Happy Birthday, Chuck Wepner



Happy Birthday, Chuck Wepner

As hard as it is to believe, 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 85 on February 26.

He is one of only 10 known Ali opponents who are still alive. The others are George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Alfredo Evangelista, Richard Dunn, Jean Pierre Coopman, Joe Bugner, George Chuvalo, Rudi Lubbers, and George Logan.

In compiling a professional record of 35-14-2 (17 KOS) between 1964 and 1978, Wepner took on such fistic notables as Ali, Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Buster Mathis, and Ernie Terrell.

Besides never taking a backwards step in the ring and always giving the crowd their money’s worth, Wepner was incredibly accessible to his fans, never uttered a bad word about anyone, and was loyal to a fault. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting Wepner came away with a smile and a good memory.

“I always appreciated Chuck Wepner as a fighter, but you have to meet him in person to realize what a good person he is,” said noted boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of the seminal book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science.”

“He was such a tough guy in the ring and won most of his fights on sheer grit and guts. He was a very tough guy, but also a really decent tough guy, not a bad tough guy.”

Mike Silver, Chuck and Linda, left to right

Wepner’s pugilistic nickname was the “Bayonne Bleeder,” a monicker he detested but was an unwelcome tribute to his New Jersey hometown, as well as his propensity to bleed often in his bouts but always finish on his feet.

He also became an unwitting workingman hero when he signed to fight Ali in Cleveland in March 1975. At that time, Wepner was 35 years old and holding down two jobs as a liquor salesman and a night security guard at General Electric.

Wepner was given little chance of lasting very long with the legendary champion but is credited with knocking Ali down while lasting until the waning seconds of the 15th and final round.

Among the observers on the closed-circuit television broadcast was Sylvester Stallone, a struggling 30-year-old actor who identified with the gutsy Wepner so much, he raced home and wrote the first “Rocky” screenplay in just a few days.

“Chuck Wepner was the real-life Rocky,” said Silver. “Sylvester Stallone was the reel-life character. Too many people today get them confused.”

Wepner, who initially had not been compensated for being the “Rocky” prototype, received an undisclosed settlement from Stallone in 2006 after a well-publicized civil suit.

While still a high school student. Peter Wood traveled each day from his home in a leafy New Jersey suburb to the dingy confines of Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City, where he was training for the 1971 New York City Golden Gloves. Wood, who scored several electrifying knockouts to make it to the finals of the tournament, chronicled his exploits in his 2023 book “Surviving Myself: The Making of a Middleweight.”

He fondly recalls that Wepner, who at 6 feet 5 inches tall and about 225 pounds was a behemoth heavyweight and the king of Bufano’s, always treated the novice Wood with dignity and respect.

“Whenever Wepner was training, the gym seemed smaller,” said Wood. “And when he stepped into the elevated ring to spar, the ring always seemed smaller. Chuck was not a scientific fighter, and his sparring partners weren’t either. It was always a spirited, entertaining sparring session when Wepner stepped through the ropes.”

I became acquainted with Wepner in the early 1990s while interviewing the colorful Al Braverman, who served as his longtime manager. I inquired about Wepner and the irascible Braverman called Wepner’s home, got his answering machine, and instructed him to give me a call and “treat me like family.”

Within days, Wepner was hosting me in his Bayonne apartment, which was located directly across the street 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 always gladly signed bags of boxing gloves to be raffled off at fundraisers for officers who were injured or killed in the line of duty. He came to many events such as Cigar Nights, where he held court with scores of fans. When I apologized for asking so much of him, his response was always the same.

“I would do anything for a friend,” he’d say.

I have long ago lost my affinity for boxing, but my respect and admiration for boxers, especially old-school fighters like Wepner will always be steadfast. Wepner possesses all the great qualities that make for great fighters, as well as memorable human beings.

His career was built on honesty, integrity, gritty determination, emotional resolve, and the unwillingness to believe in any limitations others might have projected for him.

Growing up without his father present, he could have gone many ways.

Instead of choosing the path of least resistance, he chose to join the Marine Corps.

Instead of seeing himself as just a liquor salesman and a night security guard, he had the audacity to dream big and clearly envisioned himself dethroning Ali.

The seven weeks Wepner spent in a Catskill Mountains training camp preparing for Ali was the only time he trained full-time in his career.

“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 is as stand-up of a guy outside of the ring as he was inside of it.

After being 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 opted 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.”

Scores of friends in law enforcement realized his actions were an aberration and lobbied to get him released into the ISP. None have regretted their decision.

Shortly after his release from prison, Wepner appeared at an NYPD boxing show in the Bronx.

He entered the ring with his head held high, 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 I 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 his legacy remains strong.

He received a rousing ovation at the most recent New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame Dinner and Induction Ceremony in October 2023.

When a statue of him was unveiled in Collins Park in Bayonne in November 2022, Chris Patella, the city attorney, said Wepner was one of only three New Jersey celebrities who are easily recognized by just the mention of their first name. The others are Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra.

Wepner and his lovely wife Linda were born on the same day several years apart.

While Wepner turns 85, Linda is youthfully gorgeous and will be 39 forever.

The love they share is bountiful and beautiful to all who ever observed them together or spent time in their company.

They are true champions by any standard, a dynamic couple who serve as exemplars for the powers of love, hopefulness, redemption, second chances, and personal integrity.

Happy birthday, Chuck and Linda. Thank you for being who you are and for making the world a better place.