MEMORIES WITH MLADINICH: Chuck and Linda Wepner
A few years ago Chuck Wepner received a long-awaited financial settlement from Sylvester Stallone for being the inspiration for the fictional screen legend Rocky Balboa. One of his first orders of business was rounding up some of his old sparring partners so he could take them and their dates out for a celebratory dinner.
Unlike Wepner, whose March 1975 challenge of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali made him the muse for the “Rocky” character, former sparring partners Brian O’Melia, Conrad Tooker and Bobby Rooney never ascended to such high echelons in the sport.
But they couldn’t have been happier for their good friend Wepner, who compiled a record of 35-14-2 (17 KOS) during a career that lasted from 1964 to 1978.
“He’s a great guy,” said O’Melia, a journeyman heavyweight who fought from 1970 to 1980. “When he received the settlement, I think we were the first people he called. He told us to bring our wives or our girls, and to join him for a celebration.”
“Chuck never forgot where he came from,” added Linda Wepner, his wife of nearly 17 years. “And he never forgets a friend.”
Chuck and Linda will have lots more to celebrate this weekend, when they head off to Atlantic City for some hard-earned and well-deserved rest and relaxation. Both are employed as salespeople for Allied Beverage Group, the Carlstadt, New Jersey-based firm that is the largest liquor distribution company in the state.
On Friday, February 26, Chuck will turn 71 and Linda will turn 62. Not only will they be celebrating their respective birthdays, they will be rejoicing about their wonderful marriage that just seems to get stronger with each passing year.
“We always try to make each other laugh, and we have so much in common.” said Linda. “If he doesn’t remember something, I remember it. He loves to cook, I love to eat. We’re both Yankees fans. And we’re really good friends. We do everything, and go everywhere, together.”
The couple regularly travel to Atlantic City, but in recent years have also visited Europe, The Bahamas, Cancun, Florida, California and Las Vegas.
Linda still marvels at how much Chuck is recognized, even all these years after the Ali fight put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. One time they were walking in Rome, Italy, when he was mobbed by fans.
“Even if they don’t know he’s Chuck Wepner, they know he’s somebody,” she explained. “He has such a presence. He definitely looks like he had a few fights, but if people don’t make that connection they think he’s a basketball player or some other kind of athlete. Grown men are in awe of him. I never once saw him turn down an autograph. There have been times people were so excited to be with him, they even asked for my autograph. It’s unbelievable.”
Peter Wood, a finalist in the 1971 New York City Golden Gloves tournament and the author of “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the New York Golden Gloves” and “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion,” recently had dinner with the Wepners, as well as O’Melia and Rooney and their significant others at Café Bello in Bayonne.
“There was a palpable buzz in the restaurant,” said Wood. “It was obvious that to the other diners and the staff the champ was in the house.”
Describing Wepner as a quintessential Jersey guy would be a gross understatement. He was born, raised and still lives in Bayonne, and was even nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” because of the prodigious amount of blood he spilled in fights against such championship caliber opponents as Ali, Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Ernie Terrell. Seeing Wepner on the canvas was as rare as a solar eclipse.
Not long ago he and Linda were on a cruise that contained lots of New Jersey residents. “Word got out that Chuck was on the cruise, and it was bedlam,” said Linda. “It’s nice to see how people relate to him. He’s such a good guy – and such a regular guy.”
Not that there haven’t been times where he wasn’t so well received. One time, while in Atlantic City, Chuck and Linda walked past a Legends of Boxing exhibit at one of the casinos. Wepner was the lone white face among several large posters of such boxing greats as Ali, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Linda asked the clerk, who looked totally uninterested, who the white guy was.
“Some guy who thinks he can fight, but doesn’t know how,” he replied derisively and dismissively without even bothering to look up from what he was reading.
When she pointed out Chuck, who was standing a few feet away, the man was mortified, but calmed down when he realized the good-natured Wepner was chuckling over the incident.
Any initial hurt feelings Wepner might have had were soothed when that encounter led to him making a few paid appearances that weekend.
It was the regular guy persona that propelled Wepner to prominence, and still draws people to him in a big way. When he got the call to fight Ali, he was a working stiff who moonlighted as a boxer. He was given little chance of even lasting a few rounds with Ali, but more than held his own and even knocked “The Greatest” down. His life has been a whirlwind ever since. There has even been talk of a movie being made about his life, with John C. Reilly in the starring role.
Stallone, who was then a struggling actor, was impressed enough by his performance to go home and pen the original “Rocky” screenplay in a matter of days. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976. It also made a superstar out of Stallone.
Although the “Rocky” franchise has generated over $1 billion in revenue, it was not until recently that Wepner received any compensation for being its muse. At one deposition hearing in San Diego, he told Stallone, who he is admittedly very fond of, “No offense, it’s just business.”
It’s hard to believe that Wepner is a septuagenarian because he leads such a full life and carries himself so youthfully. His wife still jokes about the fact that “after 16 years of marriage, I have to keep my Puma’s on at home because he’s always chasing after me.”
When that comment elicits a laugh, she quickly interjects, “It’s true. I’m not kidding.”
It’s not hard to believe because Wepner exudes an excess of youthful vitality and positive energy, never seeing the glass as half empty but always as half full. While appraising Stallone’s latest incarnation of his most famous character in the film “Rocky Balboa,” Wepner lauds the fact that the fictional 58-year-old boxer came out of retirement to take care of unfinished business.
“Life doesn’t stop at 60 or 70,” said Wepner. “You’re as young as you feel. If you have unfinished business, take care of it. Life is too short to have regrets.”
Noted boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of the acclaimed book “The Arc of Boxing: The Rise and Decline of the Sweet Science,” calls Wepner “a delightful man” and wishes he had his own talk show because of his good nature, everyman appeal, and common sense approach to life.
“I’m a guy everyone can relate to,” Wepner has said. “I got my shot and I ran with it. Most people would do the same if they had the chance. I’m very lucky. I never forget that.”
Linda first met Wepner shortly after the Ali fight, when a mutual friend put them on the phone with each other.
“I hear you’re big and gorgeous,” were the first words her future husband said to her, to which she replied, “No, I’m short and cute.”
The first time she met him, she said, “he took up the doorway,” but the attraction was strong. They dated as friends, and then didn’t see each other for 16 years. After being reunited, they tied the knot in September 1993. This will be their 17th birthday together as man and wife.
“There will be a lot more down the road,” said Linda. “He’s a great guy and we have a great life. We’re so happy to have found each other. Every birthday together is better than the last one, which means this will be the best one yet.”