It is late afternoon in Bayonne, New Jersey, and outside Chuck Wepner's apartment a pale sun is beginning its descent into the Hudson River. Across the street, kids are playing baseball in the Veteran's Stadium., scampering around on the very same field where Wepner, in his first professional contest, had stopped "Lightning" George Cooper back in 1964. Chuck has spent most of his 63 years in Bayonne. He likes it there and the town likes him. Everybody knows him: "The Bayonne Bleeder"; The Real Rocky.
Chuck and his brother Don were raised by their mother Dee in the East 49th Street projects, only a few blocks from the clean, modest apartment where he now lives with third wife, Linda. It was tough growing up in a one parent family in the Forties, but he was the big kid with the sharp mouth who earned a reputation for taking no shit. He cracked a few heads, chased girls and grew big enough to be considered a good basketball prospect but never made it to the NBA.
After seeing a film called Battle Cry with Aldo Ray, Chuck joined the Marines in 1956. Wepner served three years in South Carolina but saw no action outside the bedroom, the bar and the boxing ring. Before an honourable discharge in 1959, Chuck acquired a taste for prizefighting and fought 22 times in Marine colours down in the sultry South.
"Knocking a guy silly and watching him crash-land is a beautiful thing," Chuck says, "and when word spread that you were the toughest guy on the base, it was a lot easier to get the chicks."
Chuck seems oblivious to the kids playing in the park outside his window as he reclines in his favourite chair, thick arms folded across his chest, watching his beloved NY Yankees on the big screen TV. "El Duce", the Yankees Cuban pitcher, is having a bad game and Chuck is letting the TV know he is not happy.
Linda raises her eyebrows in mock exasperation and asks if I want anything to eat or drink. Before I can answer, Chuck turns his head away from the tube. "You like pizza?" he asks. I tell him I do. "Honey, why don't you get a few pieces of pizza pie? This place where I go always has great pizza. They used to send me food when I was in the joint."
I hang around and watch the game with Chuck. Linda walks to the pizza house and returns to see the Yankees nick a very close game in the final inning. Chuck appears happy. "Giambi's finally earning his corn," he says. I agree and try to make a contribution, despite knowing little about baseball. "The Yanks have an uncanny habit of pulling it out at the death just like Manchester United," I say, feeling like an idiot as soon as it leaves my lips. Chuck pulls his massive frame from his chair, nods politely and walks out of the room. He returns a few minutes later with a clean shirt and combing the thin hairs at the side of his head. He looks a bit like Gene Hackman only with scar tissue. "Right. Whaddya wanna know?" he asks.
I had met Chuck before, when I was making a documentary about Muhammad Ali. We'd sat and talked about his career, about his fights with Sonny Liston, George Foreman and his famous fight with Ali that inspired Sylvester Stallone to write Rocky. Chuck was the first to admit he had been no Ray Robinson. He was clumsy and crude in the ring. His best weapons were a clubbing right hand, a chin like asphalt and an arsenal of dirty tricks to rival Dick Dastardly's.
In his career-defining fight with Ali he was given no chance. The considered opinion was that Chuck's fragile skin would be cut to ribbons. Throughout his career his face had an alarming propensity to cut, earning him his nickname. He received over 300 in his fight career - 79 in a third round defeat to George Foreman alone. "Wepner has enough stitches in his face to make two double-knit suits," wrote one scribe. But Chuck's attitude was "Fuck the cuts. Bring 'em on."
Chuck picks up his pizza slice from the table, folds it in half and shovels it into his mouth. He swallows, wipes the thick tomato from his chin and picks up his story.
"I'm sitting at home watching Kojak and the phone rings. I run to my desk and pick it up. 'Hello?' It's Mom. 'What's up mom?'...
"Kojak's on. 'I told you - never call me during Kojak." She says, 'You should get the news. Go get the news."
"What's more important in the news. Kojak's on. 'Just get the news,' she says.
"So I find out what it's about," he continues. "I hang up the phone and I put on my pants and forget about Kojak - sorry Telly - and there it is in the newspaper. Ali gives Chuck Wepner a title shot!"
Ali's people saw Wepner as a soft touch. "A fight between a house painter and an artist," wrote Larry Merchant in the New York Post. An easy payday for Ali after his audacious victory over Foreman in Zaire. But Wepner was no patsy. "Chuck had more balls than a Christmas tree," said Randy Neumann who fought Wepner three times and knew better than most.
Unlike the great Ali, Chuck had to hold down a day job throughout his career. He worked as a salesman for Majestic Wines and trained when he could but the plonk had to wait. Fellow employees at the liquor store covered his round and Chuck headed off to go training camp for the first time in his career. He trained for seven weeks just outside Cleveland and stayed away from the booze and the women.
"It was hard. A lot of women wanted my body and I was weak so I gave it to them. I just thank God I wasn't born good looking 'cos I would have been fighting them off with a baseball bat," says Chuck with his arms folded and a large grin on his face.
"After the training had finished I hadn't been laid for two months. I had to go cold turkey with the chicks. I just wanted to rip his head off. Before the fight I went up to the hotel room where my wife was staying and I gave her this pink see-through negligee. I said, 'Baby, tonight I want you to wear this because when I get back you are going to be sleeping with the champion of the world.' When I finally got back all busted up she started to leave the room. I said, 'Hey, where ya goin?' She said, 'I'm going to sleep with the champion of the world."
The fight took place at the Cleveland Coliseum on March 24, 1975 and billed as "Give The White Guy A Break". Wepner entered the ring to the stirring sounds of the US Marine Corps' theme, and James Brown sang the US National Anthem badly but nobody seemed to mind. "The Bayonne Bleeder" was outclassed but fought bravely until he sank exhausted onto the ropes under a volley of Ali's blows in the 15th round, just 19 seconds before the final bell.
"By that point I knew I couldn't win. The jabs were coming like monthly bills and I saw openings but I couldn't pull the trigger on my rabbit punches, even with all the carrots I ate before the fight," says Chuck picking up another slice of pizza.
He had lost the fight but his chutzpah had gained admirers and he'd even had Ali on the floor for a brief count in the ninth round. Some ringside observers say Chuck had stood on Ali's foot and pushed him to the canvas but Chuck disagrees.
"Nah, I caught him with a solid blow under his heart. It wasn't a great punch but he was off balance and it was enough to knock him down. I remember going back to the corner after that. I turned to my cornerman Al Braverman and said, 'Al, start the car, we're millionaires'. Al turned to me and said, 'Don't be hasty, your man's getting up and he looks pissed off.'"
Chuck received around $150,000 - the biggest payday of his career - and promoter Don King went out of his way to thank Chuck after the fight. "It was the first fight Don promoted on his own," says Chuck, "and he was nervous 'cos he thought it would only go a couple of rounds. After the fight he comes into my dressing room and shouts, 'Chuck, you big bag of shit, your turned my water into wine!' And gives me a hug."
Chuck smiles as he recalls the fight that changed his life but he seems restless, a little agitated. His big feet twitch and he fiddles with his spectacles. Maybe he is just bored Sitting indoors doesn't really suit him. Chuck has lived life "big", as he likes to put it. The scars on his face outline the tapestry of his gaudy, brutal and often humorous life.
After the Ali fight, Chuck enjoyed his salad days. The release of the first Rocky movie in 1976 enhanced his reputation even further. As the story goes, a young Stallone had spent half his last $40 on a ticket to the Ali/Wepner fight which was being shown at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Stallone was a big Ali fan, but midway through the fight he was swayed by Chuck's courage under siege.
"I had an idea about a down and out fighter getting a title shot before I saw the Ali/Wepner fight," said Stallone before the making of Rocky V. "But I didn't think it was plausible until I saw Chuck. Here was a guy who most people didn't know, fighting the most well known fighter of all time. So when the fight was over, all I thought was 'get me a pencil'."
Chuck retired from the boxing ring the same year Rocky was released. He was nearing 37 and there was nowhere left to go in boxing. However, he found it difficult to leave the ring and the limelight altogether Still holding down his job as a liquor salesman, Chuck tried his hand at wrestling. Fight promoter Bob Arum matched him with Andre The Giant on a bill at Shea Stadium and 32,000 fans turned up and saw The Giant lift Chuck and pitch him over the ropes. It got worse. As he flew out of the ring, Chuck's leg caught on one of the ropes and he bounced off the ring apron before landing in the infield.
"Jesus, that guy was huge Around 7ft 4ins and over 500lbs. It was like trying to fit your arms around a goddamn wall," says Chuck. "He was flicking me to the ground like I was a peanut."
Later that same year, Chuck went one better and agreed to wrestle a grizzly bear. Chuck stressed it wasn't for the money. He said he was helping a friend who owned The Jersey Shore Bullets, an Eastern league basketball team whose attendances were dwindling. Chuck versus "Victor The Wrasslin' Bear" would allegedly attract more fans to the game.
Wepner versus the bear was the main event at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey in 1976. Chuck weighed in at 240lbs and 6ft 5ins, Victor came in at a svelte 800lbs and stood 8ft tall on his hind legs. The bear was muzzled and had his claws clipped, but was still a handful. Two retired basketball players and a cop tried getting to grips with Victor before Chuck entered the ring. The bear's sight was poor so they kept their distance and tried to dazzle him with fancy footwork.
Unfortunately, like all bears, Victor's sense of smell was very keen. He smelt them coming and threw a couple of clumsy swipes as they nervously advanced. They didn't connect but the ballplayers and cop were wise enough to leave the ring before they got too close. They all lasted less than a minute. Undaunted, Chuck climbed through the ropes and decided on an aggressive approach. He walked straight forward and slugged the bear on his muzzled nose. "You're not supposed to hit the fucking bear!" shouted Chuck's friend. Sure enough the bear went wild and threw him around the ring until his muzzle came loose and Chuck called for help. He had lasted five minutes. It was his first and final bout with a hairy animal.
"The reason I got into boxing was ego, pure and simple. I wanted people to know who Chuck Wepner was. But in the early Eighties my life started to lose meaning. I had nothing to aim for. Boxing had played so much a part of my life and now I was without it."
Practically all boxers find it difficult to fill the void once their fighting days are over. Chuck filled the vacuum with drunk, drugs - mainly coke - and women. He hung out with local mob guys, old pals from the neighbourhood and partied hard on the Jersey shore.
"By that point I knew I couldn't win. The jabs were coming like monthly bills and I saw openings but I couldn't pull the trigger on my rabbit punches, even with all the carrots I ate before the fight,"
"I was never addicted to coke. I was a weekend warrior. I'd do it on a Thursday, Friday and sometimes Saturday. Sundays never, because I had work on a Monday. That's how I held down my job."
His friends were worried however. They didn't want Chuck to get pinched, which seemed increasingly likely as he would often drive around late at night fuelled by coke and booze. Chuck knew a lot of influential guys in Bayonne. He'd done a little collecting for local mobsters and their bosses were always nervous about associates who were using drugs. It was a risky business. Chuck rode his luck until his arrest late in 1985 for carrying 3.2 grammes of cocaine to a friend at the Playpen Lounge in New Jersey.
"You would have thought they were arresting Al Capone. I couldn't believe it was happening to me. My heart pounded and I could feel the blood rushing through me. I was scared and angry," says Chuck.
The police moved in armed to the hilt - Chuck was the licensed carrier of two handguns - but he surrendered quietly. On March 15, 1988, Chuck was given the maximum of ten years in prison for one count of cocaine and one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. "Murderers get less. They wanted to make an example of me," Chuck says. "They said, 'Give us a few names and we'll go easy on you.' But I said, 'Fuck you.' I've never been a rat and I wasn't going to start then."
Chuck served three years in the Northern State Penitentiary before he was released on the Intensive Supervision Program, which allowed prisoners to live and work outside as long as they adhered to an 8pm curfew. Chuck's sentence was commuted in March 1991 and he was freed from prison and the program.
His employers at Majestic Wines kept his job for him and he settled back in Bayonne with Linda. "I did a lot of thinking in the tank," he says. "For the longest while I thought Chuck Wepner could never change. But I found out that I could. Mostly because I had to."
Chuck looks restless so I tell him I have enough. He smiles, gets up, clears the plates and the glasses from the table and walks to the kitchen.
"I've mellowed, Mark," he shouts from the kitchen, washing the dirty dishes. "I'm a senior for Chrissakes. When I was 30 I used to say, '60 - that old far!' Now I'm 63, I'm in the prime of my life. I go to McDonald's in the morning and have my coffee and sit there with all the other old farts and I know everybody and everybody knows me. It's a good life."
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