, Wepner bounced around the club circuit, fighting in dank, smoky places like Embassy Hall in North Bergen and the Arena in Secaucus. They were poorly lit boxing holes that, on good nights, drew only a couple thousand people. But Wepner thrived in those places, winning often enough to get himself ranked as a heavyweight. “I wouldn’t even say he had a style,” says boxing historian Bert Sugar. “More a mugger than anything. He was sturdy and tough.”
Wepner was just on the cusp of contention when, in June 1970, Sonny Liston needed a fight. “Sonny had just lost to Muhammad Ali, and I was on a winning streak,” says Wepner. “The fight was in the Jersey City Armory. Ali showed up and stole the crowd. I went ten rounds, but after six he had me busted up pretty good.”
Wepner’s face got so mangled that it became barely visible through the blood. Rosie Rosenberg, then editor of the Jersey Journal, was sitting ringside in a brand-new brown suit that, as the evening went on, turned crimson. The fight was finally stopped, and the headline in the next day’s Journal read, Bayonne Bleeder Loses to Liston. A nickname was born. But, while Wepner made only $5,000 for the fight—$2,800 after he paid his manager and corner man—the buzz of celebrity made up for the beating. “I started becoming famous,” says Wepner. “And started liking boxing a little better.”
His variety of fame was local, the kind that got him into VIP sections at clubs on the Jersey Shore. Wepner had, and still has, the perfect persona for such celebrity. He’s gregarious, quick with a smile or a story, ready to buy a round of drinks. He enjoys being well-known, being the attraction at local banquets, being the Bayonne Bleeder, even if he’s never loved the tag.
But, after the Liston fight, Runyonesque nickname and all, Wepner was still just a struggling pro. He loved to train and would wake up at 5:30 every weekday morning, run nearly five miles through Bayonne’s Hudson County Park, go to his job at Allied Liquors, return home to eat, and then head to Bufano’s Gym to train for a few more hours. He’d never take time off from work just to train. He couldn’t afford it.
That is, until Don King called.
Wepner was sitting at home watching TV when the phone rang. It was his mother. Wepner’s first response was, “Mom, I told you, never bother me during Kojak.” But then his mother asked if he’d seen the headline in that afternoon’s Journal that Ali would defend his title against the local boxer. No one from King’s camp had bothered to tell Wepner. It wasn’t until the next morning when, after a sleepless night, Wepner called his manager, Al Braverman, and found out that it was true. “Pack your bags,” Braverman told him. “You’re leaving for camp in a few days.”
For the first time as a fighter, Wepner took time off to train, since his take for the Ali bout would be $100,000. He spent eight weeks at the Granite Hotel in the Catskills, where he had several sparring partners, including Bob Rooney. He ate eggs every morning and steak every night. Wepner trained as if he had a chance to win. He did so much roadwork on the area’s steep inclines that his legs were as hard as rock by day’s end. He expected Ali to take him lightly. In fact, he was counting on it. He was feeling so confident that he tried to one-up the champ by writing a poem, which he read at the pre-fight press conference. He called it “Goodbye Ali, Hello Chuck”:
“I know they say you’re the greatest to
ever wear the crown,
And that this is a fight of little renown.
But tomorrow night you are going to run
out of luck.
There will be a new champion, and his
name will be Big Chuck.”
Ali wasn’t amused. The fight was at the Richfield Coliseum outside Cleveland, and when the two faced off before the opening bell, Ali said to Wepner, “I’m going to kick your ass, you honky motherf——r.” Wepner responded, “Go for it, motherf——r.” Then he turned around and, as he walked back to his corner, started laughing. “I said to myself, What did I just say to Ali? Did I call Ali a motherf——r? I can’t believe I said that. But I was so hyped.”
Wepner’s intensity showed as the two traded punches for most of the fight. Then, in the ninth round, Wepner hit Ali under the heart, knocking the champ down. Wepner immediately turned back to his corner and said to Braverman, “Al, go to the bank. We’ll be millionaires.” Braverman told Wepner to look over his shoulder. “Ali is getting up,” Braverman said. “And he looks mad.”
Ali finished that round with a flurry of punches that left Wepner gasping for air, and the attack didn’t let up. But the longer Wepner lasted, the more fans he won over. By the end of the fight, the crowd that had been chanting “Ali, Ali” was now yelling “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck.” “He was just this bouncer gone good,” says Sugar, the boxing historian. “He gave hope and heart to the idea that any man could make it.”
When the bout was finally stopped in the last round Ali had retained his title, but the Bayonne Bleeder was the people’s champ. “His courage was just hanging out there for everyone to see,” says Rooney. “His legs got tired from holding up the weight of his balls.”
Suddenly Wepner wasn’t just Jersey-famous, he was world-famous. He was paid $40,000 for exhibition fights. He traveled to Tokyo for matches. Then, one fall night in 1976, he got a call from a movie producer who wanted to know if Wepner would show up at the premiere of a new boxing movie. It was called Rocky.
The night of the Ali-Wepner fight, Stallone, then a struggling actor and screenwriter, watched the match on closed-circuit TV at a Philadelphia theater. As he saw Wepner take a beating and refuse to fall, as he listened to the crowd chanting “Chuck, Chuck,” he realized that he had his story. He went home and spent three days writing Rocky; by 1977, he had Oscar nominations for best screenplay and best actor.
Stallone never hid the fact that Wepner had been his inspiration. He even invited Wepner to audition for a part in Rocky II (he didn’t get the gig). But he never paid Wepner for having co-opted his life. And while Stallone became an international action hero, as rich as any movie star in the world, Wepner remained a liquor salesman who merely enjoyed living like an international action hero.
He went to clubs, partied, and accepted what people offered him, no questions asked. He’d had a taste of the good life and, long after he’d stopped boxing, he didn’t want it to end. “You get caught up in the partying and celebrity,” says Wepner. “And you do a lot of stupid things.”
By the mid-1980s, Wepner had developed a cocaine habit. In 1985, he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and served eighteen months in prison. On his second night there, a fellow prisoner decided to challenge him. Wepner responded by smacking the guy in the mouth, which earned him a trip to solitary confinement.
After that episode, Wepner managed his time without incident. When he got out of prison he thought he’d be shunned. Instead, Bayonne embraced him the way he had always embraced the town. Allied Liquors welcomed him back. Twice divorced, Wepner reconnected with his future third wife, Linda, a woman he had dated fifteen years earlier. He drove a Lincoln Town Car, a gift from former New Jersey governor Richard Hughes, with a license plate that read Champ.
In Bayonne, with Linda at his side and his three grown children living nearby, Wepner, sober since the day he entered prison, seemed content. But he had one more fight in him. For years, Wepner says, Stallone had promised him he’d be compensated for his story. But in 2003, after seeing Stallone credit him yet again during an interview promoting the Rocky DVD, Wepner decided to sue. His case lingered until this August, when Stallone and Wepner finally settled. Now, every time someone buys a Rocky DVD, the Bayonne Bleeder gets paid.
Business is good for Big Chuck. His Bayonne condo overlooks Newark Bay, and the high school football stadium where he had his first professional fight. Wepner has a lot of deals—legal deals—going on now. He still looks imposing and, even at 67, his face is still smooth, though there are faint scars clustered around his eyebrows. There’s a phone on the end table in the living room, a cell phone in the office, another in the bedroom, and one more attached to his hip. He’s got two agents booking him several appearances a month, he’s working on his own movie about his life, and he’s still one of Allied Liquor’s busiest sales reps.
And, of course, there’s the everlasting fame. One Sunday afternoon in mid-September, Wepner and Rooney, still good friends, had brunch together in Greenwich Village. Afterward, as they walked through the narrow streets, a man rushed up to Wepner and stammered, “Am I really looking at you?. Are you Chuck Wepner? Or just a better-looking version?”
Wepner laughed. He’s the only version there is.
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