The Strange Story That Connects Rocky, Muhammad Ali, Andre the Giant, and a Bear

Chris Tilly
Movies
Movies

Outside of New Jersey — and boxing fans of a certain age — Charles ‘Chuck’ Wepner isn’t exactly a household name. But his story is as remarkable as it is bizarre, and very possibly inspiration for one of the most beloved characters in film history, Rocky Balboa.

Indeed, Wepner so believes that the Rocky franchise is based on his life that he sued writer/star Sylvester Stallone, with Sly eventually settling out of court. There are definite similarities between the two stories, some of them pretty specific. But Wepner’s life also took twists and turns too ridiculous for a Hollywood movie, his story featuring the likes of Muhammed Ali, Andre the Giant, and a bear called Victor, as well as drugs, prison, and lots and lots of blood.

Birth of The Bayonne Bleeder

Chuck Wepner on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Born in February 1939, Chuck Wepner grew up on the tough streets of Bayonne, New Jersey, where he learned to fight at a young age. Very much outside the boxing ring. Wepner joined the Marines after seeing the movie Battle Cry. Largely because the characters all attracted beautiful dames. And while there Wepner boxed, his stamina and ability to take a punch quickly making his name.

After leaving the corps, Chuck bounced at a go-go club at night, while he spent his days training as a heavyweight. Running up the steps of the Hudson County Park at the end of sessions, which Stallone DEFINITELY didn’t steal for the Rocky flicks.

Wepner was good at boxing. Really good. Working his way to the very top, and fighting the great George Foreman (who knocked him out), and the great Sonny Liston (who knocked him out). The Liston fight became known as the bloodiest in history, with Wepner needing 72 stitches, and journalists joking that he drank more blood than Dracula over the 10 rounds.

All of which contributed to Chuck becoming known as The Bayonne Bleeder. But those jokes and jibes didn’t stop him landing a fight with ‘The Greatest.’

Chuck Wepner vs Muhammed Ali

In March 1975, Wepner fought Muhammed Ali at Richfield Coliseum, just south of Cleveland. The build-up to the bout was eventful, the pair exchanging heated words on talk shows and at the weigh-in. With Ali somewhat bizarrely vowing to avoid Chuck’s face in the fight.

“He bleeds,” exclaimed Ali during the press conference. “So I’m gonna make another announcement. There will be no shots landed in his face. I will not land one head shot. I will win this fight by laying on the ropes. He’ll get tired. He’ll punch himself to death. And then I’m gonna hit him in the stomach. Hit him in the side. And I will beat him without one punch landing here [motions to Chuck’s head]. I want no excuses about cuts.”

Ali stayed true to his word during the early rounds, tiring Wepner by utilising the ‘rope-a-dope’ tactic he’d used to defeat Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’ But he caught Chuck above the eye in Round 7, and ‘The Bleeder’ started to gush.

In Round 9, however, Wepner did the unthinkable. With a big right-hand to the ribs, he knocked the champ down, only the third time Ali had hit the canvas in his career. The fact that he was standing on Muhammed’s foot at the time of the punch merely a minor detail. Ali was on the ground.

Big mistake. Because Muhammed Ali got up before the 10 count. And Muhammed Ali was mad. He proceeded to pummel Wepner for the rest of the fight, but the Bleeder wouldn’t go down. The fight was finally stopped in the 15th and final round. With just 19 seconds remaining.

In spite of defeat, Chuck exited the ring a hero who had very nearly gone the distance with the greatest fighter of all-time. What he didn’t know was that a young actor was in the crowd and looking for inspiration for his next role. “I said that’s it, that’s me,” Sylvester Stallone claims during ESPN documentary The Real Rocky. “The Bayonne Bleeder — Chuck Wepner — that is the way I feel.”

The first Rocky movie followed a year later, and changed the lives of both men.

Chuck Wepner vs Andre the Giant

Following the Ali fight, promoter Don King had dollar signs in his eyes — as ever — and the World Wide Wrestling Federation saw an opportunity. So a mixed match between Wepner and wrestler Andre the Giant was organised, and touted as the ‘War of the Worlds.’

Playing out in front of 32,000 at Shea Stadium — as the undercard for an Ali fight being beamed in from Japan — the fight was a fake. But it’s nevertheless an entertaining spectacle, the 6ft5, 230-pound Chuck going toe-to-toe with the 7ft, 450-pound Andre.

Both men jab and parry and hold for the first couple of rounds, though it’s pretty clear who holds the ascendancy, with the New York Times reporting: “Wepner was a baby against the giant.” And so in the third round, the orchestrated move occurred, with Andre head-butting Chuck, and tossing him from the ring. Wepner being counted out and losing the war.

Rocky Balboa fighting 'Thunderlips' in Rocky III.

In a strange case of art imitating life — or stealing from life if you happen to be Chuck’s lawyer — Rocky III featured a similar sequence. With Balboa participating in a charity bout with wrestler Thunderlips — played by Hulk Hogan. But all does not go according to plan.

“Alright, guys, you know this is for fun,” says the referee. “So take it easy, and give them a good show.” Thunderlips hasn’t read the script, however, and goes to town on ‘The Italian Meatball,’ taunting Balboa as he clobbers him, and prompting Rocky’s trainer Mickey to shout: “Run for your life!”

Like the Wepner fight, wrestler tosses boxer out the ring. But unlike the Wepner fight, Rocky crawls back in, and somehow throws Thunderlips out. The bout ending in a much more Hollywood-friendly draw.

Chuck Wepner vs Victor the Bear

A 'Victor the Wrestling Bear' promotion.

Wepner’s life became something of a circus after the one-two punch of Ali and Andre. With Chuck too often the clown. There were the girls and the booze and the drugs. With a spell in prison for cocaine possession. But maybe the most stupid thing Chuck Wepner did was box a bear. Twice.

Victor is a pretty famous bear, and his story is somewhat tragic. Because while he wrestled — and defeated — dumb humans for most of his life, he was also defanged, declawed, drugged and muzzled for those fights.

In 1976, Victor fought Chuck Wepner as the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey. In aid of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. And in spite of those handicaps, Victor beat the proverbial out of his human counterpart.

The plan was for Chuck to signal the bear’s trainer Tuffy Truesdell when he’d had enough. At which point Truesdall would blow a whistle, and Victor would back off. Trouble is, Wepner boxed Victor hard, resulting in the bear throwing Chuck across the ring, and pinning him down so he couldn’t signal to Tuffy.

Wepner ultimately survived the match. But only just. Which makes it all the more insane that he got back in a ring with that very same bear, at a Country Club charity event no less. Speaking to Everlast, Wepner describes the match as follows…

“I’m sitting in the corner. And I’m looking over at this bear sitting there with its beady little eyes. And I said to [trainer] Al: ‘This bear remembers that I hit him a few times. I’m telling you, this bear’s pissed off at me.’ The bell rang. This bear stood up on its hind legs, and I spun around, tried to jump out between the ropes, and the bear took one leap, grabbed my leg, and when he pulled me I got caught in the ropes, and he slung me out about 10 or 12 feet out onto the dinner tables, and everything went splat.

“Two of my buddies picked me up and said, ‘Come on Chuck, get ’em.’ I looked up at the ring, the referee was counting, the bear was standing there. He was up to four, and I said ‘Five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten — that’s it, you win Victor!’ And that was it. I didn’t even get back in the ring. The fight lasted less than a minute.”

Check Wepner vs Sylvester Stallone

There’s no doubt that Chuck enjoyed the fame and notoriety that being the real-life Rocky brought him. Wepner attended screenings where the audience applauded him when the credits rolled. He walked out to the Rocky fanfare before his final fight. And Chuck even formed something of a bond with Sylvester Stallone, who wrote a role for him in Rocky II.

In an early draft of the script, Rocky had a sparring partner called Chink Weber. A name that isn’t a million miles from Chuck Wepner. Stallone asked him to study the script, and travel to Philadelphia for an audition. Trouble is, Chuck was partying hard at that time, picked up some girls for the journey, stayed up most the night, and ended up failing the audition. The character was ultimately cut from the movie.

Their paths crossed again a decade later, when Chuck was serving time in Newark’s Northern State Prison, where Sly was shooting Lock Up. According to Wepner, Stallone embraced him, and told his fellow inmates that Chuck was the real Rocky.

Then in the mid-1990s, Stallone was shooting Cop Land in New Jersey, and Wepner visited the set, where he spoke with Stallone and had his photo taken with Robert De Niro. But according to Chuck, Sly making a movie in his backyard and not involving him was the final straw.

Wepner sued Stallone for a ‘right of publicity’ claim. Stating that the star improperly used his name to promote the Rocky films, and never made good on promises he’d be paid. Stallone countered the suit by claiming that Wepner benefited by making public appearances as ‘The Real Rocky’ for decades.

Unlike the movies, however, there was no dramatic climactic showdown. Rather, Stallone settled the lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed fee. Thereby putting to bed one of the strangest friendships/rivalries in Hollywood history.

The Bleeder vs The Brawler

Chuck wasn’t done with the movies just yet, however. Wepner decided to tell his own story — warts, bears and all — in an official biopic starring Liev Schreiber. Just as Chuck was going into production though, rival feature The Brawler was announced. By producers who had previously worked on Chuck, and who — according to another lawsuit filed by Wepner — stole essential details from his film.

“Comparison between the two scripts, sizzle reels and marketing materials makes it clear that defendants used portions or all of the plaintiff’s script, budget, production schedule, sizzle reel, and other production materials to develop their own copycat film, which defendants apparently intend to release before the authorised Wepner film,” claimed the suit.

Yet again the case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. With Chuck ultimately hitting US screens in May 2017, to some acclaim but little financial success. The Brawler meanwhile — which stars Zach McGowan as Chuck — is due for release this December. Doubtless to rather less acclaim…

As for Wepner himself, he’s had all manner of ailments in recent years, including a hip replacement and major back surgery. While he was diagnosed with cancer last year. But as ever, he’s come out fighting, undergoing surgery and chemotherapy. Then taking centre stage at his own celebrity roast.

He’s also readying himself for the imminent unveiling of a Chuck Wepner statue at the Stephen R. Gregg-Bayonne County Park. Which is a bit like a certain celluloid statue stationed at the top of the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A fitting tribute to a remarkable man. And the one time that Chuck Wepner has followed in Rocky Balboa’s footsteps.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.