Chuck Wepner may have lost his fight against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship title in March 1975, but the heated boxing match influenced Sylvester Stallone to write the screenplay for "Rocky."
When Chuck Wepner stepped into the ring to face off against Muhammad Ali, most viewers thought Ali would have the whole thing over and done with in no time flat. Wepner was slow and awkward; Ali was at the top of his game. It was March 24, 1975 — and Wepner landed the first big blow of the night.
Suddenly, the lumbering man viewers had seen step into the ring became a crowd-favorite underdog. He represented something in boxing that no other fighter did — the idea that, on the right night, any little-known fighter could compete with a champion. It was the sort of moment that turns a man into a legend, and it just so happened that another legend watched it all happen.
Elsewhere, in a Los Angeles theater, a struggling actor and screenwriter was watching a broadcast of the fight. His name was Sylvester Stallone. Stallone found himself so enamored by Wepner’s conviction that he was inspired to write a story of his own about an underdog boxer. It was called Rocky, and it propelled Stallone to heights that most Hollywood actors could only ever dream of reaching.
Although the tale of Rocky Balboa would ultimately outshine the man who inspired it, Chuck Wepner’s story is no less dramatic or inspiring.
How Chuck Wepner Became A Boxer
Chuck Wepner was born in New York City in 1939, but he grew up across the harbor in the industrial town of Bayonne. Wepner’s father, Charlie, had been a professional boxer, but he wouldn’t follow in his dad’s footsteps right away.
Instead, young Chuck Wepner gravitated toward basketball. It was later in life, after he had joined the military, that Wepner discovered his own passion for boxing. He enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 17 years old.
“Back then, not like today, joining the armed forces still seemed glamorous,” Wepner told New Jersey Monthly in 2008. “I wanted an opportunity.”
Wepner worked on the Marine’s crash crew, putting out fires and saving pilots from plane crashes. He also joined the boxing team, largely because it meant he got more to eat, an extra weekend pass, and additional time to work out.
He wasn’t the strongest hitter on the team, but Wepner was able to endure more blows than most other guys in his position. Part of that he attributed to growing up on the rough streets of Bayonne.
“I loved those Marine fights,” said Wepner. “I used to choke guys; you could do anything you wanted, as long as you were the guy standing at the end of three rounds. Those were battles of attrition.”
But Wepner didn’t stay with the Marines for life. After his discharge at age 20, Wepner worked the midnight security shift at Western Electric and moonlighted as a bouncer to make some extra cash to support his wife and two children. He wasn’t fighting professionally, but his jobs gave him plenty of opportunities to get involved in the occasional scuffle.
“I was undefeated in bathrooms, telephone booths, and alleys,” Wepner once said.
Then, in 1964, the Police Athletic League boxing coach reached out to Wepner and said he was looking for a Golden Gloves heavyweight. Wepner had no reason to turn the man down, and four months later, he became the national Golden Gloves champ.
It was in 1970, however, that Wepner’s boxing career really took off.
Inside The Career Of The “Bayonne Bleeder”
In June 1970, Chuck Wepner entered the ring with Sonny Liston, who had been the heavyweight champion eight years prior. Liston had suffered two losses to Muhammad Ali in 1964 and 1965, and he was still trying to make something of a comeback.
It was a brutal match, one that left Wepner’s face covered in blood. For most people, such a defeat would rule them out as a contender, but not for Wepner. In fact, the next day, the Jersey Journal came out with the headline: “Bayonne Bleeder Loses to Liston.”
Wepner had lost the match, but he had earned a nickname — and with it, growing recognition.
“I started becoming famous,” he said, “and started liking boxing a little better.”
Still, at the end of the day, Wepner was just a struggling pro. He enjoyed the local fame the fight had brought him — people recognized him at clubs and he gained access to VIP sections — but he hadn’t yet made it to the national level.
That changed when Don King called.
The Famous Fight That Inspired Rocky
In 1975, the Jersey Journal made another huge announcement: Muhammad Ali was set to defend his title against Chuck Wepner. It was exciting news for boxing fans and even more so for the locals in Jersey. But it was probably most exciting — and surprising — for Chuck Wepner.
Apparently, wrestling promoter Don King had set up the fight — and nobody had bothered to let Wepner know. The next morning, Wepner reached out to his manager, Al Braverman, and got confirmation that the fight really was happening.
“Pack your bags,” Braverman said. “You’re leaving for camp in a few days.”
It was the first time in his career that Wepner had ever actually trained for a fight. But given that he was set to make $100,000 from the match, it seemed as good a time as any to start.
Wepner knew that Ali likely wouldn’t take him seriously. He was a 10-1 outsider, after all, but he leaned into that. He trained like he was going to win the fight, no matter what. He was so confident, in fact, that he wrote a poem titled “Goodbye Ali, Hello Chuck” and read it at the pre-fight press conference.
Ali clearly didn’t find the poem amusing, as when the two boxers stepped into the ring, Ali approached Wepner and told him, “I’m going to kick your ass, you honkey motherf—er.” Wepner responded with an equal sense of bravado: “Go for it, motherf—er.”
The two men traded punches for nine rounds, neither looking like they were about to go down. Then, Wepner delivered a blow to Ali’s chest that sent the champ to the ground. The crowd shifted in Wepner’s favor. Here he was, some nightclub bouncer, and he had just knocked Muhammad Ali to his knees.
But the fight wasn’t over. Ali was mad. He came back into the ring and began pummeling Wepner relentlessly. He delivered a flurry of blows that never let up. Wepner, for what it’s worth, refused to back down.
Eventually, Wepner recalled to the BBC, the referee, Tony Perez, had to call it.
“After I got knocked down, he says to me: ‘Chuck, you’re bleeding too much,'” Wepner said. “I said, ‘No way, give me this round. Let me finish the fight, I’m all right.’ So Tony says: ‘Okay Chuck, how many fingers do I have up?'”
“I look at his hand and say: ‘How many guesses do I get?'”
They were just 19 seconds shy of a full 15-round match when Perez called the fight, and Ali emerged as the clear victor. But Wepner had become the people’s champion. Despite his loss, the crowd was cheering his name: “Chuck, Chuck, Chuck!”
And far away in Los Angeles, watching the match in a theater, Sylvester Stallone found his inspiration.
Chuck Wepner’s Lawsuit Against Sylvester Stallone
Rocky, written by and starring Sylvester Stallone, was a massive success. The film came out just one year after Wepner and Ali’s match, in 1976, and spawned several sequels — including an entirely new franchise, Creed.
But while Stallone received numerous accolades for the film and went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest actors, there was one person left behind: Chuck Wepner.
Despite being the inspiration for the film, Wepner never actually received any credit or recognition from it, let alone monetary compensation. So, in 2003, he announced that he would be filing a lawsuit against the actor.
The case was settled for an undisclosed amount three years later, but it also opened up more pathways for Wepner. For one, he could now say he was officially the man that Rocky was based on — and he could make a film about his own life without any legal reprisals.
That film, Chuck, came out in 2016 and starred Liev Schreiber as Chuck Wepner.
It was a final victory for Wepner after a couple of rough years. After he had retired from boxing in 1979, he spiraled for a bit. He partied a lot, did a lot of cocaine, and even cost himself a role in Rocky II. In 1985, he was convicted of possessing narcotics and sentenced to 10 years in prison, though he served just 17 months.
Now, at 84 years old, Chuck Wepner is still going strong.
After learning about the life of Chuck Wepner, the man who inspired Rocky, read about Rudy Ruettiger, the football hero of Notre Dame. Then, explore the story of Harry Haft, the Jewish boxer who was forced to fight for his life during the Holocaust.