FORTY-THREE years ago today a rough, tough underdog named Chuck Wepner challenged the great Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world. (Almost) 15-rounds later, the “Rocky” movie legend was born and Wepner, known as “The Bayonne Bleeder” due to where he came from and his tendency to suffer cuts in almost all of his pro bouts, had put himself in the record books.
78-year-old Wepner looks back at the Ali fight with pride, and Chuck also points out how he – along with George Foreman and the sadly ailing Ali himself – is one of just a few fighters who boxed during a golden era and is still alive to look back on it.
Wepner is a very busy man these days, as he explained from his home [NB This interview was conducted in 2015]:
Q: It’s the anniversary of your famous fight with Muhammad Ali on March 24, as I’m sure you know…
Chuck Wepner: “Oh, yeah, today alone I’ve had 34 phone calls asking me about the Ali fight and also the 30-foot mural they have done of me here in Bayonne. I’ve had politicians and all sorts of people calling me about that. It’s a beautiful mural and a great honour. Anyway, you’re from England, right? It’s your call so ask what you need to ask me.
Q: Was the training camp you had for the Ali fight your best and your longest?
C. W: “It was the only time I had a proper training camp, where I could take time off my day job – me being a liquor salesman, which I still do today. Before in my fighting career, I had to work all day then train at night, doing my roadwork very early in the morning. But Don King, he sent me to New York and I had seven weeks of training for the Ali fight. I felt great and I’m positive that long camp made all the difference. I was in great, great shape.”
Q: Can you remember who you sparred to get ready for Ali?
C.W: “Yeah, I had four or five guys. I sparred Charlie Polite, Conrad Tucker, who was only 196lbs, a tough Irishman; I used him for speed. Also Bill Carson, another tough guy. I really believed I could win. I felt I’d wear him down and catch up with him in the later rounds. But he was Muhammad Ali and he was just a little too good for me. He was great.”
Q: Ali had regained his title by beating George Foreman of course, were you shocked like everyone else that Ali beat Foreman?
C.W: “I was. I expected Foreman to be too strong for Ali. I‘ll tell you a true story real quick: I had gone down to fight Terry Hinke, who was 37-3, and was knocking everyone out at the time. Don King sent me down to fight him and I knocked him out him in the 11th-round and Don had promised me a title shot. I figured I’d be fighting Foreman and when Ali beat him, I thought I’d blown my shot. But Don King told me he’d promised me a shot and that he was proud of me, and he made good on his promise. In fact, he sent me a telegram two days after the title fight. It read: ‘Let me say, If I could do it all again, I would. Don’t for one minute think you let me down. You are my dear friend and have been all my life. I love you and God bless, Don King.’
“All the things people say about Don, all the bad stuff, it’s all baloney. They’re cry babies. He’s a great guy. These fighters who complain about King, they never worked so they borrowed money off him to train and then, he took it off the top after they’d fought, and then they cried how he’d robbed them.”
Q: What were you thinking when you knocked Ali down in the ninth-round?
C.W: “I remember exactly what I was thinking, I said to my manager, Al Braverman, ‘Start the car, were going to the bank, we’re millionaires.’ Al said, ‘He’s getting up and he looks pissed off!’ I said, ‘oh, oh!’ Me and Al, we always had lots of fun, and we used to talk a lot in the corner. One fight I had, he said to me, ‘let me see you slip one jab, Chuck.’ I made the guy miss but then he hit me with four jabs. Al said, ‘great, you slipped one out of five!’ I said, ‘Come on, what do you want, everything!’ I know it wasn’t a great shot I hit Ali with but it was a great moment for me, and [Bundini] Brown was really yelling at Ali to get his ass up!
“But Ali got me down in the 15th, that was from exhaustion. I’d spent almost an hour in ring with the guy! My legs were quivering, I was so exhausted from the chasing and the punching. He knocked me down, but he hit me on the left shoulder and the side of the face; he never landed flush. But still, I went down and got up at around the count of eight or nine. Then referee Tony Perez stopped it. Perez told me later, that if he’d known there were only 19 seconds left, he’d have probably let it go on. But I was now ranked No.8 in the world and what a division it was at the time. You had Ali, Foreman, [Jerry] Quarry, [Ken] Norton. Look at it now. The Klitschkos are good champions, but there have been no contenders. Today it’s all the lower weight divisions [where the great fights are].”
Q: Would you rate Ali as the best heavyweight ever?
C.W: “During his first 25 fights, definitely. He beat everybody at that time. Then he had the four years off for refusing induction to the army. But he came back and won the title two more times. He was special, and he was so much fun. Today, he’s still sharp with his mind, but his body has slowed with the Parkinson’s. I still love him but it’s sad to see him now. Myself and George Foreman, and Ali himself of course, are the only ones left from that great era. All the others are dead with something bad happening to them.”
Q: And there is a movie of your life set to be made, with shooting to start soon?
C.W: “Yeah, the film will be out before the end of the year. We’re doing a big press conference soon, so keep in touch and see how it goes.
Q: Will you have a cameo in it, Chuck?
C.W: “Everyone has been asking me that. I’d rather my wife had a cameo in it (laughs). But if they ask me….. If they ask [Sylvester] Stallone, that would be great. People think we don’t get along because of the [law] suit, but that was a long time ago. There are no more hard feelings. I admire him, he made a great movie and he made me famous.”
In closing, Chuck asked me to mention his good friend Mark Collings from the U.K
“Yeah, my good friend from England, Mark Collings. He helped me with all publicity: the Rocky films, being Chuck Wepner, everything. I want to say thanks and hello to him, he’s a dear friend of mine.”