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When Chuck Wepner fought a bear…

Chuck Wepner
Yes, a bear. Steve Bunce on Chuck Wepner and other animals

TONY GALENTO had an advantage over the giant octopus he fought one afternoon in Atlantic City – the octopus was dead before Tony jumped in the giant fish tank. A few years later, Chuck Wepner had no advantages when he was matched with Victor, the unbeaten and untouchable bear. They met in a non-title fight in New Jersey. It was a cash job, a novelty, the latest in Big Chuck’s life and times.

Two world heavyweight championship challengers against a bear and an octopus are freak shows, trust me. Galento dropped Joe Louis before fighting the octopus and Wepner dropped Muhammad Ali before meeting Victor. That’s a freak, but it’s true.

A man called Tuffy Truesdell had helped Victor compile a ridiculous record of 1,500 wins and no defeats, which even by the standards of modern matchmaking is impressive. There is a small asterisk attached – Victor the bear, it seems, was a franchise with as many as four Victors in circulation, fighting men and women in bars and clubs and on beaches all over America. Tuffy was a resourceful man; Victor would attend your 50th and fight your friends for a fee. Tuffy actually claimed that Victor was unbeaten in 50,000 fights and had suffered just one draw. There are Victor scholars with facts and stats on crazy fights where the bear was in trouble before taking down a local hardman. All the time, I assume, Victor was learning his trade.

Victor v Wepner was a real thing: Chuck, you see, fought two versions of Victor. The second bear called Victor was without doubt the best boxing bear ever. Hey, that’s Al Braverman’s opinion and he should know. Tuffy, a big boxing fan, had launched his animal v man fighting business in the Fifties when he met Rodney the Wrestling Alligator; it ended in a draw and Tuffy needed 40 stitches.

The first Victor that Wepner fought was defanged, declawed, muzzled and intoxicated. The bear weighed between 400 and 800 pounds, depending on how unreliable your source was.

“It must have been 450 pounds,” Wepner once told me. I believe him.

I know Wepner is famous for the Rocky connection, but he did put together a bloody and memorable sequence of fights during an eight-year period between 1969 and 1976; he needed dozens of stitches after his 1969 loss to George Foreman at Madison Square Garden, he lost to Ali in 1975 to launch the Rocky business, he was thrown all over the place by Andre the Giant in front of 32,000 people in 1976. The fight with Andre, who weighed in at 525 pounds, was made by Bob Arum. Can you imagine sharing a ring with a man who is heavier than a bear? Also, in this spectacular run of fights, he met Victor, he lost several pints of blood when he lost to Sonny Liston in a bloodbath and lost to Joe Bugner in London. Big names in big fights.

Make no mistake, Chuck Wepner could bleed, fight and was one of the bravest heavyweights on the scene at a time of great heavyweights. He was not a comedy figure. He stood 6-feet-5, which is nine inches taller than Rocky Balboa, by the way. He beat Ernie Terrell over 12 rounds for the National Americas heavyweight title in 1973 and finished his career with 36 wins from 52 fights. And 328 stitches in his face.

So, Chuck fought Tuffy’s bear. He worked out a strategy with Braverman, a man with such a rich and dangerous history that it would not be a shock if he had been in the corner with the octopus against Galento. 

A nightclub czar called Artie Stock, who owned the Royal Manor club in New Jersey, offered Wepner the fight against Victor. It was a challenge; it was cash and Wepner accepted.

“I was told not to hit the bear,” Wepner recalled. “What was I supposed to do? Tell the bear a story? The bear wanted to kill me.”

The first fight with Victor was ugly.

“I was hitting the bear with jabs, hooks and the bear was starting to get crazy,” added Wepner. “Then it got me and threw me 15-feet up in the air. People said I put on a great show and I said: ‘Are you out of your mind, this bear tried to kill me.’”

Wepner was fighting for his life that night; it was not the first time and it would not be the last time. Chuck Wepner was a born survivor and fell in and out of fights, cells, danger and lunacy during his life. However, never forget that he could really fight.

The story of Victor the fighting bear has been told, distorted, invented, rejected and lovingly curated over the years.

The version I like is whimsical and probably has a bit of truth in it. Tuffy told his version and I like his version. Tuffy claims he heard about two bear cubs who had been orphaned in Northern Ontario when their mother had been shot by a hunter. Tuffy drove 500 miles to find the pair and when he tracked them down, the baby girl was dead and just the boy cub had survived; the tiny bundle had a white mark on his chest that looked like a V and that is why he was called Victor. The duplicate Victors always had a white V painted on their fur – that is true, I’m not inventing it.

There is a suggestion that the original Victor died of a heart attack in the late Seventies. It is almost certain that Victor III chewed off a fighting marine’s finger in 1981. It is also likely that the original Victor was beaten by Olympic wrestler, Jeffrey M. Hunter, in 1977. Hunter pinned Victor for the full 10 seconds. In all fairness, Victor was slowing down and would soon be dead. Victor II finished his life at a bear sanctuary in Saunooke, North Carolina, in 1981.

The Victors got about, that’s for sure.

Wepner had a rematch with Victor and this is where the tale takes a wicked turn. It’s Wepner, what did you expect?

When Wepner got in the ring, he looked across at Victor and he knew. He turned to Braverman: “He remembers me, I can tell. But Al said, ‘Forget it, there is no way a bear can remember you.’ He did, he knew what I was going to do. I had to change my tactics. The bear had done his homework for the rematch.” Victor was exceptional that night, Chuck as brave as ever.

It’s gold. It was also a different Victor.

Big Chuck, thank you for lifting our boxing days.

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