As hard as it is to believe, former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner, whose challenge of Muhammad Ali made him the muse for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character, turned 81 this past February.
Making his birthday even more eventful for the former title challenger is the fact that his lovely wife Linda shares the same birthday. She is holding steady, as beautiful as ever, looking like she will be 39 forever.
During his boxing career, which lasted from 1964 to 1978, Wepner compiled a record of 36-14-2 (17 KOs) against the likes of Ali, George Foreman, Sonny Liston, Buster Mathis, Ernie Terrell, Duane Bobick, and Joe Bugner.
His nickname was the “Bayonne Bleeder,” which was a tribute to his hometown in New Jersey, as well as his propensity to bleed profusely but always finish on his feet.
But he is best known for being the inspiration for the real-life “Rocky” after his battle royale with Ali in Cleveland in March 1975. At the time Wepner was 35 years old.
Although he was given little chance of surviving past a few rounds, he is not only credited with knocking Ali down, he lasted into the fifteenth round.
Watching the fight on closed-circuit television was Stallone, who was then a struggling 30-year-old actor. He identified so much with Wepner, who was holding down two full-time jobs at the time, he raced home to his hovel of an apartment and penned the first “Rocky” screenplay in just a few days.
It took about three decades, but Wepner, who had never been compensated for being the “Rocky” prototype, received an undisclosed settlement from Stallone after a well-publicized civil suit.
I became acquainted with Wepner about 30 years ago. While doing an interview with his colorful longtime manager, Al Braverman, the subject of Wepner naturally came up.
Without missing a beat, 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.”
Within a day or two, I received a call from Wepner, who invited me to his apartment in Bayonne, directly across from the venue where he had made his pro debut a few years after serving four years in the United States Marine Corps.
(Editor Note: Forgive my intrusion, but I must share this Dave Anderson snippet from a 1975 NY Times piece: “Chuck Wepner and Al Braverman were meant for each other. Wepner's nose is bent to the left, Braverman's to the right.”)
We have been friendly ever since, but it often seems like I am always asking for or taking something and never giving back.
Every time I called him to autograph a bagful of boxing gloves to be raffled off at a police benefit or to make an appearance at a Cigar Night or other charitable endeavor, he always said yes.
I always apologize for being one-way, but he inevitably tells me not to worry, that he’d do anything for a friend.
Even though I’ve written numerous stories on Wepner for publications that have included Playboy, believe me when I tell you he’s done a lot more for me than I’ve ever done for him.
Back in April 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 as the party was in full swing. Chuck and Frances danced together like it was the 1970s.
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 weekly newsletter, which prior to the Internet was the go-to place for the latest boxing coverage.
Their broad, beaming, warm and welcoming smiles, each of which complimented their partial Polish heritage, are both full of hope, love, joy and vitality.
To this day Chuck jokes that if he wasn’t 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 being thrilled to meet and even dance 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 and they kept a lot of people, myself included, somewhat loose during a very difficult time.
Over the years, I have seen the same kindness displayed by Chuck also shown by Linda. While working in a Brooklyn detective squad in the early 1990s, my partner and I would often have dinner at a restaurant in Staten Island where Linda was the bartender.
My partner was a spitting image of the Detective Sipowicz character(below) played by Dennis Franz on the former television series “NYPD Blue.”
When told that “Sipowicz” had serious health issues a few years back, she has never neglected to inquire about him.
She even called him to see how he was doing. While he greatly appreciated the call, his lady friend did not, so I had to ask her to stop.
Linda’s heart is as big as her husband’s. One can only assume that it was passed down to her by her father, who was still a stout, hearty and regal Italian gentleman before passing away when he was well into his 90s.
Chuck used to joke that when he and Linda were heading into Brooklyn to have dinner with him, he’d be eagerly awaiting their arrival “with a knife and fork in his hand, ready to eat.”
It is customary for me to get both nostalgic and grateful during holidays and around the birthdays of friends or family members. You realize another year has passed, acknowledge the limitless possibilities that lie ahead, and all there is to be grateful for despite life’s multitude of challenges. Being in quarantine during this pandemic has had the same effect.
My love affair with boxing has long ago waned, but my love affair with old-school boxers and old-school people has not. And it never will.
Many of the uninitiated, or those who have no sense of nostalgia, might inaccurately dismiss Wepner as a 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 after watching Van Heflin and Aldo Ray in the 1955 film “Battle Cry.”
Afterwards, instead of seeing himself as just a liquor salesman and a night security guard at General Electric — the jobs he held when he challenged Ali — he dared to dream big and clearly envisioned himself dethroning the man many still consider “The Greatest.”
The seven weeks he 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,” he continued. “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.”
“Chuck was the gutsiest fighter I ever met,” said Al Braverman, who passed away in 1997. “He was in a league of his own. He didn’t care about pain or cuts. If he got cut or elbowed, he never looked at me or the referee for help. He was a fighter in the purest sense of the word.”
Wepner has always been as stand-up outside of the ring as he was inside of it. When he was busted 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.
Wepner chose to do the time (see March 16, 1988 NY Times below), 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.”
Regarding the arrest, Wepner explained, “My makeup would never allow me to be a rat. I did the crime and knew I had to do the time. I was ready to accept my punishment.”
What he doesn’t tell you right away is how many people from the law enforcement community realized his actions were an aberration, and lobbied to get him released into the ISP. None have regretted that decision.
Several years after being released from prison, Wepner attended an NYPD amateur boxing show as a celebrity guest.
At one point 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 told him what an honor it was 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 outgutted and outballed 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.”
As a writer, you couldn’t imagine a better subject. As a regular guy, you couldn’t ask for a better friend. Wepner, who has been battling cancer for several years, is still fighting the good fight.
More importantly, he and Linda still make everyone they come in contact with feel better about themselves.
In my mind there is no better way to define true champions than that.