Former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner, who challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title in 1975 and became the prototype for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character, turns 82 on February 26.
Among the luminaries he shares a birthday with is his lovely wife Linda, whose ageless beauty and radiance makes her appear to be eternally stuck at age 39.
Wepner’s boxing career lasted from 1964 to 1978. He compiled a 35-14-2 (17 KOs) record against such greats and notables as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Sonny Liston, Buster Mathis, Ernie Terrell, Duane Bobick, Joe Bugner, and Manuel Ramos.
His nickname was the “Bayonne Bleeder,” which was a tribute to his New Jersey hometown, as well as his propensity to bleed as if stabbed with a shank but always finish on his feet.
When he signed to fight Ali, in Cleveland, he was 35 years old and holding down two jobs, as a liquor salesman and a night security guard at a General Electric plant.
Although he was given little chance of surviving past a few rounds, he is credited with knocking Ali down while lasting until the waning seconds of the 15th and final round.
Watching the fight on closed-circuit television was Stallone, who was then a struggling 30 year old actor. He identified with Wepner so much, he raced home and wrote the first “Rocky” screenplay in just a few days.
Wepner, who had never been compensated for being the “Rocky” prototype, received an undisclosed settlement from Stallone in 2006 after a well-publicized civil suit.
I became acquainted with Wepner in the 1990s while doing a story on Al Braverman, his colorful and irascible longtime manager. When the subject of Wepner came up, Braverman, who many people compared to a snarling dog, called Wepner’s home.
He left a message on the machine, instructing Wepner in no uncertain terms to treat me “like family.”
I soon received a call from Wepner and was invited to his apartment in Bayonne, directly across from Veterans Stadium, where he made his pro debut in 1964 after serving four years in the United States Marine Corps.
We have been friends ever since and the friendship has been more of a one-way street than I like to admit.
While still a member of the NYPD, from which I retired in 2003, Wepner would gladly sign bags full of boxing gloves to be raffled off at fundraisers or make an appearance at a Cigar Night or another charitable endeavor.
When I’d apologize for asking so much of him, he’d always tell me not to worry, that he’d do anything for a friend.
In 1996, when my first wife Frances, an active NYPD sergeant, was battling leukemia, our colleagues on the department hosted a fundraiser for us at the Ukrainian Hall in Manhattan.
Chuck and Linda showed up when the party was in full swing and Chuck promptly escorted Frances onto the dance floor.
One of my favorite mementos is a photo of the two of them whooping it up.
It was taken by Teddy B. Blackburn and it appeared in the now defunct Flash/Boxing Update newsletter, which prior to the Internet was the place to go for up to the minute boxing news.
To this day Chuck jokes that if he had not been told who Frances was, he never would have guessed that she was the one with cancer.
Several days later, Frances had a scheduled bone marrow transplant, from which she never recovered. Less than three weeks after dancing with the real-life Rocky, she passed away.
Chuck and Linda were among the first mourners to attend the wake. They came early and stayed late, offering tremendous support during a very challenging time.
My love affair with boxing has long ago waned but my affinity for fighters remains strong. The uninitiated might find it easy to dismiss Wepner as a glorified club fighter who got hit a lot but never went down. But he is so much more than that. His career was built on honesty, integrity, gritty determination, emotional resolve, and the unwillingness to believe in the limitations so many others had projected for him.
Growing up without his father present, he could have gone many ways. Instead of opting for trouble, he chose to join the Marine Corps. Instead of seeing himself as just a liquor salesman and a night security guard, he dared to dream big and clearly envisioned himself dethroning Ali, the man many still consider “The Greatest.”
The seven weeks Wepner spent in a Catskill Mountains training camp preparing for Ali was the only time he trained full-time in his life.
“I realized in those mountains that a miracle could really happen,” he said. “I could become heavyweight champion of the world. I also realized that if somebody had been subsidizing me my whole career, things would have been different. I would have been a much better fighter. I never trained full-time for a fight in my life, except for Ali. And I fought the fight of my life against the greatest heavyweight in history.”
Wepner has always been as stand-up outside of the ring as he was inside of it. When he was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration for delivering cocaine in 1985, he could have bought his way out of a 10-year prison sentence by becoming a snitch.
Instead, he chose to do the time and served two years in a maximum-security prison as well as 20 months in an Intensive Supervision Program (ISP). From day one, he assumed full responsibility for his actions.
“I was a big shot everywhere I went,” he said. “There was so much booze and broads. I was out of control, a crazy man. I had some heavy friends and was running with some crazy people. And everywhere I went, there was cocaine.
“My makeup would never allow me to be a rat,” he continued. “I did the crime and knew I had to do the time. I was ready to accept my punishment.”
Many people from the law enforcement community realized his actions were an aberration and they lobbied to get him released into the ISP. None have regretted the decision.
A few years after his release from prison, Wepner appeared at an NYPD amateur boxing show in the Bronx.
He entered the ring, took the microphone, and told the raucous crowd how much he respected them and what a great job they were doing. He thanked them for inviting him and said it was an honor to be there.
“I’m a guy everybody can relate to,” he said afterwards. “Everybody gets in trouble at one time or another. And cops, especially New York cops, are real people. They work hard and play hard.
“I was a working stiff who finally got a break and took advantage of it,” he added. “I out-gutted and out-balled my way through a boxing career and a prison sentence. I got everything I have on endurance and perseverance. And when I screwed up, I owned up to it.”
At the premiere of “Chuck,” the 2017 movie based on his life with Liev Schreiber in the starring role, Wepner admitted that he was not always an exemplary person and insisted that the producers portray him for who he was.
“I wanted the movie to be truthful,” he said. “The fact is I made a lot of mistakes and hurt and disappointed a lot of people. I try to make up for it now, but you can’t reinvent the past.”
Wepner has been battling cancer for several years but is still doing his part to make the world a better place. He recently donated money to the New Jersey coronavirus relief fund.
“I just think these people on the front line that are working with coronavirus stuff are so great,” Wepner said. “They are my heroes. I felt this $1,000 check would help out a little bit.”
Wepner never won a world title but as a writer you could not ask for a better subject. Nor could you ask for a more loyal friend. Despite his health issues, Wepner is still fighting the good fight and making everyone he encounters feel better about themselves.
From my perspective, there is no better way to define a true champion than that.
Happy birthday, Champ.
Robert Mladinich is an ex fighter, ex cop, author and screenwriter, who lives in Manhattan.