ESPN Films: 'The Real Rocky'
Question: Who is the only man on the planet to fight Muhammad Ali, Andre the Giant and a real grizzly bear (and inspire a movie franchise worth a billion dollars)?
Answer: New Jersey's own Chuck Wepner, aka "The Bayonne Bleeder."
The "Real Rocky" is Chuck Wepner -- a liquor salesman from Bayonne, N.J., who drives a Cadillac with "Champ" vanity plates. A former New Jersey state heavyweight boxing champion, he was christened with the ...
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"The Real Rocky," airs Oct. 25 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
I've been a Chuck Wepner fan ever since 1975, when I was 10 years old and my father took my brother and me to Sports Night at the Raritan High School gymnasium in Hazlet, N.J. to see Chuck -- aka "The Bayonne Bleeder" -- just months before he was set to go up against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. There were no figures who loomed larger in the 10-year-old imagination of mid-'70s suburbia than Evel Knievel, Andre the Giant and, especially, Muhammad Ali -- "The Greatest" -- and here was a 6-foot-5 behemoth in a full-length fur coat, pimp hat and ridiculous amount of jewelry leading us in a chant of "Who's gonna beat Ali? WEPNER!" Even better, the bloody 16mm fight films he projected proved his nickname was more than mere hype. The place exploded. And in that instant, Chuck Wepner became a real-life mythological figure -- as real to me as the Jersey Devil that haunted the local pine barrens.
This film is very much about myth -- the myth of Narcissus. When Chuck Wepner stood on line like an average schmoe and paid for his own movie ticket and sat in a dark theater in 1976 watching Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky," a film and character that were directly inspired by his truly heroic fight with Ali, he could not distinguish the mirror image from the real person, and like the hero in the Greek myth, he fell in love with his own reflection up there on the silver screen. And who could blame him? He was Rocky. Stallone even said so. If, as certain cultures believe, to capture someone's image is to steal their soul, Chuck had his soul hijacked.
I believe documentary is a blank canvas -- in which all kinds of disparate ideas and stylistic techniques can co-exist as long as they serve the story. As with my previous films "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" and "The Dude," about Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, who inspired "The Big Lebowski," I worked hard to come up with a unique visual palette and sound design approach to tell the Wepner story. It was important to me to capture Chuck's interview in extreme close-up and lush Super 16mm black and white because it made it arresting.
Being in so tight made every story feel like I could see the synapses firing in his brain as I cut to the visual evidence "in his mind." And if it seems like you're noshing at the Carnegie Deli in Woody Allen's "Broadway Danny Rose" during the Greek Chorus Sportwriters Round Table sprinkled throughout the film -- well, there's a good reason. This setup provided an opportunity to riff on Chuck's career while creating a fitting homage to one of my favorite films. There's probably a bit of Roy Lichtenstein's pop art slammed together with Jamie Reid's Sex Pistols ransom note album cover design on display in the Wepner newspaper clippings. And while I'm showing my hand here, I might as well point out the heightened sound effects owe as much to Walter Murch in "American Graffiti" or "Apocalypse Now" as to Howard Stern's sound effects guru "Earth Dog" Fred Norris. When it comes to style, I believe you are what you eat.
A documentary film can set out to accomplish many things, but in this case, ultimately, it's an honest attempt to settle the score for a fellow New Jersey underdog and to help him take back what is rightfully his. Because sometimes, even a giant needs somebody to watch his back. That's the Jersey way. -- Jeff Feuerzeig
- •The Real Rocky
-- ESPN2: 11 p.m.
- •The Real Rocky
-- ESPN2: 7:30 a.m.
WEDNESDAY, OCT. 26
SATURDAY, NOV. 26