Chuck Wepner was a tough man. He learned to handle himself while working as a bouncer in the late ’50s. Then, while in the Marine Corps, he took up boxing. When his time in the service was over, he got into the amateur boxing rings on the weekends and evenings. Because he couldn’t make enough money boxing to quit his day job, he had to train at night.
At a friend’s urging, Wepner signed up for a Golden Gloves boxing match…and won. He made the leap to professional boxing in 1964, but he still found it difficult to pay his bills. He still had to earn a living with a string of jobs; bouncer, liquor salesman, and even as a security guard. His boxing career was going nowhere. He fought up-and-comers like George Foreman and stars like Sonny Liston, but he just couldn’t seem to make it to the next level.
The Bayonne Bleeder
Eventually, Wepner made his mark not by knocking opponents out, but by being able to take a beating and keep coming. His toughness became so famous that he earned the nickname, “The Bayonne Bleeder”. His style wasn’t flashy or technical, but more about being able to be the last man standing. He kept on fighting, and in 1975 after putting together a string of wins, he got his shot…he was offered a chance to fight World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali for the title. Wepner was excited and confident, but the rest of the world was skeptical at best about his chances of dethroning the great Ali. Some experts even predicted that he would only last three rounds if that.
As much of the world predicted, Wepner lost the fight with Ali. But against all odds, he shocked the world by lasting fifteen rounds with the champion. He even knocked Ali to the mat in the ninth round with a thunderous right hook. With Wepner bleeding from cuts over both eyes and a broken nose, the referee stopped the fight for his own health. But millions around the world had watched the fight on television, and Wepner’s gutsy performance that night earned his features in Sports Illustrated, Time, and other national publications.
Among the millions who saw the fight that night was a young actor from New York…Sylvester Stallone. As a dropout of the University of Miami’s drama department, Stallone was trying to make it by acting in off-Broadway plays and taking occasional roles in small films. But he was a boxing fan, and Wepner’s underdog performance inspired him to write a screenplay that ended up becoming the movie, Rocky…the story of a down-on-his-luck tough guy who made it big in boxing. Stallone was able to sell the screenplay for $150,000 and went on to play the lead role in the 1976 film. Rocky won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Stallone himself was nominated for Best Actor. The film became a franchise and spawned seven hit sequels.
The Battles in Court
When Stallone had a deal in place to sell the script, he contacted Wepner to tell him about it. They kept in touch for years afterward, and Wepner even ended up with a bit part in Rocky II…but it ended up on the cutting room floor. But in 2003, Wepner claimed that Stallone had promised to cut him in on the earnings for using his story, but claimed that he never saw a cent of the millions of dollars that the films generated. According to his lawyer in an interview with CBS News, “Stallone has been using Chuck’s name, and continues to this day, in promoting the Rocky franchise without any permission or compensation.”
Wepner wound up suing Stallone three times. Twice the case was dismissed, but the last case ended in an out-of-court settlement for an undisclosed amount.
Wepner, who retired in 1978 with a record of 35-14-2, went on to be inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame. He still lives in Bayonne and went back to making a living as a liquor salesman and motivational speaker. He also wrote an autobiography called Toe to Toe With Any Foe.