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'I'm A Brawler,' Says Chuck Wepner, The Boxer Who Inspired 'Rocky'

Muhammad Ali throws a playful punch at Chuck Wepner, ahead of their 1975 fight.
Muhammad Ali throws a playful punch at Chuck Wepner, ahead of their 1975 fight.

Chuck Wepner is realistic about his boxing abilities. He cops to being a slow learner when it comes to the techniques and finesse of boxing.

"I'm a brawler," he says from his condo in Bayonne, New Jersey. His voice, by the way, sounds exactly like a guy who calls himself a brawler. "I'm a fighter. That's why people — I used to sell out every time I fought — because people knew they were gonna get their money's worth. They were gonna see a fight."

And that's what happened on March 24, 1975 at Richfield Coliseum — just outside Cleveland. His opponent was a top-of-his-game Muhammad Ali, who had just beaten George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle. This fight didn't have anywhere near that same sort of cultural significance, says Michael Ezra, author of the book Muhammad Ali: The Making of an Icon. Instead, he says, it was "a big whatever," where pretty much everyone involved knew who was going to win. Ezra says for champs like Ali, the overmatched fight is sort of ingrained into boxing.

"That's how you don't get hurt. That's how you get paid. And that's how the sport functions best." There's something in it for the other guy, too, he adds. "By the peculiar mindset of boxing — the hardcore capitalism where bodies are ground up for dollars — it's actually a great opportunity."

"Great opportunity" is kind of an understatement considering what happened in the ninth round. After being completely out-matched, Wepner gets a swing into Ali's ribs and Ali falls. Wepner maintains that it was a clean knock down. Others, like Ezra, say Wepner tripped Ali. Either way, it's on the books as Ali getting knocked down.

This is a big deal because sure, Ali got knocked down. It didn't happen often. But it's a bigger deal, because watching the fight at the time was a struggling screenwriter named Sylvester Stallone. And he'd been thinking about big themes: Unfulfilled potential, being undersold, never getting your shot. You can probably guess where this is going by now — Stallone took Wepner's story and turned it into the Academy Award-winning movie Rocky.

In an anniversary edition DVD extra of Rocky, he talks about Wepner with a certain kind of romance.

"For one brief moment this supposed stumblebum turned out to be magnificent in the fact that he lasted, and knocked the champ down. I said, 'boy, if this isn't a metaphor for life.' His entire life crystallized at that moment. He would be remembered for all eternity."

Wepner, like Rocky Balboa, lost the fight. When Rocky became a full-on franchise, Wepner got name-checked, but didn't get an actual check from the movie's success. He did meet Stallone, and became fame-adjacent — Stallone even let him read for a part in Rocky II. It didn't go well, and mostly Wepner kept on living his life as a liquor salesman, cashing in on his hometown cred here and there. That included boxing for charity but also a decent amount of drinking and drugs and sex.

Chuck Wepner and his wife Linda, who convinced him to sue Sylvester Stallone for using his life story in <em>Rocky</em>.
Andrew Limbong / NPR
Chuck Wepner and his wife Linda, who convinced him to sue Sylvester Stallone for using his life story in <em>Rocky</em>.

In 2003 he made the decision to sue Stallone. He didn't want to do it, says Linda Wepner, Chuck's wife of 24 years — she's the one who finally convinced him. "Stallone was great and all that, but come on, that's my husband," she says. "Don't mess with me, babe." She also sounds exactly like the type of person who would say "don't mess with me, babe." In the end, they settled quickly and remain relatively close to Stallone. "I wouldn't say kissin' buddy friends, but we're friends," Wepner says. "You know, we're professional."

Today Wepner has a movie he can call his own. It's called Chuck. It just opened, and stars Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts. There's more than a few differences between this movie version of Wepner and Stallone's version of him. This Wepner's a lot more mouthy, kind of a tough guy, probably closer in attitude to Rocky's best friend Paulie. The movie used to be called The Bleeder — a reference to Wepner's skill at taking a punch. He gets called that in the movie, and you can tell it stings. Today in real life, Wepner says, it doesn't hurt as much.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.