There is a strong case to be made that Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Furthermore, it is more than wishful nostalgia to declare that the history of his career coincided with a time in boxing that deserves to be known as the Golden Age of the sport. In his heyday, there was no boxer faster on his feet, more skilled with his jabs, nor more eloquent with his mouth. Muhammad Ali was the original G.O.A.T.
There has always been a certain blood lust associated with the sport of boxing. In fact, it is fair to say that race plays a big part in a business that often puts Black and Hispanic fighters in harm’s way for the viewing pleasure of white audiences and the profitability of white promoters. All throughout the history of Muhammad Ali’s multiple reigns atop the heavyweight division, his most storied fights were against other Black men….Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and, most famously, George Foreman. At the time Ali came to face Foreman in a fight billed as The Rumble in the Jungle, George Foreman had battered his way through the entire heavyweight division with unbridled ferocity. The only person standing between him and the heavyweight title was Ali. At the time, Muhammad Ali was considered to be the underdog. But Ali trained hard, and employed a unique strategy of willingly absorbing punishment for multiple rounds to begin the fight. His Rope-a-Dope technique worked perfectly. As Ali stood against the ropes, Foreman punched and punched and punched with all of his might. Ali, leaning back against ropes, took most punches against his raised forearms. As Round #5 came to an end, George Foreman’s mouth began to stay open as he sucked in as much oxygen as he could. His own arms were growing weary from overuse. It was the sign that Muhammad Ali had been waiting for. George Foreman…more a monster than a man…had begun to punch himself out. Foreman was tired. Ali was not. In the 6th round, Ali began to counterpunch. Foreman, too tired to adequately defend himself, was rocked by an Ali right hand and down he went. The most famous boxing match in history was over and Ali had won!
After the bout, Muhammad Ali returned to America. His promoters were puzzled as to how they would follow up such a huge match. Ali had already fought all of the main contenders for the title so, re-matches with any of them came off as uninspiring choices for Ali’s next match. Then, someone came up with the idea of giving Ali an easy payday by signing him up to fight an outsider…a nobody, in terms of pedigree. The idea for the match was to hype it as The Champ giving a bum a once in a lifetime opportunity to fight for the title. The person Ali’s camp selected for this fight was a man from Bayonne, New Jersey, named Chuck Wepner. Wepner had some skills as a boxer. He had been in the Marines, and had won an amateur title in his younger days. But, he was best known for losing to the man Muhammad Ali had beat to launch his career, Sonny Liston. In the Liston fight, Wepner was cut open for 72 stitches and became known forevermore as The Bayonne Bleeder. Even though Wepner was ranked in the top ten of the heavyweight division, it was more because of his skin colour than his boxing skills. You see, the final angle being promoted by Muhammad Ali’s promoters was that Wepner was actually that rarest of heavyweight boxers known as The Great White Hope. At that time in Boxing history, there hadn’t been a white heavyweight champ for several decades, so the pride of Jersey, Chuck Wepner, suddenly became billed as the pride of White America. It was White vs. Black. It was an ex-Marine vs the most famous conscientious objector ever. It was an unknown tomato can vs the People’s Champ. The odds were set at 20-1, and even at those odds, most observers gave Wepner even less of a chance than that. Truth be told, even Wepner believed he had no chance against Ali. In the end, as he told his wife on the eve of the fight, all he wanted to do was go the distance and not embarrass himself. If he survived the fight, Wepner told himself, that would be victory enough.
The fight took place in Richfield, Ohio. For Wepner, there was to be no Hollywood ending. He lost the fight by referee stoppage in the 11th round. Ali dominated the fight, as many had anticipated. Wepner’s one shining moment happened in the 9th round when he punched Ali in the chest just as Ali was turning away and backing up. The off-balanced nature of Ali’s body, in combination with Wepner’s punch, sent Ali to the canvas for one of the very few times in his entire career. Ali got back up…more embarrassed and angry than hurt. He proceeded to up his tempo and quickly finished Wepner off in the next few minutes of action. Despite the fact that Ali had won and had remained as Champion, those who grew up in the New York/New Jersey area and had followed Wepner’s career up until this point were thrilled that he had gone eleven rounds with Ali, and that he had even knocked Ali down once. To the locals, Wepner had done well, and they were all very proud of him. A few days after the fight, one man tracked Wepner down in order to congratulate him and to discuss a business idea he had. That man was a young actor from Flatbush, New York, named Sylvester Stallone.
Stallone had appeared in one Hollywood movie at that point, called The Lords of Flatbush. That movie didn’t do very well nationally, but in the New York/New Jersey area, it was lauded as a masterpiece. As such, even though he was a relatively unknown actor, Sylvester Stallone had carved out a local reputation for himself. So, when he approached Wepner with an idea for a movie inspired by Wepner’s fight with Muhammad Ali, Stallone was warmly received. The movie idea that Stallone pitched turned out to be the script for the original version of the Rocky franchise. In that movie, Stallone created a role for himself as an underdog boxer. In fact, one of the legendary aspects of the original Rocky movie is that, because Stallone was a relatively unknown actor, Hollywood executives wanted to cast more established stars in the lead role. For example, the role of Rocky was offered to the likes of James Caan and Jon Voight first. However, in true underdog fashion, Stallone refused to sell the rights to his screenplay unless it came with the guarantee that he would get to play the lead. Eventually, Stallone found a buyer who would agree to his terms. But, in return, the studio hedged its bets by only giving Stallone a shoe-string budget to work with. So, for less than one million dollars, Rocky was made. It earned numerous Academy Awards that year, including the award for Best Picture. It reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales, making Rocky one of the best movie-making investments of all time.
In the course of making this movie, Stallone employed many script elements that were, in fact, directly taken from Chuck Wepner’s life. The now iconic scenes of Stallone training for the fight by punching sides of beef came straight out of Wepner’s own training routine. As well, the famous scene in which Rocky’s trainer, played by veteran actor Burgess Meredith, implores Rocky to abstain from sex during the lead up to the fight, because “women weaken legs” is a direct reference to Wepner’s penchant for being distracted in-fight by the scantily clad ring card girls who walk the perimeter of the boxing ring between rounds. The final and most iconic scene from Rocky is when he runs up the steps to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia, raising his arms in victory as he reaches the top steps. Those steps have now become known as the Rocky Steps and there was a statue created and placed there that reproduced the moment when Stallone, as Rocky, raised his arms in the air. Part of what made that moment in the movie so memorable was the rousing musical score that accompanied the scene. Composer Bill Conti wrote a piece of music that most people mistakenly call Rocky’s Theme. In fact, the actual name of the song is Gonna Fly Now, which is the chorus of the song. The entire music budget for the film was less than $25,000.
Since Rocky arrived in theatres, that character has become the de facto role model for all underdog characters on screen as well as in real life. The song Gonna Fly Now has also become iconic and is used in sporting arenas all over the world as a hype song for the home team. Sylvester Stallone parlayed his success with Rocky into further projects, and went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest names. Over the course of his career, Stallone has achieved movie sales of over one billion dollars, making him a multi-millionaire several times over. As for Chuck Wepner…the original inspiration for the character of Rocky Balboa…according to Wepner, he never received a dime from Stallone nor from ticket or merchandise sales from any of the Rocky movies (there were six, in total). Wepner netted only $60,000 from his original fight with Muhammad Ali, so he was not a wealthy man by any stretch, and could have used the extra dollars he deserved as a result of his role in helping Sylvester Stallone realize his dream of creating the Rocky movie. In his later years, Wepner was convinced to launch a lawsuit against Stallone. Apparently, there was an undisclosed settlement reached. Even after that, Wepner has stated that he has no regrets with how things turned out. He says that, just as lasting eleven rounds with a great boxer like Muhammad Ali was victory enough, so is having people know that he is the original Rocky. When you have been an underdog your whole life, sometimes the victories tend to be moral ones. So they are with the Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner…the greatest underdog of all time!
The link to the video for the song Gonna Fly Now by Bill Conti for the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Rocky can be found here.
The link to the video for the movie Rocky can be found here.
The link to the official website for Chuck Wepner can be found here.
The link to the official website for Muhamad Ali can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sylvester Stallone can be found here.
Much of the information about Chuck Wepner’s fight with Muhammad Ali comes from a great book called Facing Ali by sportswriter Stephen Brunt. A link to purchase that book can be found here.
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