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LIFE MATTERS: The Real Rocky

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Dr. Dencio Acop

Sylvester Stallone in the movie Rocky has always inspired me even as a boy. Until I learned about the real Rocky just the other day. Many of us have been inspired by Rocky due to its message of never giving up no matter what even against the greatest odds. But there is even more inspiration to be gained from the real person who gave life to the Rocky character. And there is everything that seems wrong when the actor who benefited from the real character never acknowledged and even denied the real one as his inspiration. When he was. The movie inspired a lot of people and won an Oscar in 1976. In a world of defeatism and surrender, a story of an ordinary man suddenly given an opportunity to make it in the world is a theme that cuts across all struggling men and women. It surely did not only for Rocky Balboa but for Sylvester Stallone too. From an unknown actor to an overnight sensation, Stallone made it by writing a movie script after seeing the Ali-Wepner fight in 1975. That script became the movie Rocky. Many of us are familiar with the inspiring storyline. The struggling ‘bum’ fighter Rocky Balboa from Philadelphia who is white is chosen by reigning heavyweight champion Apollo Creed to fight him in a rare ‘land of opportunity’ match-up that could give him the coveted title. Despite training hard and flooring the champ for the first time in his career, Rocky is defeated by Apollo but not before lasting the full distance of the fight. Rocky was chosen by the champ because he was white, an underdog, and was sure to be beaten but will put on a good show. For a bum who was no more because he almost stole the championship from the heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky’s loss was actually a success.

Everything seems in order as far as getting inspired goes. But not until we discover there is even more inspiration to be gained from the real person who inspired the Rocky Balboa character. You see, Rocky was actually copied from real-life heavyweight boxer Charles ‘Chuck’ Wepner, known as the ‘Bayonne Bleeder’ and ‘Bayonne Brawler’ because he was a fighter from Bayonne, New Jersey. Wepner was a tough, determined fighter who did not mind getting hit a lot as he moved forward to his opponent. Thus his moniker. Reportedly, Wepner was never knocked down (except by Ali) in 130 fights. He had a long career boxing in the Marine Corps at age 17, joining the New York Golden Gloves tournament in 1964, before turning professional in August that same year with a third-round knockout over George Cooper. Wepner retired from boxing in 1978 at age 39 with a 36-14-2 (17 knockouts) record. He had fought with future and former champions George Foreman (1969), Sonny Liston, Ernie Terrell (1973), and most popularly ‘the greatest’ Muhammad Ali in 1975 who had just regained his heavyweight title from George Foreman the year before. He even went toe-to-toe with wrestling legend Andre the Giant. Wepner was chosen for the first Ali defense because he just had eight consecutive wins and Ali’s corner wanted a white opponent. Wepner (ranked 8th in the world) and Jerry Quarry were the only two ranked white fighters and Ali had already beaten Quarry twice. Wepner said: ‘I used to train, do my roadwork, go to the gym, work at night and fight the next day’. He fought Ali until he was knocked out just 19 seconds short of the full 15 rounds and floored Ali with a body punch in the 9th. The underdog that he was went the full distance despite getting beaten to a pulp. Then he went back to being a fighter until he retired in 1978 and a liquor salesman for Allied Liquor for 52 years. I don’t know about you but to me, the reality of it all, the man’s genuineness, heart, humility, and greatness are the stuff of inspiration. What real heroes are made of. More than fictional heroes. So much more.

So there is everything that seems wrong when the actor who benefited from the real character never acknowledged and even denied the real one as his inspiration. I find this totally odd and wrong. As a Rocky fan, this is my attempt to help right a wrong, however feebly. It is owed and overdue by all who were inspired by the original Rocky. Stallone owes Chuck Wepner for the original Rocky movie. Instead of a lawsuit. Commercial success in Hollywood is understandable but to choose it over truth and the people we owe is not worth the lie. Wepner said: ‘I got a call from one of the producers who told me that Stallone was writing a movie and I was the inspiration’. Later he also said: ‘After all the publicity of fighting Ali, now it was the publicity from the movie (Rocky). I started making the circuits again.’ In November 2022, the real Rocky was honored with his own statue in his Bayonne, NJ hometown. It seems more fitting than a statue honoring a fictional character in Philadelphia. Wepner who is now 83 was ‘joined by boxing greats Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, and Iran Barkley, along with actor Liev Schreiber, who played Wepner in the movie ‘Chuck’.’ Accepting the honor, the real Rocky said: ‘The reason I’m here is because of all of you guys. I’ll never repay Bayonne. I’m going to ask the mayor; when I go, I’m being cremated — stick me down next to my statue.’ ‘Fittingly, the unveiling of the seven-foot-tall statue was accompanied by the theme from ‘Rocky’. Even if Stallone never threw him some crumbs as someone suggested, it will always seem wrong for a highly praised successful actor to never have acknowledged his true-to-life inspiration. Wepner at least deserved that. So, today I found a new inspiration.

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