Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Forty Years After Ali, Chuck Wepner Stands Tall



Cadillacs, pinky rings and minks came to the Richfield countryside March 24, 1975, as the Coliseum hosted the heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Boxing experts predicted a walk in the park for Ali, but Wepner had other ideas, lasting until the waning seconds of the 15th round despite cuts above both eyes and a broken nose. “We tried to get him off his game and piss him off,” says the 76-year-old Wepner from his home in Bayonne, New Jersey. “I fought a great fight, but he was just too good for me.” To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the fight, Wepner was honored with the unveiling of a 30-foot mural in his hometown last weekend. We talk with Wepner about Ali, serving as the inspiration for Rocky and an upcoming feature film on his life.

Q: You knocked Ali down in the ninth round at the Richfield Coliseum. Was it legitimate or did you step on his foot?

A: I hit him with a right hand under the heart. It was a good shot. I could feel it all the way up to my shoulder. Two hours after the fight, Drew Bundini Brown came up with the story that I stepped on Ali’s foot. That’s a bunch of bunk. After I knocked Ali down, my trainer, Al Braverman, said to me, “He’s getting up … and he looks pissed off.”

Q: How did you first learn about Sylvester Stallone using you as the inspiration for Rocky?
A: One of his producers called me a couple of weeks after the fight. He told me Stallone had watched the fight on TV and then locked himself in a room for three days and wrote the movie. I went to the premiere in New York and was standing in a long line until the theater manager brought me inside. When the movie was over, people were jumping up and screaming.

Q: You’re an executive producer on a new film The Bleeder, starring Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts and Christina Hendricks. What can we expect from the movie?

A: I’m very excited about it, because I’ve been waiting for this for 10 years. The script has been rewritten, and they start shooting in New York next month. It’s not going to be like Rocky. It will be more like Goodfellas. It should be out around Christmas.

By Barry Goodrich

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