Chuck Wepner
Professional boxer
Born: February 26, 1939, in New York City
Grew Up In: Bayonne, New Jersey
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2016: Sports

A perpetual underdog, Chuck Wepner might not have been able to beat Muhammad Ali in the ring, but he did inspire “Rocky,” the heavyweight champion among boxing movies.

The son of a professional boxer, Wepner learned about brawling on the streets of Bayonne. He lived with his mother and his maternal grandparents in a converted coal shed until the age of 13. A tall, athletic youth, he played varsity basketball at Bayonne High School.

Wepner began to box as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. After his discharge, he worked as a bouncer in clubs and boxed in the Police Athletic League, winning the 1964 New York Golden Gloves heavyweight novice championship. He turned pro the same year and boxed on the regional circuit, winning the USA New Jersey State Heavyweight title in 1967.

Local success earned Wepner bouts with big-name boxers like George Foreman and Sonny Liston. He lost both of those fights; Liston battered Wepner to the point where he needed 72 stitches in the face. Wepner’s ability to take a punch earned him the nicknames “Bayonne Bleeder” and “Bayonne Brawler,” but his high-profile defeats seemed to put the brakes on his heavyweight career.

Still, the 6-foot-5 Wepner kept battling. Starting in 1972, he went on a tear, winning eight consecutive fights, including a victory at the Atlantic City Convention Center over former WBA heavyweight champ Ernie Terrell. That helped earn Wepner a March 1975 heavyweight title fight with Ali.

Not much was expected from Wepner, who was reportedly paid just $100,000 to step into the ring with Ali. The underdog had other ideas. Wepner, who worked as a liquor salesman by day, trained hard for the fight and surprised the boxing world with his ability to stand up to the champ. He even knocked Ali down in the ninth round, supposedly by stepping on Ali’s foot.

Wepner battled Ali all the way to the 15th and final round, suffering cuts over both eyes and a broken nose. With just 19 seconds left in the fight, Ali knocked Wepner down. The referee ended the battle in a TKO.

Watching it all was Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the script for “Rocky.” Stallone initially denied that Wepner was his inspiration, but later admitted that the Bayonne Bleeder was the original Rocky Balboa.

Wepner fought eight more times before his retirement from the ring, losing his final bout (and the New Jersey state heavyweight title) to Scott Frank at Ice World in Totowa. He finished his career with a professional record of 35 wins (including 17 knockouts), 14 losses, and 2 draws. Along the way, he cashed in on his celebrity status with a match against 7-foot-4 wrestler Andre the Giant.

After his retirement, Wepner spent 17 months in prison on a drug charge, but got his life together and went back to work in liquor sales. He has twice been the subject of Hollywood film biographies: “Chuck” (2016), starring Liev Schreiber; and “The Brawler” (2019), starring Zach McGowan.

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