- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

Chuck Wepner — the “Bayonne Bleeder” — is suing Sylvester Stallone because he says the “Rocky” movies were based on Wepner’s life.

Stallone has gone on record a number of times saying that his inspiration for the original “Rocky” was based on Wepner’s 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali in 1975.

Even in the book, “The Official Rocky Scrapbook,” written by Stallone in 1977. “The character of ‘Rocky Balboa’ was partially inspired by former heavyweight Chuck Wepner,” Stallone wrote.

Here’s the perfect way to settle this case: have Stallone make “The Chuck Wepner Story.” It’s a good tale and would give Stallone a chance to star in a decent film again. He would come full circle, from his initial success of “Rocky” to newfound glory in the inspiration for his success, Chuck Wepner.

Wepner’s story is that of a liquor salesman from Bayonne, N.J., who began fighting in the Marines. When he saw the heavyweight boxing landscape and saw few white heavyweights, he decided this would be his career. It turned out he was a good club fighter, but not in the class of the top heavyweights. He was tough and willing to take a beating, and in boxing that counts for something. Wepner once told a reporter his three best punches were “the rabbit punch, the choke hold and a heat butt.”

He lasted three rounds with George Foreman early in Foreman’s career in 1969. The next year he took a brutal beating from Sonny Liston at the end of Liston’s career. The fight was stopped after 10 rounds and Wepner suffered a broken nose and needed 75 stitches on his face. Liston was asked after the fight if Wepner was the bravest man he ever fought, Liston replied, “No, his manager is.”

Still, with a record of 30-9-2, Wepner was in the right place at the right time with the right complexion when Don King — in his early stages as a fight promoter — was looking for a box office stiff to match up against Ali. The champ was coming off the “Rumble in the Jungle” win over George Foreman that put King on the map. King hoped to maintain the buzz and remain as Ali’s promoter, so he went for the white hope. He tabbed Wepner to face Ali in King’s hometown of Cleveland, which also turned out to be the hometown of the mob guys who are believed to have put up the money for the Ali-Wepner fight on March 24, 1975.

King didn’t have the corporate connections, nor the money he has now. Coming off his win over Foreman, Ali demanded big money, and $1.5 million for fighting a journeyman like Wepner was outrageous. Fortunately for King, all he lost was money.

“King financed the Wepner fight with mob money,” promoter Don Elbaum, who gave King his start in the business, told Thomas Hauser in the book, “Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times.” “I heard he borrowed a million and a half from the mob in Cleveland and then had trouble paying it back.”

Rival promoter Bob Arum told Hauser: “The Wepner fight became a real monkey on King’s back. I know that for a fact, because some FBI people told me that the interest he owed on the loan from the mob kept building and building, and King wasn’t able to pay it off until after Holmes-Cooney in 1982.”

Ali-Wepner was not the battle Rocky Balboa-Apollo Creed was, though Wepner did knock down Ali in the ninth round. Later it was shown the champ fell after Wepner stepped on his foot. And Wepner didn’t last the whole 15 rounds; referee Tony Perez stopped the slaughter with 19 seconds left when, for the first time in his career, a bloody and bruised Wepner was knocked down.

The day of the fight, Wepner gave his wife a sexy negligee and told her, “I want you to wear this tonight, because after the fight you’ll be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.”

When Wepner went back to his hotel room after the fight, his wife was wearing the negligee, and said to him, “OK, big shot. Do I go to the champ’s room, or does he come to see me?”

Wepner kept fighting until 1978 and may have given Stallone another dose of inspiration when he faced Andre the Giant in a boxing-wrestling match at Shea Stadium. It was part of a show that featured Ali against Antonio Inoki in their fight in Japan on closed-circuit television.

Andre threw Wepner out of the ring — the same scene that took place in “Rocky III,” when Stallone was thrown out of the ring by the wrestler “Thunderlips” played by Hulk Hogan.

The post-fighting years were not particularly good to Wepner. He had a drug problem and served two years in prison on a cocaine possession conviction in the mid-1980s. Once he got out of prison, he stayed clean, and resurfaced from time to time at various events. Now he is coming forward to reclaim his story. “Stallone has been using Chuck’s name — and continues to this day — in promoting the ‘Rocky’ franchise without any permission or compensation,” said Wepner’s lawyer, Anthony Mango.

Apparently, Wepner had a change of heart. In his conversation with Stephen Brunt in the book, “Facing Ali,” which came out last year, Wepner was reluctant to sue Stallone. “It doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it bothers my wife and a lot of my friends,” he said. “A lot of my friends have wanted me to get lawyers and I don’t want to do that. That’s sour grapes. I don’t want to do that. I like Stallone.”

That wasn’t what his wife Linda wanted to hear. “They’re getting money hand over fist and you got nothing,” she said to Wepner.

Maybe when this is all over, it will be the Linda Wepner Story that Stallone will be making.

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