True Champions: Linda and Chuck Wepner

By Robert Mladinich on February 25, 2015
True Champions: Linda and Chuck Wepner
“I outgutted and outballed my way through a boxing career and a prison sentence."

I received a call from Wepner and was invited to his apartment in Bayonne, directly across from the venue where he had made his pro debut…

As hard as it is to believe, former heavyweight contender Chuck Wepner, whose challenge of Muhammad Ali made him the muse for Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” character, will be 76 years old on February 26th.

Making the day even more eventful for the former title challenger is the fact that his lovely wife Linda shares the same birthday. She is holding steady, as beautiful as ever, looking as if she will be 39 forever. 

During his boxing career, which lasted from 1964 to 1978, Wepner compiled a 35-14-2 (17 KOs) record against such greats and notables as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Sonny Liston, Buster Mathis, Ernie Terrell, Duane Bobick, Joe Bugner and Manuel Ramos.

His nickname was the “Bayonne Bleeder,” which was a tribute to his hometown in New Jersey, as well as his propensity to bleed profusely but always finish on his feet.

But he is best known for being the inspiration for the real-life “Rocky” after his battle royale with Ali in Cleveland in March 1975. At the time Wepner was 35 years old.

Although he was given little chance of surviving past a few rounds, he is not only credited with knocking Ali down, he lasted into the fifteenth round.

Watching the fight on closed-circuit television was Stallone, who was then a struggling 30-year-old actor. He identified so much with Wepner, who was holding down two full-time jobs at the time, he raced home to his hovel of an apartment and penned the first “Rocky” screenplay in just a few days.

About eight years ago, Wepner, who had never been compensated for being the “Rocky” prototype, received an undisclosed settlement from Stallone after a well-publicized civil suit.
I became acquainted with Wepner about 25 years ago. While doing an interview with his colorful longtime manager, Al Braverman, the subject of Wepner naturally came up. 

Without missing a beat, Braverman, who many people compared to a snarling dog, called Wepner’s home.

He left a message on the machine, instructing Wepner in no uncertain terms to treat me “like family.”

Within a day or two, I received a call from Wepner and was invited to his apartment in Bayonne, directly across from the venue where he had made his pro debut a few years after serving four years in the United States Marine Corps.

We have been friendly ever since, but it often seems like I am always asking or taking and never giving back. 

Every time I call him to autograph a bagful of boxing gloves to be raffled off at a police benefit or to make an appearance at a Cigar Night or other charitable endeavor, he always says yes. 

I always apologize for being one-way, but he inevitably tells me not to worry, that he’d do anything for a friend.

Even though I’ve written numerous stories on Wepner for publications that have included Playboy, believe me when I tell you he’s done a lot more for me than I’ve ever done for him.

Back in April 1996, when my first wife Frances, an active NYPD sergeant, was battling leukemia, our colleagues on the department hosted a fundraiser for us at the Ukrainian Hall in Manhattan.

Chuck and Linda showed up as the party was in full swing. Chuck and Frances danced together like it was the 1970s. 

One of my favorite mementos is a photo of the two of them whooping it up. It was taken by Teddy B. Blackburn and it appeared in the now defunct Flash/Boxing Update weekly newsletter, which prior to the Internet was the go-to place for the most recent boxing coverage.

Their broad, beaming, warm and welcoming smiles, each of which complimented their partial Polish heritage, are both full of hope, love, joy and vitality.

To this day Chuck jokes that if he wasn’t told who Frances was, he never would have guessed that she was the one with cancer.

Several days later, Frances had a scheduled bone marrow transplant, from which she never recovered. Less than three weeks after being thrilled to meet and even dance with the real life Rocky she passed away.

Chuck and Linda were among the first mourners to attend the wake. They came early and stayed late and they kept a lot of people, myself included, somewhat loose during a very difficult time.

Over the years, I have seen the same kindness displayed by Chuck also shown by Linda. While working in a Brooklyn detective squad in the early 1990s, my partner and I would often have dinner at a restaurant in Staten Island where Linda was the bartender.

My partner was a spitting image of the Detective Sipowicz character played by Dennis Franz on the former television series “NYPD Blue.” When told that “Sipowicz” had serious health issues a few years back, she has never neglected to inquire about him. 

She even called him to see how he was doing. While he greatly appreciated the call, his lady friend did not so I had to ask her to stop. To this day, one of the first things she always asks me is how Sipowicz is doing.

Linda’s heart is as big as her husband’s. One can only assume that it was passed down to her by her father, who was still a stout, hearty and regal Italian gentleman before passing away when he was well into his nineties. 

Chuck used to joke that when he and Linda were heading into Brooklyn to have dinner with him, he’d be eagerly awaiting their arrival “with a knife and fork in his hand, ready to eat.”

It is customary for me to get both nostalgic and grateful during holidays and around the birthdays of friends or family members. You realize another year has passed, acknowledge the limitless possibilities that lie ahead, and all there is to be grateful for despite life’s multitude of challenges.

My love affair with boxing has waned, but my love affair with old-school boxers and old-school people has not. And it never will.

Many of the uninitiated, or those who have no sense of nostalgia, might inaccurately dismiss Wepner as a club fighter who got hit a lot but never went down. But he is so much more than that.

His career was built on honesty, integrity, gritty determination, emotional resolve and the unwillingness to believe in the limitations so many others had projected for him. 

Growing up without his father present, he could have gone many ways. Instead of opting for trouble, he chose to join the Marine Corps after watching Van Heflin and Aldo Ray in the 1955 film “Battle Cry.” 

Afterwards, instead of seeing himself as just a liquor salesman and a night security guard at General Electric — the jobs he held when he challenged Ali — he dared to dream big and clearly envisioned himself dethroning the man many still consider “The Greatest.”

The seven weeks he spent in a Catskill Mountains training camp preparing for Ali was the only time he trained full-time in his life.

“I realized in those mountains that a miracle could really happen,” he said. “I could become heavyweight champion of the world. I also realized that if somebody had been subsidizing me my whole career, things would have been different.

“I would have been a much better fighter,” he continued. “I never trained full-time for a fight in my life, except for Ali. And I fought the fight of my life against the greatest heavyweight in history.” 

“Chuck was the gutsiest fighter I ever met,” said the late Al Braverman. “He was in a league of his own. He didn’t care about pain or cuts. If he got cut or elbowed, he never looked at me or the referee for help. He was a fighter in the purest sense of the word.”

Wepner has always been as stand-up outside of the ring as he was inside of it. When he was busted by the Drug Enforcement Administration for delivering cocaine in 1985, he could have bought his way out of a 10-year prison sentence by becoming a snitch.

Wepner chose to do the time, and served two years in a maximum security prison as well as 20 months in an Intensive Supervision Program (ISP). From day one, he assumed full responsibility for his actions.

“I was a big shot everywhere I went,” he said. “There was so much booze and broads. I was out of control, a crazy man. I had some heavy friends and was running with some crazy people. And everywhere I went, there was cocaine.”

Regarding the arrest, Wepner explained, “My makeup would never allow me to be a rat. I did the crime and knew I had to do the time. I was ready to accept my punishment.”

What he doesn’t tell you right away is how many people from the law enforcement community realized his actions were an aberration, and lobbied to get him released into the ISP. None have regretted that decision.

Several years after being released from prison, Wepner attended an NYPD amateur boxing show as a celebrity guest.

At one point he entered the ring, took the microphone and told the raucous crowd how much he respected them and what a great job they were doing. He thanked them for inviting him and told him what an honor it was to be there.

“I’m a guy everybody can relate to,” he said afterwards. “Everybody gets in trouble at one time or another. And cops, especially New York cops, are real people. They work hard and play hard.

“I was a working stiff who finally got a break and took advantage of it,” he added. “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.”

As a writer, you couldn’t imagine a better subject. As a regular guy, you couldn’t ask for a better friend. After all these years, Chuck Wepner is still fighting the good fight.

More importantly, he and Linda still make everyone they come in contact with feel better about themselves.

In my mind there is no better way to define true champions than that.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. serge gendron 11:16am, 03/09/2015

    sorry mister Mladinich,
    i forgot to include my email address .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    thank you

  2. serge gendron 11:15am, 03/09/2015

    Mister Mladinich,
    could you please write to me personally at this address?
    I have a question for you about a whole different topic, maybe you could help me.
    I thank you very much in advance,
    best,
    serge gendron

  3. Eric 11:40am, 02/28/2015

    Been awhile since I viewed the Bobick-Wepner fight and had forgotten that it was a pretty decent fight while it lasted. Once again, it was Chuck’s thin skin that betrayed him. Too bad that Bobick is mostly remembered for the Norton & Tate fights, some might even think of the Knoetze bout. Nonetheless, Duane did beat some decent fighters like Larry Middleton, Randy Neumann, a very young and green, Mike Weaver, Scott Ledoux (twice) and Mike Schutte. Would love to see the Bobick-Ledoux fights, have never seen either one. I think a Wepner vs. Dino Denis fight back in the day would have been a treat or even a early 70’s version of Ron Stander vs Wepner. Bugner really looked good in his fight with Wepner, Bugner certainly had the skills to become champion, he wasn’t a known as a devastating puncher but he could punch when motivated. Just ask the iron-chinned Dino Denis.

  4. peter 08:29am, 02/28/2015

    Happy Birthday, Chuck, from all us guys at Bufano’s Gym:  Marcel “Frenchy” Bizien, Wally Henderson, Otho Tyson, Wild Bill Carson, Luke Erwin,  Jimmy “The Cat” Dupree, Rodell Dupree, Conrad Tooker, Richie Villanueva, Brian O’Melia, Dom and Dan Bufano,  Jimmy Hargroves, Nino Gonzales,  Johnny Gillio (or Johnny Rodriguez, or whatever other name he decided to fight under),  Kenny Warner, Doc McClendon, and me, “Irish” Pete Wood.

  5. Pete The Sneak 07:44am, 02/28/2015

    “And when I screwed up, I owned up to it.”
    Those are words you’ll never hear with today’s athletes. That was Chuck Wepner right there. Always up front and to the point, never making excuses. Happy Birthday big guy!...Peace.

  6. Kid Blast 09:32am, 02/27/2015

    Great read Bob

  7. Mike Silver 10:32pm, 02/26/2015

    Happy birthday Chuck Wepner.  You are an important part of boxing history.

  8. Eric 03:00pm, 02/26/2015

    Love to see a book on Chuck Wepner. These kind of boxers are always more interesting than their more famous counterparts. We all know the Ali story ad nauseam. Most boxing fans will more readily throw down a few bucks on a book about a fighter like Wepner than waste money on another book about Dempsey, Ali, or Louis, etc.

  9. Pete 12:28pm, 02/26/2015

    Terrific idea, Peter. How about it, Mr. M?

  10. peter 10:49am, 02/26/2015

    If a book is ever written about Chuck Wepner, Bob Mladinich is the man to write it. The interesting subjects of both Chuck and Linda, the writer’s skill and delicate sensibilities, make for a beautifully written article about two people who inspired an American classic—Rocky. An article like this ressurects two inspirational characters who should be feted, not forgotten.  That might be a little treacley, but that’s ok.

  11. Pete 08:41am, 02/26/2015

    Happy birthday, big Chuck. And kudos to Bob Mladinich on another outstanding piece.

  12. Bob 11:21pm, 02/25/2015

    Ali-Wepner.  How can I forget this fight.  I was 13 years old and madly cheering for Wepner.  I was ecstatic when he got the KD on the 9th.  Go, go.. Chuck.  Having a great heart is a bonus.  Always a Chuck fan here…

  13. Clarence George 06:15pm, 02/25/2015

    In this context, KB, nauseating sugariness, as in, “Quick, an insulin shot!”  But I think it’s also a British dessert.  Or is that trifle?

  14. Kid Blast 04:07pm, 02/25/2015

    What is treacle.?

  15. Clarence George 02:09pm, 02/25/2015

    Beautifully done, Bob—poignant, but mercifully free of treacle.  And I love the line, “My love affair with boxing has waned, but my love affair with old-school boxers and old-school people has not. And it never will.”

    These vignettes of yours remind me of Brendan Gill’s “A New York Life,” with its relatively short but highly incisive portraits of such characters as Padraic Colum, Andre Kertesz (which starts, “Oh, what an irritating man Andre Kertesz was!”), Brendan Behan, the tiresome John O’Hara, notoriously tightfisted Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Virgil Thomson, and many others.  It must be 25 years since I read it, but it immediately came to mind.

    By the way, I’m not sure I ever saw “Battle Cry,” but I heard it got terrible reviews.  Or is that “The Bridges at Toko-Ri”?  Anyway, Wepner liked it, and that’s the main thing.

    And how can Wepner be bigger than you?  How can anyone?  I can stand behind you, and no one could see me…which is something I’ll keep in mind if we ever venture into a tough neighborhood.

  16. Eric 01:21pm, 02/25/2015

    It does seem that Sly took a few pages of script out of Wepner’s life story. The REEL Rocky vs Thunderlips vs The REAL Chuck vs Andre, and it might be a streeeeeeeeeeeeeetch, but Chuck might be on to something about Sly and the movie, “Lockup,” having something to do with Stallone’s visiting Wepner in prison. Probably just a personal thing with me, or maybe because both were huge, balding men, but I always think of Richard Kuklinski when I see pictures of a middle aged or slightly older Chuck Wepner. As rich as Stallone became, he could have thrown a few dollars to Wepner even if he was only a mild inspiration for some of his movies.

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