Meet the Real Rocky Balboa
The Inspiration for Rocky
Rocky Balboa and Chuck Wepner: One is a movie character, the other is a real person, but both inspired people to reach their capabilities and then just a bit further.
Who was Chuck Wepner?
Chuck was born in New York City and was the New Jersey State heavyweight boxing champion. Between bouts, he'd make ends meet as a bouncer, security guard, and occasionally had to break a kneecap collecting money from the clients of loan sharks. He fought palookas (marginally talented boxers) in small arenas for even smaller paychecks.
At that point in his life in 1974, you'd have to ask yourself how could this guy be the inspiration for Rocky Balboa?
Actually, Chuck had a fairly successful professional boxing career in spite of his nickname ("The Bayonne Bleeder"). He had a final record of 51 wins, 35 losses, and two draws. At this point in his career, he was getting the reputation as a bit of a tomato can—you know, the kind you kicked around as you walked home from school. He needed over 120 stitches in his face after one fight.
Then the biggest break that every boxer ever dreams of just fell right into his lap! You think this was just a promotion? Chuck had all intentions to win and become the underdog champion. Watch the clip below from the Mike Douglas Show before the fight as Chuck and Ali square off!
Mike Douglas has to separate the men as a fight nearly breaks out days before the bout on his show!
Average Joe vs. The Champ
Flamboyant promoter Don King thought it would be a great idea to give an "average Joe" a shot at the seemingly superhuman Muhammad Ali in 1975. They randomly chose Chuck. Ali would receive $1.5 million. Chuck would receive $100,000, but it was more than he had ever received for a payday. Besides, his boxing career was seemingly winding down fast and this was a once-in-a-lifetime shot for the champ's title.
Do you notice the similarities in Ali's demeanor and those of the character in the movie, Apollo Creed? Boisterous, loud, overconfident, and always a showman. But Rocky is humble, realistic, and devoted to his calling. He is characterized as being just a name found on the under card of a boxing event, much like Chuck's unheralded boxing career up to that point.
They fought in Richfield, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. It was a pretty bloody bout to say the least, according to eyewitnesses at ringside. It was the challenger, Wepner, who was the bloody one. The champ bragged that he'd finish off the bum in three rounds.
Before the fight, Chuck had told his wife Linda, "Tonight you're going to be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world." Chuck would just not give in to the champion's punishing assault through the entire fight. In round nine, Ali went down, one of the few times in his career and only one of four times in his entire career.
How did Chuck Wepner do it?
The challenger had used an old boxer's cheating tactic called "rabbit punches," sneaking in blows to the back of his opponent's head. He also used a ploy of stepping on the opponent's foot and then lifting up just as he pulled back, forcing momentum backwards and off balance, then popping him one in the face.
"You see that? I knocked him down," Chuck said, sitting on his stool after the round.
"Yeah, but I think that really pissed him off now," his worried trainer, Al Braverman responded.
The fight miraculously continued on into the 15th round as Ali made hamburger meat out of Chuck's face. Finally, after sustaining two knockdowns and seemingly near exhaustion, the champion had barely retained his title by a technical knockout decision.
“He's better than you all gave him credit for,” Ali told a crowded post-fight interview room. “I'm unmarked and I won,” Ali said.
“That's what you think,” shouted a woman in back of the room.
“That's O.K.,” said Ali. “That's his wife. I know how she feels.”
When Chuck returned home that night, his wife Linda tried to cheer him up by asking him, "So where's Muhammad Ali? You said I was going to be sleeping with the champ tonight!" His face hurt so bad but he managed to crack a smile and they both laughed until they cried.
But our hero had garnered the respect of Ali and the entire nation. He also caught the attention of a struggling actor and script writer who was watching the fight on his small black-and-white TV in a poor section of Philadelphia.
Everyone knows who that actor is by now. He went on to star in and write the Academy Award-winning Best Picture movie based on the events that surrounded this fight, and his name is Sylvester Stallone.
Wepner filed a lawsuit which was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount out of court. He retired the next year in 1976. These days, Chuck and his wife are still living in New Jersey and working in liquor sales to local stores.
He's [Chuck Wepner is] better than you all gave him credit for.— Muhammad Ali
Conversations With Chuck Wepner
I wrote to Mr. Wepner and asked for an autographed picture, but I received more than just that. A personal correspondence began back and forth via the internet.
The autographed picture shows Chuck flopping onto the ropes with his gloves up and still ready to fight from the 15th round of the now-famous fight. His face is a bloody, swollen, unrecognizable mess. Ali had just finished belting him with a right hook and he seemed exhausted and irritated that he was still standing after taking such a beating.
Yeah, Rocky is a real person. His name is Chuck.