February 23rd, 2012 by Colin M Jarman
Question: Who is the only man on the planet to fight Muhammad Ali, Andre the Giant and a real grizzly bear (and inspire a movie franchise worth a billion dollars)?
Answer: New Jersey’s own Chuck Wepner, aka ‘The Bayonne Bleeder.’
ESPN FILMS: The Real Rocky premieres on ESPN America on Tues, Feb 21st.
Check local listings for times and repeat showings.
The “Real Rocky” is Chuck Wepner – a liquor salesman from Bayonne, N.J., who drives a Cadillac with “Champ” vanity plates. A former New Jersey state heavyweight boxing champion, he was christened with the nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder” for the abuse he suffered at the hands of Sonny Liston. In 1975, Wepner fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title. In the 15th round, Ali knocked out Wepner after breaking his nose and opening cuts over both eyes.
Sylvester Stallone wrote a screenplay, and starred in and won three Academy Awards (including best picture) for the film “Rocky,” based on Wepner’s gutsy challenge. Wepner was left out of the “Rocky” glory, and his career took turn after strange turn as he worked to stay in the spotlight. He went on to fight Andre the Giant as “The Assassin” and boxed a 900-pound Kodiak bear. Twice.
Using too-good-to-be-true footage, Jeff Feuerzeig and Mike Tollin explores the colorful life and bloodied career of this unique New Jersey character in their one-hour ESPN film.
I’ve been a Chuck Wepner fan ever since 1975, when I was 10 years old and my father took my brother and me to Sports Night at the Raritan High School gymnasium in Hazlet, N.J. to see Chuck – aka “The Bayonne Bleeder” – just months before he was set to go up against Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. There were no figures who loomed larger in the 10-year-old imagination of mid-’70s suburbia than Evel Knievel, Andre the Giant and, especially, Muhammad Ali – “The Greatest” – and here was a 6-foot-5 behemoth in a full-length fur coat, pimp hat and ridiculous amount of jewelry leading us in a chant of “Who’s gonna beat Ali? … WEPNER!” Even better, the bloody 16mm fight films he projected proved his nickname was more than mere hype. The place exploded. And in that instant, Chuck Wepner became a real-life mythological figure – as real to me as the Jersey Devil that haunted the local pine barrens.
This film is very much about myth – the myth of Narcissus. When Chuck Wepner stood on line like an average schmoe and paid for his own movie ticket and sat in a dark theater in 1976 watching Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky,” a film and character that were directly inspired by his truly heroic fight with Ali, he could not distinguish the mirror image from the real person, and like the hero in the Greek myth, he fell in love with his own reflection up there on the silver screen. And who could blame him? He was Rocky. Stallone even said so. If, as certain cultures believe, to capture someone’s image is to steal their soul, Chuck had his soul hijacked.
I believe documentary is a blank canvas – in which all kinds of disparate ideas and stylistic techniques can co-exist as long as they serve the story. As with my previous films “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” and “The Dude,” about Jeff “The Dude” Dowd, who inspired “The Big Lebowski,” I worked hard to come up with a unique visual palette and sound design approach to tell the Wepner story. It was important to me to capture Chuck’s interview in extreme close-up and lush Super 16mm black and white because it made it arresting.
Being in so tight made every story feel like I could see the synapses firing in his brain as I cut to the visual evidence “in his mind.” And if it seems like you’re noshing at the Carnegie Deli in Woody Allen’s “Broadway Danny Rose” during the Greek Chorus Sportwriters Round Table sprinkled throughout the film – well, there’s a good reason. This setup provided an opportunity to riff on Chuck’s career while creating a fitting homage to one of my favorite films. There’s probably a bit of Roy Lichtenstein’s pop art slammed together with Jamie Reid’s Sex Pistols ransom note album cover design on display in the Wepner newspaper clippings. And while I’m showing my hand here, I might as well point out the heightened sound effects owe as much to Walter Murch in “American Graffiti” or “Apocalypse Now” as to Howard Stern’s sound effects guru “Earth Dog” Fred Norris. When it comes to style, I believe you are what you eat.
A documentary film can set out to accomplish many things, but in this case, ultimately, it’s an honest attempt to settle the score for a fellow New Jersey underdog and to help him take back what is rightfully his. Because sometimes, even a giant needs somebody to watch his back. That’s the Jersey way.
The credits roll. The house lights go up. The audience bursts into applause.
Finally, 35 years after he inspired a billion-dollar cinematic franchise, Chuck Wepner is a movie star. For one night, anyway.
“The Real Rocky” is a TV documentary, but a few nights before its premiere on ESPN [in the USA], it finds its way to the big screen as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival. Wepner sits in the back row next to his wife, Linda, watching the finished product for the first time. The location for the screening, some two miles from the art museum steps that Rocky Balboa famously scaled, is not accidental. The director of the documentary, Jeff Feuerzeig, calls Philly “the scene of the crime.”
“In my opinion, Sylvester Stallone hijacked Chuck Wepner’s soul,” Feuerzeig said. “This film is my attempt to help Chuck get his soul back.”
Whether Stallone hijacked his soul is a matter of opinion. Whether Sly hijacked elements of his story is not. But now Wepner’s version of the story is being told on small and big screens alike.
And there’s not much more Wepner could ask for than an attentive audience to which he can keep telling his stories.
Eric Raskin on ESPN.com (Oct 25, 2011)
Chuck Wepner is the man at the very bloody core of the “Rocky” films because he was the cut, bleeding and heroic no-hoper that sent Stallone down the Rocky road. Wepner, a brave fringe contender with hundreds of stitches across his brows, lost a world heavyweight title fight to Muhammad Ali in 1975, dropped Ali in the ninth and was rescued by the referee with just 19 seconds left in the 15th and final round. That is true, even if it reads like fiction. Stallone was watching at a cinema and went home and wrote the Rocky story in three days. “When the man who was considered an absolute pushover knocked the unbeatable champion down – I saw how the crowd reacted and I said to myself: ‘This is what it is all about’,” said Stallone.
ESPN UK’s boxing analyst Steve Bunce in The Independent (Dec 27, 2011)
For details of other recent ESPN FIlms, click on the links below:
|CATCHING HELL||Finding Steve Bartman|
|RENEE||The Renee Richards Story|
|THE DOTTED LINE||Morgan Spurlock’s look at Sports Agents|
|CHARISMATIC||Horse & Jockey Rags to Riches|
|UNGUARDED||The Chris Herren story|
|ROLL TIDE / WAR EAGLE||The Alabama Auburn Rivalry|
|THE REAL ROCKY||Chuck Wepner – The Bayonne Bleeder who inspired the “Rocky” films|
|THE MARINOVICH PROJECT||Robo-QBTodd Marinovich –|
|THE ANNOUNCEMENT||Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson relives the day he announced to the world that he had AIDS.|
|20 May - 6:00am||30 For 30 - Tim Richmond: To the Limit|
|20 May - 7:00am||30 For 30 - Little Big Men|
|31 May - 9:30pm||30 For 30 - The Best that Never Was|
|1 Jun - 4:30am||30 For 30 - You Don't Know Bo|
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