The Real-Life Boxing Inspiration For 'Rocky' Actually Took Down Ali
By Steve P
Muhammad Ali may have been known as The Greatest, but it wasn’t unheard of for him to get knocked down every now and then. And that’s exactly what happened in 1975 when he stepped into the ring with Chuck Wepner. This underdog opponent was a remarkable fighter, and his story is so fascinating that it even inspired Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. So who exactly is Wepner, and how did he end up locking gloves with a titan like Ali?
Ali and Wepner came from different worlds
All signs pointed to an easy victory for Ali. Sure, Wepner did okay as a fighter. He’d managed to attract the attention of legendary promoter Don King after all. Still, boxing wasn’t his only line of work: this was someone who needed a regular income to prop up his achievements in the ring. Quite the contrast to a full-blown knockout artist like Ali.
The Bayonne Bleeder
Wepner earned the nickname of the “Bayonne Bleeder”, due to his veins opening during the rough and tumble. If he wasn’t careful, he’d be having a transfusion following this high-profile confrontation. It was a big deal for Wepner, but a drop in the ocean for Ali. The latter was a veteran of the scene, yet still delivered in the decking department.
The money alone highlighted the differences between these two determined athletes. Ali was making a cool $1.5 million; Wepner stood to make $175,000. Not exactly small beer when you had a family to support, but it was still a David v Goliath situation in financial terms. The chances of David getting his slingshot in position were seen as slim to none.
The fight of his life
When Wepner arrived at the Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 24, 1975, he must have felt at least some pressure. Thousands at the venue had their eyes on him, not to mention the many watching at home. It would be either the making or breaking of him, or somewhere inbetween. There was no way he could gain an advantage, was there?
The Rocky road
Unknown to Wepner, there was a young guy watching whose life he would change forever by taking part in the match. Sylvester Stallone probably had little idea, when checking out the Ali vs Wepner bout, that a rocket was being lit under his movie career. The underdog threw him a curveball that inspired Stallone to create the iconic character Rocky Balboa.
Balboa became a byword for sporting triumph against adversity. Relying on his own grit and determination, plus the support of those who loved him, Philadelphia native Rocky went up against the fearsome Apollo Creed. When their big showdown came, it literally changed the game. Creed ultimately scooped the title, but Rocky’s courage won through. You just couldn’t keep him down.
A fighting franchise
Hollywood agreed, and Rocky would go on to challenge Creed again in a sequel. He then faced Mr T’s Clubber Lang and Dolph Lundgren’s Soviet superman Ivan Drago, though by movie number five the critics had given up on Rocky. Stallone gave him an acclaimed comeback in the 21st century, before the torch was passed to Michael B. Jordan as Creed.
The “real Rocky”
Wepner’s life story isn’t as action-packed as Balboa’s. Stallone took the concept of a working-class man using his brain and fists to get to the top and gave it a Tinseltown spin. For example, Wepner probably didn’t have access to his own robot, as witnessed in Rocky IV! That said, there are some similarities. We’ll start by looking at Wepner’s own background.
Wepner grew up in a converted coal shed
Born in 1939 in New York, Wepner and his brother, Don, were raised by his mother Dolores and their grandparents. Their parents had separated, leading to Wepner relocating to New Jersey. Specifically the city of Bayonne in Hudson County, which would give the fighter his gory nickname. Website Ring TV noted that the young Chuck lived in a converted cellar storeroom, or coal shed, till the age of 13.
It sounds like the kind of place where people think with their knuckles at times, though it would be a little while yet before Wepner found his calling in the heady environment of a boxing ring. He had an interest in sports, but he first pulled on a proper pair of gloves in his late teens while serving in the Marines.
Wepner was already a hero
His father Charlie had also been a pro boxer, so it wasn’t a surprise that fighting ran in Wepner’s blood. When he managed to keep it inside his body, that is. Whilst in service, he risked his life saving three of his comrades from burning planes, a story which made the pages of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Normal life and a return to boxing
Following his period in the Marines, Wepner went on to work as a security guard and bouncer. Eventually, the Bayonne Police Athletic League provided him with a route back into boxing as a potential money-spinner. From there, he entered the novice section of the Golden Gloves championship in the Big Apple. He won that and started to gain a reputation as a serious fighter.
Not that regular work took a backseat — Wepner had to do it all to keep his show on the road. “I used to train, do my roadwork, go to the gym, work at night, and fight the next day,” he told Ring TV. His working-class background in New Jersey was important to him, and he wanted to be a permanent fixture in the heavyweight leagues.
The work kept flowing
A salesman role for Allied Liquor became a long-term source of income for Wepner, helping him pay the bills and beyond. According to the fighter, he received no financial assistance, apart from his other jobs and what he could earn in the ring. It was a tough life, and what’s more he had the cuts and bruises to prove it.
A part-time local hero
Work colleagues and the public may have wondered just what was going on with him as he plied his wares with a pummeled nose or cut over the eye. This intensive and often dangerous lifestyle was underpinned by his family. Wepner met his first wife Lorma, and they had a son and daughter together. Lorma sadly passed away in 2020.
A rollercoaster life
He then married Phyllis and fathered another daughter. His current wife is Linda; they’ve been together since the mid-1990s. There are numerous ups and downs connected to Wepner’s personal life, not to mention his involvement with Stallone. One thing remained constant though, and that was his record against some of the best in boxing.
Headlining Madison Square Garden
Wepner had been honing his craft as a professional boxer since 1964; in due course he won the title of New Jersey State Heavyweight Boxing Champion. In 1969 he was in the ring with George Foreman: this particular rumble took place at Madison Square Garden in New York. How did Wepner fare? Not too well it seemed, if some accounts are anything to go by.
Foreman cleaned up
Wepner certainly wasn’t a slouch, but wound up bested by Foreman. His fellow puncher had spent less time in competition, yet was at the top of his game. Several years later, Foreman would fight Muhammad Ali in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle”, a gamble he would lose. Wepner, on the other hand, proved somewhat easier to send on his way.
It was a messy business
With a cut opening up above Wepner’s left eye, the writing was probably on the wall: the third round saw the Bayonne Bleeder live up to his name. The match was stopped with Foreman claiming victory less than a minute into the round. And if that sounds rough, then the next big name Wepner fought really showed him the dangers of the ring.
Next up: Sonny Liston
In 1970 Wepner met Sonny Liston, who’d been boxing over a decade longer than his opponent. Yet the younger player seemed to have an advantage initially. As described by website Bleacher Report, during the first round Wepner “landed a hard right hand which made Liston’s knees buckle.” Unfortunately. that appears to be the highlight — at least for Wepner.
As with Foreman the previous year, Liston cut Wepner, this time over his right eye. He inflicted another five cuts, with Wepner on the receiving end of a knockdown in round five. His eye began closing up; by round nine, medics had intervened, and the match was ended. True to form, Wepner was bleeding, though who wouldn’t have been in that situation?
As per the Bleacher Report it “went into the record books as a tenth-round TKO”, or Technical Knockout. Wepner wasn’t deemed fit to carry on, having suffered a broken nose and cheekbone. Accounts differ on the number of stitches he needed in his face — some say 72, others over 100. Interestingly, this was Liston’s last fight; he passed away the same year.
Build-up to the big bout
Website The Sportsman referred to Liston vs. Wepner as “one of the bloodiest bouts in boxing history.” So how would the latter get on with the fast-talking, fleet-footed, stingmeister otherwise known as Ali? Up for grabs was the World Heavyweight Title. The 35-year-old Wepner may have been seen as surefire canvas fodder, but he’d done brilliantly to get to this point.
An article on the website of Case Western Reserve University noted that the clash maybe wasn’t as official as it seemed. It wrote that because Wepner “was not among the World Boxing Council's top ten contenders, the contest was not sanctioned as a title match”. Regardless of the fine print, Wepner needed to ensure he was in peak condition. The large payout helped him achieve that.
Ali was more relaxed
The Sportsman noted that Wepner invested in a coach with whom he could train all the time, focusing entirely on the task in hand. Meanwhile, Ali was honing himself in preparation for his showdown with Wepner. Wasn’t he? Actually, apparently he wasn’t: his training has since been described as less than thorough. Did he even take this fight seriously?
The Greatest energy
It was Ali’s first boxing match since the African Rumble In The Jungle, but that didn’t mean he was keeping his senses particularly sharp. The 2003 book Muhammad Ali: The Glory Years by Felix Dennis and Don Atyeo quoted Ali regarding the nature of the match. Using a lyrical style typical of the ageing champ, he spoke of possessing the energy of his younger self.
He then added, “I didn't burn myself out training for guys like Al Lewis, Jürgen Blin, and Chuck Wepner.” The journey to longevity didn’t pause for small fish like Wepner, it seemed. Also, Ali was a consummate showman. He apparently tried to set up an attention-grabbing situation during a TV interview with Wepner by urging his opponent to use a racial slur against him.
Wepner took his life in his hands
Wepner not only refused but made the bold move of cupping Ali’s mouth when he tried accusing him of it! Website Deadline mentions that the Ali v Wepner match was promoted under the title “Give The White Guy a Break”. Dennis and Atyeo’s book also mentions an exchange between Wepner and his manager which shone a light on the dynamic of this eye-catching face off.
King vs King
When the former called Ali “the King of boxing”, the response came that they were “both royalty” as Wepner ruled when it came to fighting dirty. Ali went on to complain about Wepner’s performance. Thousands attended the match. On TV, people tuned in from everywhere to see what, or to be more precise who, was going down in Cleveland.
Wepner put down Ali
It was assumed Wepner would take a pounding and indeed that happened. Yet there was a major surprise waiting in the wings during round nine: Ali hit the canvas. Why did he fall? Opinions differ on the subject. If you ask Wepner, he knocked Ali down. The underdog was confident enough to make a quip that the match was over.
Enjoy it while its lasts
Unfortunately that was far from the case. Ali, who claimed the fall was a slip — as mentioned by The Sportsman — stood up and resumed taking the pretender to school. After a surprisingly lengthy battle, Wepner lost through a TKO in round 15. It was certainly not the first time this fate had befallen him during his eventful career.
Stallone was inspired
The young Stallone was watching on closed circuit television. Like many others in the audience, he came away impressed. Ali had once again proved his worth, despatching the Bayonne Bleeder. Yet, the stumble — or knockdown depending on who you believe — plus Wepner’s epic stamina in the ring meant that he became a talking-point.
An ultimate endurance test
Stallone spoke to GQ magazine in 2018 about his memories of the event. “No one considered whether he could win the fight, that was out of the question, but everyone was wondering just how much of a beating he’d take — and how long it would last — and how much pain he’d absorb before he crashed to the canvas.” A whole lot, as it turned out.
How Rocky reflects Chuck
The seed of an idea was planted inside the struggling actor. We said earlier that there were parallels between the screenplay for Rocky and Wepner’s own life. Both had to hold down a job between bouts. More intimate details reportedly exist too: a comment Wepner made to his wife about belonging in the ring being as important as winning was used in the script.
Balboa being thrown out of the ring by Hulk Hogan in 1982’s Rocky III may seem cartoon-like, but a rumored inspiration for this was Wepner taking on another legend, Andre the Giant. This happened in 1976 — the year after he’d fought Ali. How much is fact and how much fiction is up for debate: both these aspects collided dramatically in the early Noughties.
From the ring to the courts
In 2003 Wepner decided to take legal action against Stallone, wanting what he saw as his share of the profits: the matter was settled out of court three years later. Wepner nearly joined the franchise with a role in Rocky II, though sadly this didn’t work out. Stallone now cites Wepner as a driving force for Rocky, but he reportedly didn’t acknowledge this for a long time.
Wepner fought his last professional bout against Scott Frank in 1978. He then retired, after which things appear to have gone off the rails. He was arrested in 1985 and spent 17 months behind bars in New Jersey. Despite these setbacks, he’s still remembered in boxing circles as the man who reportedly felled Ali and the inspiration for Rocky.
A lasting tribute
In 2022 a 7-foot statue of Wepner was unveiled in New Jersey. This could be said to mirror the presence of the Rocky Statue, which was created for the third movie and went on display in Philadelphia. That can currently be seen at the famous “Rocky Steps” which lead up to the city’s Museum of Art. The Wepner story was covered by Deadline.
Ashes to ashes
“I’m going to ask the mayor; when I go, I’m being cremated — stick me down next to my statue,” Wepner said. Stallone wasn’t there, but Liev Schreiber showed up: he’d played Wepner in 2016’s Chuck. Another movie treatment would follow with 2019’s The Brawler, where Zach McGowan took the title role. With these releases, Wepner finally got his showbiz dues.