The credits roll. The house lights go up. The audience bursts into applause. Finally, 35 years after he inspired a billion-dollar cinematic franchise, Chuck Wepner is a movie star. For one night, anyway.
"The Real Rocky" is a made-for-television documentary, but a few nights before its premiere on ESPN, it finds its way to the big screen as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival. Wepner sits in the back row next to his wife, Linda, watching the finished product for the first time. The location for the screening, some two miles from the art museum steps that Rocky Balboa famously scaled, is not accidental. The director of the documentary, Jeff Feuerzeig, calls Philly "the scene of the crime."
"In my opinion, Sylvester Stallone hijacked Chuck Wepner's soul," Feuerzeig said. "This film is my attempt to help Chuck get his soul back."
"I did the best I could, I guess,
but everything just bleeds."
-- The Wallflowers
Before Bayonne, N.J.'s Chuck Wepner cemented his enduring legacy with the one-two combination of a 15-round fight against Muhammad Ali and a six-movie series triggered by that bout, his reputation was defined by three words: "The Bayonne Bleeder."
Wepner acquired that nickname on June 29, 1970, when as a 31-year-old journeyman heavyweight with a record of 20-5-2, he took on former champ Sonny Liston in Jersey City. At 6-foot-5½, Wepner might have done better in the win-loss column if he had been inclined to fight from the outside, Klitschko-style, but that just wasn't how he operated. He pressed the fight against Liston and paid for it with a broken nose (one of 11 he suffered in his career), a cracked left cheekbone and 72 stitches (among a total of 338 in Wepner's 15 years in the prize ring). According to Wepner, it was Bayonne Times sports editor Jerry "Rosey" Rosenberg, sitting ringside in a tan leisure suit that became increasingly polka-dotted red as the fight wore on, who bestowed upon him his degrading yet eternally charming handle that night.
As splashy as Wepner turned Rosenberg's jacket, Wepner himself is every bit as colorful in the role of a raconteur. The conclusion of the Liston fight offers a classic example of his storytelling prowess:
"Barney Felix, the referee that night, came into my corner and asked me how many fingers he had up. I said, 'How many guesses do I get?'" Wepner said. "I told him, 'I'm all right, Barney, let me go another round.' But I couldn't see Liston. All I could see was shadows. I grazed the referee with a left hook the next round, and the commissioner jumped up on the ring apron and waved the fight over."
After that defeat, Wepner seriously contemplated retiring from the ring. He was in dire shape for two days, with his wife and mother constantly icing him down to keep his temperature under control. But after he recovered, he decided to make one more run at heavyweight glory.
The comeback didn't start well. The Bayonne Bleeder lost both of his next two fights on cuts. He won his next two, lost one, and then embarked on the best streak of his career, winning eight straight -- including a win over Ernie Terrell, two over Randy Neumann and a knockout of Terry Hinke.
What made this run of success in his mid-30s possible? "Believe it or not," Wepner said with a laugh, "I learned to duck a little more."
After the Hinke win, promoter Don King promised Wepner the next shot at heavyweight champ George Foreman, after Big George was done pummeling Ali in Zaire. Although most of the world rooted for the aging underdog Ali, Wepner was pulling for Foreman and assumed his title shot had disappeared when Ali went on to famously Rope-A-Dope his way to an eighth-round knockout.
As it turned out, King was just as eager to put the Great White No-Hoper in with Ali as he had been to match him with Foreman, and on March 24, 1975, Wepner's life was forever altered.
For eight rounds against an undertrained Ali, 40-to-1 underdog Wepner pressed the action and was very much in the fight. In the ninth, the tenor changed suddenly from "this is surprisingly competitive" to "holy $#%&!" when Wepner became only the third man to knock down Ali. A right hand under the heart sent the champ to the canvas, and though Ali's tumble was probably aided by the presence of Wepner's foot on top of his, it went into the books as an official knockdown.
And it unofficially ended any prayer Wepner had of winning the fight.
An angry Ali battered Wepner mercilessly for the next six rounds until, finally, late in Round 15, he floored the exhausted challenger with a combination. At the count of six, with Wepner attempting to rise, referee Tony Perez waved off the fight. There were just 19 seconds left on the clock.
The Bayonne Bleeder hadn't quite gone the distance. But he had proved he "weren't just some bum from the neighborhood."
At a theater in Los Angeles, struggling actor Sylvester Stallone watched the Ali-Wepner fight and promptly went home and banged out the script for a little movie called "Rocky." It wasn't based on a true story -- not directly. But it was inspired by and borrowed heavily from a true story. By the time the movie was released on Dec. 3, 1976, word had spread that Wepner was Stallone's muse, and Wepner basked in the glory of hearing his first name chanted in the New York theater where he watched the film.
The relationship between Wepner, Stallone and the film franchise that unites them has been a complicated one for the 35 years since. Wepner appreciates that "Rocky" has made his 15 minutes of fame everlasting. He claims to like Stallone personally. Stallone had Wepner read for the part of sparring partner "Chink Weber" in "Rocky II," but Wepner admits he did about as well in the audition as Rocky did reading cue cards for aftershave commercials. According to Wepner, Stallone had still promised him that when the right movie came along, he would give Chuck a part. Twenty years on, when Wepner found out that Stallone was filming a movie called "Copland" not far from where Wepner lived in New Jersey and hadn't asked the former fighter to be a part of it, Wepner finally gave up on the notion that Stallone was going to throw him a bone.
A few years of stewing later, in 2003, Wepner sued Stallone for cashing in on his life story and never sharing a dime with "the real Rocky." Stallone settled with Wepner for an undisclosed amount.
The publicity that legal battle attracted drew Feuerzeig and Mike Tollin, executive producer of "The Real Rocky," back to this iconic underdog story from their respective youths.
Feuerzeig is from Jersey and was 10 years old when Wepner fought Ali in '75. "The local heroes in New Jersey were Bruce Springsteen and Chuck Wepner," Feuerzeig said. "They were both underdogs who symbolized to me that you can come from nothing and make something of yourself."
Feuerzeig and Tollin -- who was raised in Rocky country, Philadelphia -- spent time with Wepner about seven years ago and pondered the possibilities.
"Here he was, with a wife and a job and his health, standing upright while the icons of boxing were falling all around him," Tollin said. "We went on this ride with him and we started hearing the stories, and we knew we had something."
In addition to the documentary, Tollin and Feuerzeig also have a feature film in the works entitled "The Bleeder," with Liev Schreiber on board to play Wepner, Naomi Watts playing Wepner's first wife and Christina Hendricks as Linda.
"We also have a small part we'd like to offer Sylvester Stallone," said Tollin, straight-faced.
Of course, there's more to Wepner than just the bleeding, the Ali fight and the "Rocky" connection. His story rivals his proboscis for unexpected twists and turns. He wrestled "Andre The Giant" at Shea Stadium (arguably the inspiration for the Balboa-Thunderlips scene in "Rocky III"). He got tossed around by a grizzly bear. Then he voluntarily fought the same bear again. In the '80s, he became a fixture on the party scene at the Jersey shore, doing cocaine, chasing women, ruining his first marriage and eventually landing himself in jail for drug possession.
And he says he wouldn't change a thing.
"I saw Kelsey Grammer the other night on Piers Morgan's show," the 72-year-old Wepner said. "He talked about the 10 or 12 years that he was going crazy with cocaine and women and everything, and they said, 'You probably regret it.' And he says, 'Not at all. I had a great time.' That's how I feel. I had friends who owned go-go clubs, and we partied and we'd hit all the night clubs and it was fun! But then it just got to a point where I hit a snag and I got myself jammed up, and that was that. I'm very proud of the fact now that I've got about 22 or 23 years clean."
Wepner, completely lucid despite all the punches he took and the blood he spilled, is again enjoying the spotlight that has come and gone regularly over the past 35 years. Having retired from boxing with a record of 35-14-2, Wepner will never be enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, as Stallone was this past June. And that's OK by him.
Whether Stallone hijacked his soul is a matter of opinion. Whether Sly hijacked elements of his story is not. But now Wepner's version of the story is being told on small and big screens alike.
And there's not much more Wepner could ask for than an attentive audience to which he can keep telling his stories.
Eric Raskin is a former managing editor of The Ring and covers boxing for TheSweetScience.com, HBO, Grantland and ESPN.com.