The 1976 underdog classic Rocky was first released in theaters 40 years ago this week. And while we’ve been revisiting the many rounds of Italian Stallion lore, we’d be remiss if we forgot one of the key figures in this fight: Chuck Wepner, a real-life boxer who played a role in the movie’s inception. The 2011 documentary The Real Rocky (now on iTunes) is an excellent primer on the fighter and his battle with Rocky’s writer-star Sylvester Stallone.
Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig (who’s also behind this year’s excellent doc Author: The JT LeRoy Story), the film looks at the life and career of Wepner, the Bayonne, New Jersey, boxer Stallone often referenced when talking about the creation of his most iconic character, Rocky Balboa. In 1975, Wepner, a heavy underdog, fought an epic bout with champ Muhammad Ali, lasting 15 rounds before losing on a TKO. Stallone later said that the fight became a loose inspiration for the Rocky screenplay, Stallone’s tale of a working-class Philly brawler who gets a title shot against the charismatic champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
Feuerzeig’s work is an insightful biography of Wepner, a former Marine and bouncer-turned-boxer who gained notoriety (and the nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder”) for his tendency to gush red in the ring. Wepner dutifully narrates his rise to fame and subsequent disappearance back into relative obscurity, when he settled into a career as an alcohol distributor as his fighting days were winding down.
It’s Wepner’s battle against Stallone, however, that looms largest, especially for those of us more interested in Hollywood tales than boxing history. At first, the boxer took great pride in his connection to the Italian Stallion and used it to inflate his celebrity. Revelers at bars on Jersey Shore would chant “Rocky” when he walked in, and he entered fights to the film’s famous theme song.
Stallone invited Wepner to cameo in Rocky II, but the boxer admits he was hungover during filming and bombed the scene, which was ultimately cut. Wepner doesn’t come off as particularly salty about that, but as Stallone and company continued to churn out Rocky movies and the franchise ballooned into a billion-dollar business, Wepner grew increasingly uneasy about the fact he never saw any money from such a lucrative operation.
To make matters worse, the Rocky films seemed to continue to borrow details from Wepner’s life. He fought a much-ballyhooed matchup with Andre the Giant in 1976, six years before Rocky III had Rocky fighting a wrestler played by Hulk Hogan. (Hogan even throws Rocky from the ring, just like Andre did with Wepner in real life.) By the time Feuerzeig pivots to the time Wepner fought an actual bear, you half-expect to hear Rocky did the same.
In 2003, Wepner launched a $15 million right of publicity lawsuit against Stallone, three years before a sixth Rocky film (Rocky Balboa) would be released. What becomes of the Stallone-Wepner legal fight hardly makes for a nail-biting Rocky-esque ending, but The Real Rocky is still a fascinating look at the sometimes murky truth behind artistic inspiration.
Wepner, meanwhile, will get to see his full story played out on the big screen when The Bleeder, starring Liev Schreiber, opens 2017.