Professional boxing could use a few more men like Chuck Wepner.
At a time when the sport faces its biggest identity crisis in decades, and continues to lose market share to the rising popularity of no-holds-barred MMA leagues like UFC, the ghost of old school boxers like Wepner looms large.
Wepner was nicknamed the ‘Bayonne Bleeder’ after a bout with vicious Sonny Liston under the hot lamps of the Jersey City Armory. Liston went to work on Wepner’s face so bad, that by the tenth round, Wepner’s nose and cheek were broken. In the end Wepner had sprayed ringside reporters and fight fans with so much blood, he needed 72 stitches to stanch the flow.
In his professional career Chuck Wepner compiled a record of 35 wins (17 by knockout), 14 losses and 2 draws. And he squared off against some of the hardest men ever to lace up the gloves, men like George Foreman, Ernie Terrell and of course, his epic with the greatest, Muhammad Ali, a fight that Sylvester Stallone credits as the inspiration for the movie, ‘Rocky.’
Not long ago, I sat down with him at his home in Bayonne, New Jersey with his wife, Linda. The following is an excerpt of that interview.
JJ: So you’re about to fight Ali.
CW: I’m lying at home one night. The phone rings. I’m watching Kojak. I always watch Kojak at 11. It’s 5 after 11. I pick up the phone. It’s my mother. I say mom, I told you never call me when I’m watching Kojak. She says go up and get the news, you gotta see the back page. I say what is it mom? Tell me. She says the back page says Ali is gonna defend against Wepner.
What happened was Don King was in Cleveland doing a promotional thing with Ali. Don King is from Cleveland and he talked to Ali and Ali agreed to the fight and he [Don King] released it immediately to the press and it was in the papers that night. I got the three papers that were left and the rest was history. Two days later I left for camp and needless to say I was excited because they had got me a place up at the Cooley granite hotel up by New Paltz in Upstate New York up by where Floyd Patterson lived. Two days later we left for camp. I went up with my trainers and sparring partners and I had a nice facility. I had the run of the hotel. You go over the camp. You sleep till eight in the morning. You go to bed at ten. You get a good night’s sleep. You do road work with your sparring partners. My trainer used to drive the car behind me.
JJ: You didn’t chase chickens, did you? Rocky didn’t steal that from you?
CW: I tell you what. He come up with some good stuff. Chasing chickens. The only thing I didn’t like was pounding the meat in the meat locker. You break a sweat and you catch pneumonia. And you know it’s very unhealthy. Hitting meat, stuff splattering….but after I saw the movie made it added a lot of depth to the movie.
JJ: So the Ali fight. What are you thinking before you get in the ring. Were you scared?
CW: No, I was never scared. You know I was nervous about doing well. I knew this was a national TV thing. I heard that they had hooked up, there was going to be fifty to sixty million people watching on closed-circuit TV. And I was a little excited, not apprehensive at all. I was in the greatest shape of my life. I had trained for seven weeks, I mean I was running five miles. I was boxing six, seven, eight rounds a day against good sparring partners and I thought maybe Ali would look past me. You know, say this is an easy one, which he might have done, you know, cause right off the bat from the opening bell on I pressed him. I was aggressive.
JJ: Ali went the first five rounds and the judges gave him three of them.
CW: One judge gave him four of them.
JJ: And that’s why you said you gotta knock this guy out?
CW: Oh, of course. We knew that going in. We knew you weren’t going to get a decision over Muhammad Ali, never. So we pressed him the whole time and we were hoping that maybe in the later rounds he would get tired. And he did. You know I have a picture of him at the end of the fight completely exhausted over in the corner and his corner men around him and unfortunately for the first and only time in my career he hit me with a punch in the fifteenth round, it wasn’t even a solid punch, hit me on the side of the face. From the thirteenth round on I had the shakes from exhaustion and the punch knocked me down. I went against the ropes and I pulled myself up and the referee gave me to seven, eight, and asked me where I was and he stopped the fight.
JJ: Did he let you respond?
CW: No. I was on one knee and he was talking to me and I stood up and he looked at me and waved it off and said my eyes looked very glassy. There was only nineteen seconds left but Tony, Tony Perez [referee], said to me later on, Chuck, I knew there was like nineteen seconds left, I wasn’t going to stop the fight.
JJ: The knockout. You walked back [to your corner] from knocking Ali down. The 9th round, was it? You walked back to your corner and what’d you say?
CW: I said to my manager Al, start the car, we’re going to the bank. We’re millionaires.
JJ: Were you sure you had him at that point?
CW: I thought he went down in between the ropes and all and Al said you better turn around he’s getting up and he looks pissed off. It wasn’t a great punch but I caught him off balance and he almost went into the rope, the bottom rope, and if he would have fell out of the ring we would have won the fight on a fluke. I would have won it. His [Ali’s] eyes were real wide. He was more or less surprised than anything else. He wasn’t hurt. You could hear the punch. I just caught him off balance.
JJ: How did your life change after that fight?
CW: Oh, it changed quite a bit. I fought Ali for the title. I went almost the complete fifteen rounds. I had him down. Then Stallone comes out with a movie. And the movie winds up winning movie of the year, best picture of the year. He was nominated for best actor. Thirty years later people still talk about it. People see the fight on Classic Sports, constantly. Last week two or three people come up to me. Chuck, I finally saw the fight on Classic Sports, great fight, man you got all kinds of heart. You know I never claimed to be a great fighter I just claimed to be a tough guy with a big heart and a great condition which is what Stallone portrayed Rocky as. You could see Rocky was a wild guy.
JJ: Your thoughts about boxing as a sport. At that time boxing was the third most important sport behind baseball and horse racing. Do you feel you gained a lot from the sport? Did it let you down in any way?
CW: No, I feel I gained a lot from the sport of boxing. You know, it made me world famous and I probably would still be working as a security guard now. I don’t see how I would have anywhere near the life that I have now. I owe a great, great deal to boxing. But I also feel that my career in boxing could have gone on five more years after the Ali fight. But I know how to market myself, I’ve always been able to market myself. I go to appearances. I go to dinners. I sign autographs. I do interviews. I’ve done over three hundred maybe four hundred interviews in the last thirty years. I’m a speaker. I tell jokes. I tell stories about the fights.
JJ: You were there. You fought everyone.
CW: I fought four world champs and I fought seven guys in the top ten.
JJ: Who hit the hardest?
CW: Sonny Liston.
JJ: What was it like getting hit by Sonny Liston, on June 29, 1970?
CW: It wasn’t fun. Every time Liston hit you. You know, for six rounds I pressed Sonny. I pressed everybody. That was my style. Al [Wepner’s trainer] wanted me to box.
JJ: That [the fight between Wepner and Liston] was after he lost the second time to Ali?
CW: Right, and Ali came to the fight. It was in the Jersey City armory and I’m downstairs, getting ready to come out and I hear this huge roar and I say Jesus, it can’t be for me, I’m not even out of the dressing room yet. And someone says Muhammad Ali just walked into the arena. He came in, it was a surprise. Nobody expected him and everybody went nuts when they saw him. And anyway, for six rounds it was a close fight but then he [Liston] closed my eyes and after that he was banging me pretty good. Matter of fact the referee comes in towards the end of the ninth round and said, ‘Chuck I’m gonna stop the fight because you can’t see’ and I said to Barney [referee], one more round, let me finish the round , let me finish the fight, I’m alright. And he said well how many fingers do I have up? And my manager had his hands on my back and he tapped me three times. All I could see was blurred. And he [referee] said ok, you can see so I’ll let you come out. But I’m gonna watch you. So I come out and about 30 seconds into the round all I can see was shadows and I threw a hook and a right hand and I wound up hitting the referee on the shoulder. He turned around to avoid it and Jersey Joe Walcott jumped up on the ring apron and stopped the fight.
JJ: Sonny Liston was dead how many months after that fight?
CW: Three months later.
JJ: In what year did your boxing career end?
CW: 1980. I fought a kid named Scott Frank. I held the New Jersey title for 16 years and I lost a 12 round decision to him and that was it. I quit. I was really gonna quit before because I won the fight before that, but they offered me five thousand dollars and I said, you know, in them days, thirty-one years ago, five thousand dollars was a pretty good pay day for me and the only really big one I had ever gotten was Ali and then the fight with Inoki in Japan and Andre the Giant, forty thousand each I got for that. You know you always think you have one more good performance. Fighters don’t want to quit. So I took the fight and the kid was a lot better than I thought. It was a unanimous twelve-round decision. He beat me pretty good. I could have quit. By the ninth round I was tired. I was forty-one years old and I was getting banged around. I lasted the last three rounds. And he beat me and that was it. I had some offers to make a comeback. They offered me some money. Some kids coming up that wanted a name on their record. But I said, no, I’m not gonna fight.
JJ: You talked about cuts…
JJ: Second most…
CW: I had 300 (stitches), Vito Antuofermo had 345, and I said to my manager let’s have one more fight because I want to be number one and he said nah, you aint gonna fight no more.
JJ: And this is where the name the “Bayonne Bleeder” comes from?
CW: No, I got that from a guy named Rosie Rosenberg from the Bayonne Times after the Sonny Liston fight. He was sitting there with this Doctor Farrar who had a white suit on, it was in the summer, it was hot that day and every time Liston hit me the spray of blood would go out ringside. A lot of people at ringside were getting blood on them and Rosie Rosenberg says to Doctor Farrar, man oh man, there’s blood all over the place, this guy’s the Bayonne Bleeder and the name stuck.