Having recently taken the heavyweight title back, from George
Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali was
feeling charitable. So for his next title defense, in March
1975, he picked as his opponent a 36-year-old club fighter who
moonlighted as a liquor salesman. Chuck Wepner, a 6'5",
225-pound ex-Marine from New Jersey, had a chin of rock, but his
face ripped apart like rice paper. Hence his nickname: the
Bayonne Bleeder. This was the Great White Hope? "That's the only
hope he's got," Ali said.
Wepner was further dismissed as a pretender in SI's prefight
cover feature. But in the ninth round he became just the fourth
man to knock Ali down, with a right to the chest. "It wasn't
that great a punch, but he went under the ropes and almost went
out of the ring," Wepner, 59, says. "He wouldn't have made it
back in by 10, and I would have been the champ." In the 15th
round an exhausted Ali sent an equally spent Wepner to one knee,
and referee Tony Perez stopped the fight a mere 19 seconds from
the final bell. Said Ali, "There's not another human being in
the world that can go 15 rounds like that."
Wepner's courage soon became the stuff of Hollywood. Inspired by
Wepner, Sylvester Stallone created Rocky, which would win the
Oscar in 1976 and spawn four sequels. Though he served as a
consultant on the movie, Wepner thought it would flop. "I took a
one-time payment of $70,000 instead of one percent of the
gross," he says. "Had I taken the percentage, with all five
movies, I would have made millions."
He had nine more fights (plus an exhibition "match" against pro
wrestler Andre the Giant at Shea Stadium) before retiring in
1978. Seven years later he was arrested for possession of
cocaine. Wepner was given a 10-year sentence in March '88 and
served three years in Newark's Northern State Prison before
being released. He has been married to his third wife, Linda,
since September '94 and does public relations work for a
pharmaceutical and a packaging business in addition to giving
motivational speeches. "I've been clean now for more than 12
years," says Wepner. "I'm very lucky. I have my health, and
though I was never a champ, I'm treated like one."
COLOR PHOTO: JASON BURFIELD [Chuck Wepner]
COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER [Cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED featuring Chuck Wepner]
Ali picked as his opponent a 36-year-old fighter who moonlighted
as a liquor salesman.