Chuck Wepner examines his rocky past in ESPN's 'The Real Rocky'
He's survived a few beat-downs, but the 72-year-old ex-heavyweight champion is upbeat these days — he's got a lucrative job with a New Jersey liquor company and he's extremely happy with his family life and third wife. But he's equally at ease looking back at a tumultuous past that included a loss to Muhammad Ali (complete with a broken nose), a legal bout with Sylvester Stallone, a hard-partying lifestyle that cost him his first marriage and a drug-related arrest that landed him in prison for almost two years in the late 1980s.
Wepner's past is on full display in “The Real Rocky,” airing Tuesday on ESPN as part of its “30 for 30” documentary series. The title of the film refers to the fact that Wepner, a former New Jersey state heavyweight champion, served as the real-life inspiration for Stallone's Rocky Balboa character, the hard-luck boxer at the center of an Oscar-winning film and numerous sequels in a franchise that producers say has earned more than $1 billion.
Much of the “The Real Rocky” explores the tug of war over the origin of Balboa. Stallone initially touted the influence of Wepner's life when he created the fictional Rocky, then continually downplayed that contribution in subsequent years, eventually denying that Wepner had anything to do with the character. That denial eventually led to a lawsuit by Wepner against Stallone contending that Wepner deserved compensation from the screenwriter-actor.
Stallone is seen frequently in previously filmed footage but did not participate directly in the documentary, which was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig.
Wepner, who was known as a “bleeder” because of his tendency to bleed profusely when hit in the face, said he is excited about the project even though he is depicted at times in a less-than-flattering light.
“It's a little bittersweet, but it has also shown me how fortunate I am to be here,” Wepner said in a phone interview from his home in New Jersey. “If there were rough roads, they were made by me and the mistakes I made. I paid my debt to society.”
One of the highlights of the film is footage of Wepner's 1975 fight with Ali, during which Wepner lasted almost a full 15 rounds with the popular boxer. He also went on to fight wrestler Andre the Giant, as well as a 900-pound bear.
Producer Mike Tollin said, “You see this landscape with all of these fallen heroes, and then there's Chuck, who is famous for being pummeled. And four decades later, he's getting the last laugh. He's in great shape, he's got a great wife, steady job and great support. He's met life head on, and he has no regrets.”
Tollin is developing a feature based on Wepner's life. Liev Schreiber is slated to portray the former champion, with Schreiber's real-life spouse, Naomi Watts, cast as Wepner's first wife.
Said Tollin, “Chuck is a mythological figure.”
— Greg Braxton
Photo: Sylvester Stallone, left, jokes with Chuck Wepner in friendlier days.
Credit: ESPN Films