Best I Faced: Chuck Wepner
Hard-nosed brawler Chuck Wepner was a heavyweight contender in the late 1960s and 1970s. During his career he shared a ring with Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali, the latter bout providing the main inspiration for the movie Rocky.
Wepner was born in New York City on February 26, 1939. At a young age his parents split up, and Wepner and his brother, Don, went with their mother to Bayonne, New Jersey, to live with their grandmother.
His grandmother had eight other children and it was a tight squeeze, but they converted a storeroom in the cellar and he lived there until he was 13 years old. It was during this time that the future heavyweight contender found his love for fighting.
Wepner enlisted in the Marines at 17 and during his three-year-stint, he became a member of the boxing team. After being discharged, he worked as a bouncer, but his reputation followed him and he was eventually asked to participate in the 1964 New York Golden Gloves novice section.
“I decided to give it a shot,” Wepner proudly told The Ring. “They never had a heavyweight from New Jersey win [the] heavyweight championship and to this day, [they] still don’t.”
Wepner turned professional with a third-round knockout over George Cooper in August 1964.
Throughout his career, Wepner worked as a liquor salesman for Allied Liquor. He still works for them today and has been with the company for 52 years.
“I used to train, do my roadwork, go to the gym, work at night and fight the next day,” Wepner recalled. “After a couple of my fights, I’d have a bloody nose or cut over my eye. I was never subsidized; I had to work, support a family and fight too.”
Wepner had gone 19-4-2 (7 KOs) over the course of his first 25 fights before being chosen to fight the 1968 Olympic heavyweight champion, George Foreman, at Madison Square Garden, in August 1969.
“George was knocking everybody out,” Wepner said. “We took the fight because it was a decent payday. He cut me and stopped me early. I never even got started, I was a slow starter anyway; it would take me two or three rounds to really get going. Sometimes you’re caught cold and you don’t really get off, especially against somebody like George.”
Unperturbed, Wepner reeled off two wins before being matched against former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Today marks the 51st anniversary of that bout, which would ultimately be the final fight of Liston’s career.
“It was a good chance for me to jump up the rankings, but I really wasn’t ready for him,” acknowledged Wepner, who suffered several facial cuts, a broken nose and a cracked left cheekbone.
“I wouldn’t go down. The referee came in at the end of ninth round and was going to stop fight. I said, ‘You ain’t stopping nothing.’ I said, ‘I’m OK.’ He said, ‘Alright, well, how many fingers do I have up?’ I said, ‘How many guesses do I get.’ He said, ‘Very funny, but if you get any more damage, I have to stop the fight.’ Anyway, the doctor stopped the fight with 20 seconds to go in the 10th and final round.”
In the early 1970s, “The Bayonne Bleeder” went on to win a three-fight series with Randy Neumann. He also bested former heavyweight titleholder Ernie Terrell in June 1973.
“That was a big fight for me,” said Wepner. “He was the only guy I ever fought that was taller than me; he was 6-foot-6. I got a 12-round win, it was a very close fight, it could have gone either way.”
That was one of eight consecutive wins that helped him earn a title shot against Ali on March 23, 1975.
“They were looking for a guy to fight Ali, who was just coming off the fight with Foreman and that was a tough fight,” Wepner said. “I was ranked eighth in the world and the only other white guy in the top 10 was Jerry Quarry, who Ali had already beaten (twice).”
The challenger had his moments in the early stages and was given credit for a body-shot knockdown in the ninth round. Wepner went to back his corner at the end of that session and famously told his manager, Al Braverman, “Start the car up, Al, we’re going to the bank, we’re millionaires!”, Braverman replied, “You better turn around, your guy’s getting up, and he looks pissed off.”
“[Drew] Bundini [Brown] was screaming at him, ‘This white man is kicking your arse! Get on him,’” remembered Wepner, who was 19 seconds short of lasting the 15-round distance. “Ali picked it up a notch or two after that, he was a lot harder to hit, and he was talking shit to me: ‘C’mon whitey, you mother__ker.’ That’s the way he talked. It didn’t bother me; it just fuelled my emotions more. I was ready for the fight physically, I just wasn’t good enough to beat him. He was just great.”
Little did Wepner know that a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone had cobbled together enough money to see the Ali fight and was so inspired by his gutsy never-say-die attitude that he went home and wrote the script for Rocky, which hit theaters in the fall of 1976. The movie went on to become part of popular culture, grossing in excess of $100 million dollars.
“I got a call from one of the producers [who told me] that Stallone was writing a moving and I was the inspiration,” Wepner said. “When the movie came out, I went over to New York City [to see it]. I was completely floored, it was great.
“After all the publicity of fighting Ali, now it was the new publicity from the movie. I started making the circuits again.”
Wepner continued to fight for a couple of years before retiring at the age of 39 following a 12-round decision loss to future world title challenger Scott Frank in September 1978.
“It was time,” said Wepner, who ended his career with a record of 36-14-2 (17 knockouts). “I used to go to the gym and I enjoyed training, but near the end, training became hard work for me. I decided to pack it in.
“I didn’t duck too many punches. I was an aggressive guy. Even though my manager told me to stick and move, I liked to get in there and rough it up. That’s why all my fights were sell-outs.”
Wepner began to party, which cost him his second marriage, and he enjoyed a drink. That led to him getting into trouble and being incarcerated.
“The day they brought me into the prison, they had 10 guys on the fence [shouting], ‘Chuck, Chuck.’ They were cheering me,” Wepner said. “The sergeant of the guard said, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I fought Ali and I’m Rocky.’ Even though I was in prison for 22 months, I was a celebrity.
“I couldn’t say I enjoyed it, but after a bunch of years running around partying it was sort of restful. I did my time. The governor created a programme ISP, Intensive Supervision Programme, and they released me. On [a sentence of] 10 years, you should do 38 months but I got out in 22. I was one of the supervisors, finished up my stay and went back to work as a liquor salesman. They gave me the second chance everybody needs but some people don’t get.
“I stopped drinking. I met my third wife, Linda, and got married to her 28 years ago. She’s great, she’s a treasure. Life’s been great since then. The only problem is I’m getting old.”
Wepner, now 82, lives with Linda in Bayonne. He has three children from his first two marriages and a grandchild.
He graciously took time to speak to The Ring about the best he fought in 10 key categories.
Sonny Liston: He threw it right from the shoulder, it was short, and he had everything behind it. That’s why it was a hard punch to get away from. I really didn’t get away from it too good. I wound up with 71 stiches, a broken nose and broken left cheekbone. Most of it was [from] the jab.
Muhammad Ali: He was a great boxer and he had the ability to slip punches and pull his head away. He was very light on his feet. He was about the toughest guy I fought to really land a good punch [on].
Ali: He was the champion of the world. He had that quick handspeed, he had a long reach. He knew how to get in and out and slip punches. It was a learning experience for me. I put up a very good fight against him, but I couldn’t really tag him with anything solid.
Ali: He had the best footwork of everybody; moved around, in and out, side to side. He floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. That’s a very good saying, especially about him.
Ali: He knew how to adjust to every opponent in every fight. After a round or so, he’d have you figured out and knew exactly what to do.
Liston: That would have to be Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I was a brawler, I was an intimidator, I tried to go out and push a guy around, rough ’em up early. Sonny and George, as soon you banged into them, it was like banging into a brick wall. They didn’t move. I’d say Liston in his prime.
Ali: He was knocked down, got right up and won the fight.
Liston: It hurts if anybody hits you. I could always take it, absorb it and come back, but with Liston, after you got hit by him, you were very weary to make that move again. We trained to stick a jab and move with Liston, [but he stayed] right on your chest, throwing punches. Not like Ali, who would hit you and get out. George was powerful, too. George cut me open pretty early in the fight. I always thought it was a headbutt, but it was an accidental head clash. He did cut me open, and they stopped it after the third round. Probably Sonny Liston [was the best puncher.]
BEST BOXING SKILLS
Ali: The guy was so light on his feet. He would throw combinations and by the time you got yours off, he was already gone. I tried to stay inside his body and follow him around the ring and get him into the corner.
Ali: I’d say Muhammad Ali was the best fighter. He was the best all-round fighter I fought. He was ‘The Greatest.’
Questions and/or comments can be sent to Anson at [email protected] and you can follow him on Twitter @AnsonWainwright
GET THE LATEST ISSUE AT THE RING SHOP (CLICK HERE)