Rocky Pepelli Interview
by Casey Lauer and Chris Watson: Tell us about your family? Well my grandfather’s name was Rocky Pepeli, who I was named after. My grandfather was a first generation fighter. He was 14 years old when he came to America in 1915. He was in New York for a few years until he was old enough to leave. He was like 21 or 22. He was going from New York to L.A. to be a fighter, because L.A. was a big boxing town at that time. But then his car broke down in Iowa. He got a job working on a farm for this guy, and this guy’s daughter ended up getting pregnant so he married the girl. That was my grandmother..
Article posted on 29.07.2010
How would your family describe you?
My mom always calls me ‘The Rock”. She never calls me Rocky. If you’re talking about me to her she’d say, “Oh, I saw The Rock yesterday.” My dad is very proud of me. We’re very close.
Were you involved in other sports?
I started boxing when I was 8 years old, so that ate up a lot of my time. I tried to play baseball for a while but I just wasn’t good at it. I tried playing football, and I was OK at it, but I think I just didn’t have the time to do it number one, and also I was on a high school team that was just the worst. So I was more into individual sports like wrestling and boxing.
What made you go into boxing?
My dad was watching boxing on TV. If there was ever a boxing match on TV, he said, “Nobody speaks. The fights are on television so don‘t talk.” I always wanted my dad’s attention, so I thought “Hey, I’ll be one of those guys on TV fighting.” That’s what he likes, it’s his thing. So I started boxing at the age of 8. At the age of 15 I won the United States Silver Gloves. I won the National Junior Olympics. I went on and won the world championships in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When I turned 16, I went into the Golden Gloves. I won the Golden Gloves in Iowa, I think, 3 times. I had over 300 amateur fights. I went as far as I was gonna go. I fought Mike Tyson in the Junior Olympics and I beat him in 1980. I won the Junior Olympics that year. In 1984 I fought him again in the Olympic Trials and he cut me with his elbow and I lost that fight. So there was no way I was gonna wait four more years for the Olympics. Even though if you win the gold medal, you have a huge payday your first fight as a pro. I was actually in Des Moines watching the Golden Gloves with my father, and Michael Nunn, who at that time was the Middleweight Champion of the World. He was from Iowa so I grew up with Michael. Michael was watching the fights and he said, “What are you doing?”. I said, “I’ve had two pro fights. I knocked both the guys out, but it’s Iowa. What are you gonna do?”. He said, “Rocky, the Goossen’s in LA. would love to see you”. So, in a roundabout way it was Michael Nunn.
Did you have any special training methods?
I kind of adopted a lot of stuff I had learned in the Olympics. Colorado Springs was kind of like a home-away-from-home. A lot of the amateur stuff, I kind of adopted that, and just put more endurance to it because an amateur fight is only three minutes and three rounds. I didn’t believe in the long running stuff. It was too much for me. I was a big guy so I did more sprints, a lot of skipping rope, bike riding. When I did run, I made sure I had on good shoes. It wasn’t like the old days when they would eat a steak and run in combat boots. I did a lot of the amateur stuff and just intensified it as far as endurance goes.
Who were your trainers?
My first trainer was Jimmy Amadeo. I haven’t said that name in a long time. Jimmy was the one who invented the lights on the boxing ring that flashed off and on when there was ten seconds to go. You don’t see them a whole lot anymore. But back then there was a fighter who was pretty famous in 80’s who was deaf and they would have these lights go off and on to let that fighters know that there was ten seconds left. I was on the USA Boxing Team so I had a lot of different trainers depending on where we went. Kenny Adams was one of my trainers. As a pro, Joe Goossen was my trainer. I was trained by Sonny Shields when I first got out here. Sonny Shields is Randy Shields father. Randy was number one ranked in the world. He fought Sugar Ray Leanord, Thomas Hearns… he fought everybody. So I didn’t jump around a whole lot.
How did your training methods differ from opponent to opponent?
My name kinda fits me because I always fought my fight. I never adapted to anybody else’s. I don’t care if you were six foot five or if they were…I fought guys that were like were six-nine, six-ten all the time. I never fought any differently really. If it was a shorter guy I was always aggressive, if it was a tall guy I was aggressive. I never backed up a whole lot. There were a lot of fights I won where I was just in better shape and I was just tougher than the other guy. He might have been a better boxer then I was, but I just was on him like white on rice and didn’t let him have a chance to do anything.
How would you describe yourself as a boxer?
I might have finesse, but I didn’t mind getting hit either. In fact Jackie Kallen asked me one time, “Do you enjoy getting hit?” I said, “Of course I don’t, but I don’t mind it.” Joe Louis was my favorite fighter of all time. Joe Louis was the best. Rocky Marciano, if he fought today, he would be a nobody. They would stop the fights before he even got going. As soon as his nose got split open or something happened they’d stop it. I kinda see myself as a cross between a Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Right in the middle. Not really trying to be, it’s just where I was.
You fought Tyson twice as an amateur. What was he like?
The first time we fought, neither one of us knew each other. I was very aggressive with him. I stopped him in round one. After the fight, we actually became friends. He was a thug, no doubt about it. He was a nice guy, but let’s face it, he’s from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. So he’s a thug. I’ll never forget one time, I had these Apollo Creed boxing trunks my mom made me. I had fought this guy Nathanial Fitch in Colorado Springs and lost. Tyson and I are walking around the big training camp and Tyson wanted to wear my trunks the next day because he was gonna fight the same guy. I said, “You can just have them”. I was upset. He said, “You know Rock, I think I’m gonna quit this and back to doing what I was doing before”. I said, “What was that?” And he said, “I was a collector. I would roll people or I’d go collect money.” So he was a thug. He was just part of his environment. He grew up in an area that was tough, and he was tough. Cus D’Amato helped him out a lot. Cus D’Amato was a good guy. Cus was one of the people who loved Mike Tyson for him. Before he was rich and famous.
Tell us about your fight with Larry Holmes.
There was no doubt about it I was gonna knock Larry out. Larry knew I was gonna knock him out. It was so funny too, it’s on YouTube, you can see a little clip of it. I went back to the corner and I’m whipping his ass, I’m getting stronger and better, and the doctor looks at my eye and says I’m Ok to go on. The referee walks over to me and looks at me, walks over to Larry and says something to Larry, then walks back over to me and stops the fight. I think Larry told him to stop the fight before I knocked him out. Larry Holmes is one of the few fighters I ever fought that I did not like. I mean, he was a racist and cocky. But it was fun. In fact when I fought Larry, I flew into New Orleans and they had us lined up for a tour at a military-like prison in New Orleans. We go in there and there is a bunch of black guys and they’re all in these uniforms and they’re all prisoners. What was I gonna say to those guys? I’m some white kid from the Midwest. These guys are in jail. I cracked a joke and I said, “If anybody can get out tomorrow night I’ll get you a ringside seat.” It didn’t go over real well.
So you feel the decision to call the fight was bogus?
I thought it was premature. I mean, if it was a one sided fight, maybe. I mean look at like Tex Cobb-Larry Holmes. Larry Holmes was kicking his ass the entire fight. In fact that was the last fight Howard Cosell ever commentated, cause it was such a one-sided fight. This was a fight. He was on his was to getting knocked out. If you watch the fight it’s very clear. He was running, he was getting hit, he was talking to me which is a sign of nervousness. I always respected him as a fighter. When Sean O’Grady was interviewing us after the fight Larry walks in and sticks his nose in and says, “I’m a legend! I’m a legend! You ought to be thankful for fighting me.” I said, “You’re a legend in your own mind,” meaning that he was so cocky.
Talk about fighting Buster Douglas and Bert Cooper.
Bert was a really nice guy. I took that fight on short notice, but in this business you’re supposed to be in shape at all times. I wasn’t in the best shape I had ever been in. Buster was another nice guy. On that fight, Buster, I thought he was gonna come at me more. Instead he kinda ran, and boxed more. I thought he’d be like he was when he fought Tyson. And he was just the opposite. He ran, so it went the distance. I wasn’t able to stop him because he was going the opposite direction. I thought he’d be like toe-to-toe with me.
You fought Alexander Zolkin for the NABF title. Care to comment on that fight?
Before the fight I told Sean O’Grady, if I don’t knock him out in three rounds I’m done. I got a phone call from Dan Goossen, and I had just bought a house. I was outside and I had the contractors there and they were tearing the roof off, we’re out there in the driveway. I had my shirt off…I had jeans, my work gloves on. Dan said, “Rocky, how would you like to fight for the United States Heavyweight Championship?” I said, “I’d love to! When is it?” He said, “Wednesday”. And this was on a Saturday or Sunday. He gave me a dollar amount and I said “No”. About a half hour later he calls me back with a higher dollar amount. He called me like seven times so finally I said OK. Everybody asks me if fights are fixed. I say they are not really fixed, but it’s like that. They knew I wasn’t gonna win the fight and they knew I wasn’t in shape. It’s like buying the fight basically.
What do you consider to be your toughest fight?
I’d probably have to say the Larry Holmes fight. It was a fight against an ex-champion. It was a fight that I was gonna win. There was no doubt in my mind. It was just a matter of time. This guy was getting tired. I was wearing him down. It was on TV and well publicized. I don’t mind losing a fight to a better fighter, but to get robbed like that. It’s boxing. Someone’s got a cut on their face, your heart is beating fast, it might look worse than it is. Back in the old days when Rocky Marciano used to fight his nose would be split down the middle, and they’d let the fight go on. Now, if you get a bloody nose they call the fight. Yet we have this Ultimate Fighting stuff now, and it’s more brutal than boxing has ever been. So Larry Holmes was my hardest fight, not in the sense physically, but the whole mindset of training for it, and being in the ring with Larry. Let’s face it, I used to watch Larry Holmes fight when I was a kid, and to think I’m in the ring with him. That was the toughest one.
Is there anyone you’ve fought that you’d like to have fought again?
I would love to have fought Larry Holmes again. I was on the Family Feud. Richard Dawson called me up and said, “We’re doing the Family Feud. It’s my first show back and I want you to be on it.” He was a big boxing fan. So I went on the Family Feud and he asked me about that. He said, “Wow Rock, you fought them all, you fought Larry Holmes.” I said, “Ya, we’re fighting again,” because there was some talk about us fighting again. We didn’t fight again and that was pretty disappointing because I was gonna beat him.
Is there anybody you would like to have fought but didn’t get the chance to?
Tommy Morrison. It was always me and Tommy Morrison, the White Hopes. I fought a guy named Bobby Quarry, that’s Jerry Quarry’s little brother. I wanted to fight Morrison and they said no. They wanted to wait. So I fought Bobby Quarry and I beat Bobby Quarry senseless. Then I read someplace that Bobby was fighting Tommy. I know it’s a business, you wanna make the right business moves. It’s all about money. So I wanted to fight him. Obviously after the HIV thing, I didn’t want to fight somebody with HIV. I had my life ahead of me. I used to train with George Foreman a lot. I always thought it would be fun to fight him for real. We used to spar at the MGM in front of the crowd and stuff, and I would whip his ass every time. I think in a real fight I would rise to the occasion. In front of a crowd, if I was sparring, I was so much better than in the gym. I wasn’t real good in the gym sparring, but in front of a crowd it felt good. It’s like waxing your car in the garage every day, you wanna get it out in the street and drive it. I was waxing my body up in the gym, but I wanted to get it out and kind of show off a little bit.
How did you decide which fights to accept?
Dan Goossen and Joe Goossen. I really put a lot of confidence in those guys. I don’t think they ever set me up with anybody I wasn’t ready for at that time. The Alex Zolkin fight I took on my own. I went against everybody’s wishes. I just wanted to fight for a title.
Any fights you regret taking?
Looking back, I would not have fought Alex Zolkin. I could have beat that guy. They tried to push the whole “Rocky against the Russian” goofy thing. Black and gold was always my boxing colors, and that was Sylvester Stallone’s colors in the Rocky movies. Because of the Iowa Hawkeyes I was always black and gold. They wanted him to wear red, and think he did wear red with gold.
How much politics is involved in boxing?
There’s a lot of politics. If you’ve ever seen a Don King fight, you know there are politics. The bad thing about Don King is that, if he has a fighter under contract and you want to fight him for the heavyweight championship of the world you have to sign like 20 percent of your contract over to Don King in order to fight. It’s like blackmail or you can‘t fight for the title. That’s why Don King is always in the corner of the winner, he owns 20 percent or more of a fighter at all times.
What was your biggest payday?
I’ve never ever answered that question. I bought my house and paid cash for it, and had some left over.
So you were able to make a living from the ring?
Oh ya. I was getting ready to fight Larry Holmes and I was asked to do the movie Diggstown.
How did you land the Diggstown role?
I was at the Reseda Country Club, I was doing a tune-up fight for Larry Holmes. Lou Gossett Jr. was there and he said, “Hey I’m doing this movie, I’d love for you to be in it.” It was called Diggstown Ringers. When the movie came out it was just Diggstown. He said he wanted a guy that could fight, and he’d teach me how to act. He wanted somebody who could fight, because he didn’t want to get his head tore off. There were a few guys that didn’t know how to fight and they almost hurt Lou. I met Jimmy Nickerson who was the stunt coordinator for that movie. He also did the Mike Tyson Story, an HBO production. I was Robert Epps, who in real life is a black guy. They wanted a white face. They didn’t want everybody to be black. They wanted to make it more appealing for everybody.
How do you think boxing was represented in Diggstown and Tyson?
It’s Hollywood. I mean, even real boxing is shady. I mean, what’s real in a real fight? Probably the best boxing movie I ever saw was either the “Cinderella Man” or “Raging Bull”. The Rocky movies were just silly. “Diggstown” was kinda silly. I mean if your dad gave you a Corvette would you go bet it in a pool game an hour later? Probably not.
Do you have a desire to continue on in film?
My daughter is 14, she just landed a feature film. It’s the starring role in the film, too. She is the only one that survives, it’s a horror movie. The director has asked us not tell her because he wants to film it, like a behind the scenes. I have a SAG card, I go on auditions now. It’s fun. The pressure is off me because I don’t have to make a living at it. It’s not like I have to make so much money as an actor to eat. So it’s kinda nice I have a little bit of a cushion. It’s much more fun. I just finished one called “Taken By Force”. I play a SWAT Team Captain in that movie. Frank Stallone is in it.
What was it that made you decide to retire from boxing?
I think seeing guys like Jerry Quarry. When I fought Bobby Quarry they came into my dressing room and said that Jerry wanted to sing the national anthem. I said that I didn’t care if his mother sings it. It doesn’t bother me. We’re in the ring and Jerry starts to sing the national anthem and he forgets the words. It was so embarrassing, and the crowd started singing along just to get him through the song. Because of that, and I had just gotten married and had a baby. I feel some effects from boxing, but not like these guys.
Did you have any idea what you would do after boxing?
I didn’t. It was kinda scary. Ted Cook was the chief of police in Culver City and a big boxing fan. He called me and said, “What are you gonna do now?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Come over to Culver City and I’ll put you through our police academy and get you working over here with us.” So I was over there for three years. I was a policeman with the Culver City Police Department. It just wasn’t for me. I stopped doing that. Chuck Cusomano, who owned my boxing contract and is a big developer here, he said I should come to work in the real estate business here in Burbank. I did that and I love it. I love seeing people get a new home. It’s kind of a shady period now, cause I get phone calls and people are losing their homes. Before, when I was signing them to their house and making them happy and going over there for a party afterwards it was more fun. My wife is one of the major executives at Warner Bros. Records in the royalties department. She’s been there for 24 years now.
Do you miss boxing?
Oh I do. I don’t go to gyms a whole lot because of that reason. I don’t want to get some idea to come back and fight again. I stay in shape. If I go into almost any gym in the United States, I can go in there and see my picture on the wall. That’s kinda cool. I’ve been asked before if I ever thought of training somebody. If I found somebody who was really serious about training and fighting, ya I could probably do that. But it would be kinda hard to find, I don’t go out and look for it. They could call me on the phone, but that’s not gonna happen.
Any advice for aspiring fighters?
Play baseball. Go to college and get a degree. Unfortunately in boxing, a long time ago if you remember, they used to have collegiate boxing and they stopped doing it. I guess brain damage and education just doesn’t go together. I would say stay away from it. I’m glad I have a daughter and not a son. I couldn’t sit in the audience and watch my son fight like my parents did. I’d be like, the old woman hitting the guy in the head with a shoe.
Any final thoughts?
There is a whole life out there, man. That’s why it was easy for me to retire from boxing because I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter. I have a good life. I’m healthy still. So I didn’t want to stay in the business longer then I should have been. I’m a somewhat intelligent guy, I’m compassionate. That’s why real estate was like a perfect match for me. I wanted to help people, at the same time I loved doing what I was doing. Boxing was a little bit of fame, people would say, “Rocky Pepelli is my agent.” I would have open houses and people would stop by all the time and say, “I don’t want to buy the house, I just wanted to meet you.” The owner of the house would be like, “Who the hell is this guy.” The guy would say, “This is Rocky Pepelli, he fought all these guys.” The owner would say, “You gotta be kidding, I didn’t know that!” It’s been fun.
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