I’ve never watched a boxing match from beginning to end in my entire life, yet I’m completely drawn to films about the sport. Like baseball, boxing is seeped in tradition and rich with human drama; something filmmakers have been able to tap into with great success. On behalf of ESPN Films, director Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) tackles the story of Chuck Wepner and his historic fight against Muhammad Ali and the influence it had on Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. It’s a true underdog story that’s rich in drama and a perfect opportunity for some great cinematic storytelling.
For those unfamiliar with Chuck Wepner, it’s probably easiest — although maybe a disservice — to simply describe him as the title of this film suggests: the real Rocky. It was his match with Muhammad Ali in 1975 that inspired the Academy Award winning film, jumpstarting a franchise that has since generated over a billion dollars. Like the story of the film, Wepner was picked out of obscurity to fight Ali in an underdog match that resulted in him going fifteen rounds with arguably the greatest boxer who ever lived. Even though Ali won the decision in the end, Wepner’s heart and determination resonated with the crowd and boxing fans around the world. He even knocked Ali down in the ninth round, which would later be disputed by those who thought he unfairly stepped on Ali’s foot. It’s a great underdog story and proof that we simply can’t resist rooting for someone who’s facing unsurmountable odds. It’s interesting considering the fact that Ali was himself a sort of underdog in his historic match against George Foreman, as detailed in the amazing film When We Were Kings. In that case I was rooting FOR Ali. In his match against Wepner, I was quite clearly rooting AGAINST him. I suppose the romance of the underdog story even trumps the charms of Muhammad Ali.
Now 72 years old, Wepner tells his story directly to the camera in extreme close up, giving us opportunity to examine the remnants of every fight he’s ever fought. This stylized presentation is heightened by a black and white sequence set in a classic boxing bar as old school sports writers smoke cigars and reminisce about the days of Wepner’s fight and whether or not his Ali knockdown was legit. There’s also discussion of Wepner’s nickname, “The Bayonne Bleeder”, referencing a match with Sonny Liston that resulted in 120 stitches in his face. All of the roundtable reminiscing plays like a celebration of the sport and the traditions surrounding it. It also captures the feel of a history of boxing on screen, indulging in some of the cinematic tropes that have come to be associated with the sport. The opening sequence of the film sees Wepner on a Rocky-esque run, ending with him jogging up the stairs at the Stephen R. Gregg-Bayonne County Park in New Jersey. This where he actually used to train, and it’s believed by some that the famous scene in Rocky, along with the character himself, was directly inspired by Wepner. Sylvester Stallone would disagree.
While the heart of the film is Wepner’s fight with Ali, there’s another underdog battle brewing. With Rocky having gone on to make billions of dollars worldwide, Chuck Wepner feels he deserves a small piece of the pie in exchange for the use of elements of his life story. Stallone, however, claims that Rocky is NOT Wepner and seems to downplay the actual influence the famous fight with Ali actually had on the creation of the film. It’s strange considering the fact that he admits Apollo Creed was directly influenced by Muhammad Ali and admits to getting the idea for the character while in attendance at the infamous Ali/Wepner match. The film goes on to draw other similarities to Wepner’s story, including an exhibition match against Andre the Giant, which seemed to be directly lifted by Stallone in Rocky III in which the Italian Stallion fights Hulk Hogan. Coincidence? Not likely. Still, the controversy doesn’t affect my love of the franchise, but I do think it would be nice if Wepner didn’t have to result to a lawsuit in order to get the credit (and money) he deserves. I may have been rooting for Rocky in his on-screen match against Apollo Creed, but in the case of Chuck, i’m with Wepner all the way. — Jay C.
The Real Rocky will air October 25th at 9pm ET on ESPN/ESPN HD as a part of ESPN Films. Be sure to check it out!