Commentary

ESPN Films: 'The Real Rocky'

Updated: October 20, 2011, 2:16 PM ET
By Staff | ESPN.com

FILM SUMMARY

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 nickname "The Bayonne Bleeder" for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Sonny Liston. In 1975, Wepner fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title. In the 15th round, Ali knocked out Wepner after breaking his nose and opening cuts over both eyes. Sylvester Stallone wrote a screenplay, and starred in and won three Academy Awards (including best picture) for the film "Rocky," based on Wepner's gutsy challenge. Wepner was left out of the "Rocky" glory, and his career took turn after strange turn as he worked to stay in the spotlight. He went on to fight Andre the Giant as "The Assassin" and boxed a 900-pound Kodiak bear. Twice. Using too-good-to-be-true footage, Jeff Feuerzeig ("The Devil and Daniel Johnston") and Mike Tollin will explore the colorful life and bloodied career of this unique New Jersey character in their 1-hour ESPN film.

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MEET THE DIRECTOR

Jeff Feuerzeig is an award-winning director and nonfiction filmmaker whose feature film "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" won top documentary directing honors at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and was distributed theatrically by Sony Pictures Classics. The film, which has developed a large cult following, is a compelling portrait of a schizophrenic musician and outsider artist who overcame his private demons -- many of them quite literally in the subject's own mind -- to develop an avid international following. Combining techniques drawn from the documentary canon (Feuerzeig has worked with Albert Maysles, among others) and the new journalism of the 1970s (the creation of first-person point-of-view and internal monologue through audio cassette letters, journal entries, home movies, etc.), the film presents one of the finest portraits available of whom writer and clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison has labeled the artist "touched with fire," and the connective tissue that links genius to madness.

As New York Observer film critic Matt Zoller Seitz declared of "Devil": "A true nonfiction film, a movie that tries to do with sound and image what journalists like Nick Tosches (Dino) and Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night) tried to do with prose, bending prose into poetry to find a more subjective route to truth."

Coming out of the fertile early '80s punk and independent music underground and its pervasive do-it-yourself aesthetic, Feuerzeig began his career as a film editor before successfully transitioning to commercial directing. In 1993, his independently produced and self-financed first feature "Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King," a loving documentary portrait of the cult band, was distributed theatrically in art-house cinemas nationwide, expanding a personal passion project into a humorous yet ultimately heartfelt valentine to the kind of fringe artists who often deserve but rarely receive anything like it.

As Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times, "But underneath [this] pose burns a fiercely anti-establishment passion and an anarchic teen-age spirit that insists on the ultimate value of noise for noise's sake."

Continuing to push the boundaries of nonfiction, Feuerzeig has recently completed the screenplays "God Bless Tiny Tim" (with Julien Nitzberg), a feature biopic about the legendary crooner of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" fame, and "The Bleeder" (with Jerry Stahl), a feature biography of boxer Chuck Wepner, who in 1975 went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali and inspired the Sylvester Stallone film "Rocky." Liev Schreiber is attached to star in the latter.

In addition to "The Real Rocky," a 1-hour documentary special for ESPN Films, he recently completed "The Dude" for USA Network -- an 18-minute documentary short about Jeff "The Dude" Dowd, a legendary producer's rep who became the basis for the Coen brothers' cult film "The Big Lebowski." The short is broadcast online as part of the network's "Character" series.