With last year’s passing of Earnie Shavers, the list of surviving Muhammad Ali opponents took another hit. We still have greats like George Foreman, Larry Holmes, and George Chuvalo, as well as a few other guys who played their part in the Ali story – the biggest story in heavyweight boxing. Spanish slugger Alfredo Evangelista is doing well over in Espana, for example. However, Rudi Lubbers, Juergen Blin, Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Jean-Pierre Coopman aside, there is almost no-one left when it comes to men who, once upon a time, gave “The Greatest” a memorable fight.
Chuck Wepner could easily be referred to as a great survivor. Chuck, who turns 84 today, is still active, he has suffered none of the dementia horrors that have befallen the unimaginably tough Chuvalo and, we recently read, Bugner.
And while Wepner is no living legend like a Foreman or a Holmes, he has a special place in boxing history all the same. And Chuck, who recent fought a battle with cancer, is still able to remember pretty much all of the things he went through during his ring career. Wepner has over the years enjoyed many titles: ‘Great White Hope,’ ‘The Bayonne Bleeder,’ ‘The Real Rocky.’ And Wepner went through about as many highs and lows as any prize fighter you could care to mention.
Along with fighting the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Ernie Terrell and Ali and living to tell the tale, Wepner also fought a 500 pound wrestler named Andre The Giant, who took it upon himself to chuck Chuck clean out of the ring. Oh, and Wepner also fought a bear, yes, a bear. Along with that lot, Wepner saw prison time, he fell for a while into a serious war with drugs and alcohol (Wepner was so hung over after a two-day bender, he totally blew a rehearsal for s short role in ‘Rocky II’) and he went to court in an effort to sue Sly Stallone. Yet Wepner is still here, having lived into old age, his marbles still intact.
Wepner was never a great boxer, as he himself would freely admit. Yet Chuck was never short on guts and raw courage, and he gave his all each and every time he clambered into the ring. It was the Ali fight that changed Wepner’s life, though. A huge underdog – ‘bum’ being another title carelessly handed to Wepner ahead of the 1975 fight, this by tough guy fight fans who should have had more respect – Wepner was expected to be taken out in short order.
Instead, against a less than motivated Ali, Wepner came within a few seconds of hearing the 15th and final bell. And Wepner was credited with a dubious knockdown in the ninth round, when his punch and foot combo briefly sent Ali tumbling. Stallone watched the fight on closed-circuit, and legend has it, the ‘Rocky’ legend was born.
Wepner deservedly got the movie treatment himself, with Liev Schreiber putting in a somewhat tidied up portrayal of ‘The Bleeder’ in the 2016 film of the same name. Chuck has also seen a large mural dedicated to him in his home town of Bayonne. Indeed, Wepner has lived quite the life. And he’s still living it today.
Happy birthday, Chuck. 84 and still going strong.