Before there was "Rocky," there was the "Bayonne Bleeder." In fact, without the latter, there may never have been the former. And if not for the events of March 24, 1975, the world may never have heard of either of them.
It was on that date that Chuck Wepner, who had earned the colorful moniker based on his New Jersey hometown and his propensity for spilling blood on his opponents, the canvas and even the first row or two of spectators – he credits Bayonne Times sports editor Jerry Rosenberg with coining the phrase after a beige suit of Rosenberg's gained a few red splotches during a Wepner bout – had his "Rocky vs. Apollo Creed 1" moment, squaring off against Muhammad Ali at the Richfield Coliseum in Ohio.
A young, struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone saw the bout, inspiring the movie a year later that launched one of the most successful franchises in film history. At least that's how Wepner remembers it."Sly (Stallone) called me about two weeks after the Ali fight and told me he was gonna make the movie," said Wepner. "When the first Rocky movie was released I was happy. Years later, I met Stallone and upon meeting me he spontaneously cheered, 'Hey, Chuck thanks!' ... I guess for the inspiration."
While the parallels are there, for sure – the relatively unknown boxer getting a shot at the title – Wepner was actually a far more accomplished fighter than his fictional counterpart. He had stood in there with people like George Foreman and Sonny Liston, and even beat Ernie Terrell.
But the bout with Ali happened almost by accident.
"My boxing career had just about leveled out," Wepner recalled last month at a "Gallo's Geezers" event at Gallagher's Steak House in New York with Daily News cartoonist and columnist Bill Gallo and Rocky star Burt Young, who played "Paulie."
"I was still ranked in the top 10 heavyweights, but it wasn't going that well. Then I got a call from Don King, asking if I wanted to go out to Salt Lake City to fight Terry Hinke [in September 1974], with the winner to get a shot at George Foreman, who was then the champ. So, I took the fight, knocked him out in the 11th round, and thought I was getting my title shot with Foreman."
But then Foreman was upset by Ali, and, not hearing from King, Wepner thought the whole thing was off.
Wepner, sitting on his couch at home, then received the phone call that changed his life. Not from King or any other promoter. And he didn't even want to answer the phone.
"I was at home, watching my favorite show, 'Kojak,' when I hear the phone ring. I pick it up and it's my mom. I said to her, 'Mom, you know not to call me during Kojak.' She says, 'have you heard the news, you're fighting Ali, it's all over the papers.' "
It turned out that King had been with Ali in Cleveland and set up the fight.
"I think Ali agreed to it because he thought it would be an easy fight," said Wepner.
Fifteen rounds later, Wepner had recorded a knockdown and, while he didn't come out ahead, earned the respect of the boxing world and, apparently of the Champ, who would never issue a rematch despite repeated efforts by Wepner's camp, effectively ending Wepner's days as a contender.
"I won [three straight] after that fight," said Wepner, without a hint of bitterness, "and to be honest, I think I got too much publicity out of that fight for Ali to want to fight someone that tough again. He had bigger fish to fry, with other fighters."
For Wepner, now 71, who for the past decade has worked at Majestic Wines and Spirits in Carlstadt, the Ali fight, and all the hype leading up to it and after it still remains the highlight of his boxing career.
Though he never received residuals or any "official" credit for inspiring the Rocky films, it seems he wouldn't trade in the whole experience.
"I got a shot at the title, how many guys fight their whole lives and never get that?" he said. "I got to stand in with Ali – he's arguably the greatest of all time, the most famous of all time. That moment, that fight, did so much for me."