Chuck Wepner: Going the Distance

By Robert Mladinich on May 13, 2017
Chuck Wepner: Going the Distance
Chuck Wepner (r.) shown here with wife Linda and Theresa Mladinich. (Robert Mladinich)

Anyone meeting former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner comes away feeling as if they have been friends with him for a very long time… 

Anyone meeting former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner, the prototype for the real-life “Rocky” character created by Sylvester Stallone, comes away feeling as if they have been friends with him for a very long time. 

Despite being physically imposing, the 78-year-old lifelong resident of Bayonne, New Jersey, is charming, warm and welcoming, garrulous, friendly, articulate, and a world-rated raconteur. To know him is to love him, although Wepner will be the first to admit he has not always been as endearing as he is now.

In the just released theatrical film “Chuck,” actor Liev Schreiber portrays Wepner to near perfection. Set in the 1970s, the film captures Wepner’s less than meteoric rise to celebrity after nearly extending the legendary Muhammad Ali the distance in a March 1975 title bout in Cleveland.

The heaviest of underdogs, Wepner was expected to be dispatched in short order. However, because the then 35-year-old journeyman was able to train full-time for the first time in his career, he fought the fight of his life against the man many believe was the greatest heavyweight in history. 

Wepner’s courageous performance against Ali was viewed by Stallone, who was then a struggling unknown actor and screenwriter. Stallone was so inspired and transfixed by Wepner’s performance, he raced home to his cold-water flat and churned out the “Rocky” screenplay in a matter of days.

The legend of Rocky Balboa was born, eventually becoming a franchise that generated billions of dollars in revenue, as well as international superstardom for Stallone and local idolatry for Wepner.

It would have been easy for the producers of “Chuck” to portray Wepner as the troubled but well-meaning and likeable rascal that most people saw him as. He was a womanizing liquor salesman who liked nothing better than having a good time, even if it was at the expense of his family.

But Wepner, who is as open and honest as any professional athlete you will ever meet, wouldn’t hear of it. He rejected scores of screenplays that rejuvenated false myths and wanted his true story to be told — especially the parts that were not pretty and many athletes or celebrities would have rather left unsaid.

“I was a tough guy in the ring, but I was tough on friends and family,” Wepner told a sellout audience during the post-screening Q & A at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 28.

“I never realized what a real bastard I was. If my story was going to be told, it had to be the truth.”

“Chuck is a magnetic force and personality, but what really grabbed me about him was the pitfall of celebrity and fame,” added Schreiber. 

“His was a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of that particular kind of narcissism — the desire to be loved by the anonymous mob and not the individuals to whom we are truly connected — which is something I think a lot of people can relate to.

“The minute we start to believe that lie that we’re the most interesting person in the room, we’re done for. Chuck finds that out in a really painful way.”

Director Philippe Falardeau is not a big boxing fan, but could not believe what he was reading when he reviewed one of the original scripts.

“Chuck has a huge appetite for life, and life threw plenty of challenges at him,” he said.  “As I read the script, I was turning the pages, saying, ‘Really? Wow? He did that? He did what?’ I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The man really inspired me.”

Among the incidents covered in the film are the memorable fight with Ali, in which Wepner deposited The Greatest on the canvas, his battle against a 1,250 pound bear, as well as with gargantuan wrestler Andre the Giant in front of 42,000 people at New York’s Shea Stadium.

It also chronicles Wepner’s fierce alcohol and cocaine habit that precluded him from landing a role in a “Rocky” sequel despite Stallone’s noble efforts to include him in the film.

“I had been partying for two days before the audition — drinking, doing coke, not sleeping,” said Wepner. “Sly saw me and said, ‘Champ, you look a little tired.’ I read but did not do well. I failed to make it.”

In the film, Wepner is seen driving back to Bayonne after the Philadelphia audition with two women and his best friend in the car. He pulls over on a New Jersey highway to bash his head against the steering wheel for blowing such a potentially momentous career opportunity. 

Wepner’s difficult relationships with his first wife and daughter, brilliantly portrayed by Elizabeth Moss and Melo Ludwig and Sadie Sink (at different ages), as well as his brother Don, played by the quintessential New York actor Michael Rapaport, show the flip side of a self-absorbed local icon. 

The bottom fell out for Wepner in 1985 when he was arrested for delivering a large quantity of cocaine in a sting operation. When his attorney suggested he become a snitch, Wepner fired him, pled guilty and served three years in the maximum security Northern State Prison in Newark.

Wepner was able to get his life in order after being released from jail. Perhaps his greatest source of strength, and greatest inspiration, is his third wife Linda, to whom he has been married for 22 years. The two are never apart, and the love and bond between them is unwavering and clearly identifiable in every gesture, word and nod that is shared by them. 

Linda is played by the gorgeous and talented Naomi Watts, who manages to catch all of Linda’s nuanced strength, resolve, intelligence and ability to love passionately but not recklessly in a cinematic tour-de-force.

She sees in the troubled Wepner a remarkable but emotionally underachieving man. She recognizes the depth of his character and the enormity of his wounded heart. She gets him out of his own way and helps him find redemption.

“It hurt to see the movie, to see how I was then,” said Chuck Wepner, who battled the likes of Ali, Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Ernie Terrell in compiling a record of 35-14-2 (17 KOs) between 1964 and 1978.

“But I like who I am now, and I owe so much of that to Linda, who I love more than anything.” 

That special bond was not lost on Schreiber, who recalled going to Madison Square Garden with Wepner for the Gennady Golovkin-David Lemieux fight in October 2015.

“Everyone was calling him Champ and wanted to say hello to him,” said Schreiber. “As he watched the fights, I could sense his natural competitive spirit, but his eyes kept darting childlike toward Linda. Something about that captured my imagination.”

Four decades after battling Ali, Wepner is enjoying the fruits of his labors for all that it is worth.

A few years ago he explained, “I’m a guy everybody can relate to. Everybody gets in trouble at one time or another. I was a working stiff who finally got a break and took advantage of it. I outgutted and outballed my way through a boxing career and a prison sentence. I got everything I have on endurance and perseverance. And when I screwed up, I owned up to it.”

On the night of the movie premiere, Wepner was equally reflective and refreshingly honest, candid and humble. 

“Everyone knows the ‘Rocky’ story is about one guy’s big chance, but this movie is about second chances, which is what America is all about,” Wepner said.

“I never realized what a bastard I was, how selfish I could be. But 30 (actually 40) years later, I’m standing here and I can’t thank you all enough for coming.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

'Chuck' Official Trailer

Liev Schreiber Talks About Playing A Real-Life Rocky In New Film ‘Chuck’ | TODAY

How Did Actor Liev Schreiber Prepare To Get Punched For Movie Role? | SC6 | May 2, 2017

Muhammad Ali vs Chuck Wepner full fight HD HD

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  1. Doc Stevens 05:22pm, 11/18/2017

    I would have liked to have met him, been able to know him. He seems very interesting, led/leads a very interesting life-the life of a colorful character. He has a more interesting, colorful life than most. Hopefully, he will write a book-an autobiography. I would have liked to help.

  2. Your Name 11:04am, 07/14/2017

    Yep. Guys an ex-felon and dope pusher. No sympathy for him whatsoever.

  3. pj 07:57pm, 05/20/2017

    I remember seeing Chuck Wepner down the Jersey Shore. He was a bully and a show-off jerk. He use to blow his whistle hey look at me. He’s some kind of sick Narcissist Jerk.

  4. anonymous 11:22am, 05/17/2017

    I saw it. I rate it D+/C-. Just another cheswy boxing movie with no compelling inner story. Just same ole same old garbage,

  5. Alt Knight 10:50am, 05/16/2017

    Agree. A mid 70’s matchup of Dino Denis vs Wepner favors Denis, big time. Denis was one nasty SOB. Guy was fearless, showed absolutely no fear of Big George, and he didn’t do that bad, at least while it lasted. Denis had a way of getting under the skin of his opponents, and guys like Cooney, Foreman, and Bugner made him pay for it. Bugner was often criticized for lacking a big punch and not being aggressive, but that all went out the window against Denis. Bugner got Denis out of there quicker than even Cooney or Foreman.. Chuck was a rough customer, showed tremendous courage, and was a quite a big heavyweight for his day, but by no means was he ever much more than a fringe contender at best.

  6. aNONYMOUS 08:14am, 05/16/2017

    This movie looks like another loser to me. Doper thug = hero. WTF.

    Dino Dennis would have sent this clown down to South Jersey.

  7. Alt Knight 07:54am, 05/16/2017

    It would have helped if they at least had someone who resembled Chuck Wepner just a tad. Damn, I look more like Chuck Wepner than this guy. His fake New Joisey accent is perhaps the worst attempt at imitating an accent since Deniro tried sounding “southern” in Cape Fear, or when Jon Voight attempted to sound like someone from Brooklyn, while strangely being incarcerated in an Alaska prison in the movie, “Runaway Train.” Never could figure why the Voight character had to talk Brooklyneese in that flic. This film looks terrible. Sorry, Chuck.

  8. Alt Knight 06:58am, 05/16/2017

    Chuck Wepner vs. Jack O’Hallaran would have been a natural back in the day. Maybe Wepner taking on Dino Denis as well, although by the mid-70’s, Chuck was getting long in the tooth. I think Scott LeDoux takes out Chuck, LeDoux IMO was a grade above Wepner, not too much, but slightly more skilled.

  9. Lucas McCain 05:31pm, 05/15/2017

    I may be misremembering, but I recall Liston saying about the Wepner fight:  “Every time I hit him I heard something break.  His manager is the bravest man I ever met.”  Probably not accurate, since the pun on “bravest man” and “Braverman” was not Sonny’s style,  But it does have the sardonic, dark humor that Sonny could growl out now and again.

  10. peter 05:12pm, 05/15/2017

    This Mladinich article whets my boxing appetite. I’m now looking forward to seeing the story and portrayal of Wepner—a rough-edged Bayonne fighter—his climb up the heavyweight ladder followed by his humiliating fall from grace. I know Chuck as the rugged boxer working out in Bufano’s gym on the corner of Beacon and Oakland Streets in Jersey City—but I didn’t know the drug-dealing Chuck Wepner.  I’m curious to see Liev Schreiber’s Chuck Wepner. This film might not measure up to “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, but Chuck Wepner might measure up to Mountain Rivera.

  11. Alt Knight 10:19am, 05/15/2017

    Anonymous… Totally agree about the Rocky thingie. Wepner has played this tune past its expiration date. I find it hard to believe he made it as far as he did to be honest. The guy was awkward as hell, and not much more skilled than a novice. I guess he made it on sheer toughness and rough/illegal tactics. Wepner even made Duane Bobick look like a HOF fighter in their bout. And Bugner just toyed with the Wepner. No doubt, Wepner, would be largely forgotten by all but the most hardcore boxing fans if not for riding the Rocky thing for all these years. Rocky was not your life story, Chuck, get over it.

  12. Anonymous 08:27am, 05/15/2017

    Alt Knight . But if the “Rocky Thing” never happened, this guy would still be a footnote to oblivion. I remember Liston slicing and dicing his face until it was like a rotten tomato. He had some decent wins, but in the end, being a dope pusher does not make him an enviable character.

  13. Alt Knight 07:06am, 05/15/2017

    Anonymous… Well, at least give Wepner credit for not snitching and doing his time. Some guy goes out and murders multiple people, snitches on the big kahuna, and either comes away with a reduced sentence or completely walks. What a country. Too bad, all those devils involved in PizzaGate will never serve time. Once again, what a country. Maybe justice will be served in the afterlife.

  14. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 01:20pm, 05/14/2017

    Good for Chuck Wepner!....but here’s a boxing news flash for all the boxing historians and genius’ on this site.;...Irish Frankie Crawford’s story is miles beyond this or Micky Ward’s story certainly or even Gatti’s tragedy for that matter!

  15. Anonymous 11:00am, 05/14/2017

    “The bottom fell out for Wepner in 1985 when he was arrested for delivering a large quantity of cocaine in a sting operation. When his attorney suggested he become a snitch, Wepner fired him, pled guilty and served three years in the maximum security Northern State Prison in Newark. “

    Wow, what a man!  He’s my new hero. Lower Tier boxer, Dope pusher. And Jersey thug.

    I’ll pass on this “thriller.”

  16. Alt Knight 05:43am, 05/14/2017

    Aaah, the trailer doesn’t look to promising. Looks like it will be cheesy at best. One never thinks of T-Rex and “Bang The Gong” when Chuck Wepner comes to mind, at least I don’t. I think the right people could do an excellent movie on Wepner though, no doubt, Wepner along with guys like Saad Muhammad, need to have their stories told. For some reason, the balding, hulking, older version of Chuck Wepner always reminds me of the mafia hitman, Richard Kuklinski. I think Chuck tried to receive way too much credit for, “Rocky.” Stallone admitted the Ali-Wepner fight inspired him to write the screenplay. Other than that, where are the similarities? Rocky was an unknown club fighter, Chuck was a fringe contender. He had already fought guys like Foreman and Liston. Hell, Stallone borrowed from other fighters like Marciano, Frazier, Foreman, (Foreman’s first wife was named Adrienne), maybe even Rocky Barbella aka Rocky Graziano. Rocky Barbella sounds awful similar to Rocky Balboa, and the Rocky character was more Graziano than Marciano, except for being a heavyweight. And Apollo was an obvious ripoff of Ali.

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