The face used to be a map of the careers of some fighters. It showed where they had been, the way they traveled and how much they endured for the sake of a trip that meant little to anyone except themselves or the promoter of the moment who gave them a few hundred to fill out a card, to be a gallant victim. You don't see many of them anymore, but once when most towns had a small club, there were long columns of those faces moving across boxing's landscape. It was a hard, busted-down life, one of dressing rooms with a single light bulb and no shower; of hotel rooms that smelled of disinfectant and offered smeared mirrors that would reveal over and over an awful truth as the finger climbed over new bumps and found its way through ridges of old scar tissue to fresh stitching; of dim side-street bars where loneliness and hurt could be drawn from the body and mind.
Light of a mountain evening softens the face of Chuck Wepner, who has spent almost a decade trying to kick reality in the teeth, the German-Ukrainian-Polish son of Bayonne, N.J. who will enter the ring this week in Cleveland to meet Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world. Wepner, who has a 30-9-2 record, is a wide, long slab of heart and dreams who is one of the last club fighters, the kind who gives you what he has, who turns a ring into a red-wine sea and keeps coming on for more—making you feel either ignoble or full of poesy about man's courage, depending on your sensibilities. By no stretch of even a healthy imagination should Chuck Wepner be up here in this Kerhonkson, N.Y. camp, cruelly whipping his 35-year-old body toward a strange rendezvous with Ali, child of the gods, a near-mythological figure in his own time.
Again, the light comes and goes across Wepner's face. It speaks. It tells of places like Scranton, North Bergen, Walpole, White Plains, Secaucus, none of which are galleries for pugilistic refinements. It tells of purses of $500, $700, maybe a couple of thousand, never enough to free him from the work of a daily job. But most of all the face tells of pain: well over 300 stitches after 41 fights. After his 1970 loss to Sonny Liston, Wepner received 120 stitches, and it took the doctor four hours to put his face back together. He refused any pain-killer. "I don't like the stuff," he says. "Besides, I'm used to the little stings by now." Wepner's wife Phyllis says she cannot bear to see him fight. "I'm there," she says, "but I won't watch the fights. I can tell you what kind of shoes everybody has on in my row because that's where my eyes are while he's fighting."
Contrast the contours, the texture of Wepner's face to Ali's, which is smooth, unmarked, a testament to magic in the ring. To most critics, Ali's face alone (forget his hands) provides indisputable evidence to the outcome of what they consider to be only a footnote in heavyweight history. The jokes are rife. "They should bring Wepner to the fight in an ambulance." "He has enough stitches in his face for a couple of double-knit suits." "After this one's over, he will be an object of art for the National Sewing Club." Ali simply says, "I don't intend to hit him in the face."
March 23, 1975
Such talk brings anxiety attacks to promoters, enrages the good citizens of Bayonne and cuts Wepner like no glove ever did. "So I bleed a little," he says. "What was that stuff all over Rocky Marciano? Water?"
The promoter is Don King of Video Techniques, who came out of Ohio to drop an anvil on boxing's more sophisticated dealers and give us Ali-Foreman in Zaire. "Doc Kearns sacked Shelby, a little town," says one of King's critics, "but this guy wasted a whole country. The guy is brilliant, but he needs a manager." Given to tent evangelism, far too heavy with boring racial rhetoric, an unrivaled producer of money, King seems to enjoy being in the middle of crises. If so, he has all that he can handle now, for the finances of the Ali-Wepner promotion seem ominous.
Ali gets $1.5 million, Wepner $100,000. As a closed-circuit TV companion fight, there was to have been, variously, Foreman against Oscar Bonavena, Ken Norton versus Bonavena, Norton versus Jimmy Young. It finally came down to Jerry Quarry against Norton, with Quarry getting $175,000, Norton $100,000. To the above figures add as much as $700,000 for promotional expenses, which have been considerable because of all the negative early publicity. Nothing could stave off" the bad press, not even Ali saying he was turning philanthropist, saying he was going to give all his money to needy blacks. Calling on charity again, King said recently that 50¢ out of every ticket would be given to UNICEF and Africare. To some, the signs are evident: the promotion is teetering and King might not find much love among the ruins.
"With the two fights, King will have to gross $4 million to break even," says a closed-circuit authority. "That's a lot of seats, live and closed circuit. Oh, he'll get the fight fan, but what about the general public? That's where success lies. I'll give King this. He has tremendous staying power. It's plain what he's trying to do. He wants to keep the continuity, so he can nail the next big one [Foreman or Frazier] with Ali. I'm sure he has promised his backers that one. But with Wepner he may have taken too large a bite out of a salami sandwich. Look, I don't buy this stuff about a mismatch. Wepner has paid, earned his shot. But the promotion is way out of balance. For a fight like this, Ali should be getting only $250,000. There is madness in the air!"
Unswerved, King sends the words out, one after another on a forced march to credibility. Suppose Wepner's face splits like a cantaloupe in the third round, he is asked? "Noooo," says King, "God ain't gonna let that happen. I predict he will make a fight with which the whole nation will be proud. Anything can happen when the moment arrives. People have been known to transcend their earthly stature in the middle of the ring. We could have a miraculous happening!" King goes on to say that Ali is an equal-opportunity employer, and that it is about time a white man got a break. "I am," he says, lowering his voice, "for the heavy-laden and downtrodden."
Chuck Wepner does not qualify as either, thus raising the question as to what or who he is. For the sake of discourse, can he be called a bum, to use the classic term of the ring? His manager, Al Braverman, is an authority on bums, having chaperoned whole armies of them to every corner of the globe; some say it is symbolic that he owns two antique shops next to a cemetery in the Bronx. "Boxing is built on bums," Braverman used to say. "All sports are built on bums. How else you know from good or bad? How else is a good boy going to get on top and get experience unless he fights bums? I tell ya, there's a shortage of bums.
"It's this way. On top, that is, the fighters who work on top, they got a name. Then ya got club fighters, who don't know how to box well but are always in there punching. A crowd pleaser. Then, ya got what is called tomato cans. A tomato can is a tomato can. Just a fighter. Maybe box a little, punch a little, not a dog. Any fighter who doesn't have guts is a dog. A little dog in him, though, don't hurt. It makes him learn some defense, and if ya don't have that ya might as well be in a poker game with Doc Kearns without any cards. Then, ya got what is called a kyoodle. A kyoodle, he is a dog, a hound, a mutt, a pig even. That is a kyoodle."
Queried now as to a category for Chuck Wepner, Braverman says, "For sure, Chuck ain't no bum, could never be one. You can't make a bum out of a Wepner. He's no kyoodle—perish the thought—or tomato can, either. Maybe there's a lot of club in him, but he's much more. He's just pure mean, like Victor McLaglen cleaning out a saloon in an old John Ford movie. The only guy who ever takes him is John Wayne, which is all right because Chuck likes John Wayne. Chuck has an 18½-inch neck of steel, the kind like Arturo Godoy. That neck took Godoy eight rounds against Joe Louis. Remember that! The guy don't care about pain. He gets a cut, he don't look up and ask, 'How is it, Al?' They're all scratches to him. He may not be the smartest guy in the ring, but he listens. When I'm talking in a corner, and a fighter doesn't look in my eyes, I know he's not listening. Then, I pull out a piece of his hair, or pinch him hard on the thigh. Don't have to do that with Wepner. One of the best listeners I ever had."
Braverman says that Wepner is not flash (hardly a revelation), that he has a pokey jab, but "he has a zip gun of a right hand." Wepner does not charge toward his opponent anymore. "He inches in," says Al. The trouble with Wepner, among several others, is delayed acceleration. "We've tried everything to get him going quicker," says Al, "even to having him work four or five rounds in the dressing room before the fight. Tell ya this, he gets past eight or nine rounds, Ali could be in trouble. I think he's taking Chuck way too lightly. And from what I hear, Ali is in the worst shape of his career."
The manager, who met Wepner when he came to Braverman's aid in a Bronx saloon ("There were four of 'em on me"), says that Wepner's day in the ring seemed to be at an end after the Liston fight. Liston had turned Chuck's face into something from the brush of a demented artist. Braverman thought it was time to quit and he made his mind up without the help of Liston's evaluation. Asked if Wepner was the bravest man he had ever seen, Sonny said, "No, his manager is." Remarks don't bother Braverman, even, say, a wry comment by another manager: "I find Braverman socially acceptable as a bass fisherman, but in the ring...." At any rate, Braverman and Wepner, like two grizzled prospectors down from a barren mountain, met to disassemble a career in Wepner's kitchen.
"Chuck, I'm afraid we'll have to pack it in," said Braverman, staring at the soggy bowls of Wheaties left from the children's breakfast.
"Al, I can't," said Chuck, "I love it too much." The manager did not want to look at him, and he thought how strange it was that he and Wepner, who together weigh nearly 500 pounds, were sitting in such a homey room and talking of pain and blood and dreams gone.
"The cuts, Chuck," said Braverman, finally looking at him. "They're reality. You can't go on like this."
"I got to," said Wepner. "Stay with me."
"We'll see," said Al. "Maybe an operation'll help."
An operation was performed in which all of Wepner's old scar tissue was scraped away. It appears to have been successful, for Wepner has not been cut in his last eight fights, all of which he won. "Besides, I've never been knocked down in my life," says Wepner. "I don't know why people have been so unkind. I've worked for this shot. Ali wanted to fight somebody white who was ranked. Well, I'm ranked No. 8, and I'm about as white as you can get. What's he going to do? Fight Jerry Quarry again? Hell, Quarry wasn't even competitive against Ali. In my mind, Ali is the greatest heavyweight that ever lived, but he may be through. He better be ready. And if he leans on those ropes, I'm going to pick him up and throw him out of the ring."
That last comment is not bluster. Wepner fully intends to be as brutal as possible. "It's going to be a gang war," he says. "I don't think a conventional fighter could ever take him. I'm 6'5", 222 pounds, and he's going to know he's been in with all of it." Long a part of his weaponry, the rabbit punch, the gouge and a few other charming habits will be exhibited by Wepner. The atmosphere will be perfect for his style. There is no boxing commission in Richmond Township, outside of Cleveland, and that presumably means that anything short of homicide will be acceptable. It will certainly help Braverman, a cunning man in the corner, who has a firm hold on Wepner's mind.
"We're in the Ernie Terrell fight," says Braverman, "and Chuck's ear starts bleedin' from a rub or something. Just a little thing. He originally got it when Randy Neumann bit him there. So it starts tricklin' some, and Chuck goes in close, and some of it gets on Terrell. Chuck's getting tired, and I scream, 'Look, Chuck, Terrell's bleeding! Take it to him! The bum's bleeding.' Well, he was so shocked at seeing somebody else's blood that he went on to pick up his big-best win since the operation."
What Wepner might do in a ring is not relative to him as a person. He is a decent sort with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Among the people who revere him in Bayonne, he is known for his rawhide toughness, his willingness to "stand up and be counted" when trouble is imminent. In the bars Wepner frequents as a liquor salesman and patron, tales are told over the shots and beer chasers of how he pulled three pilots out of crashed planes when he was a Marine, of how when a friend of his was roughed up by three truck drivers, Wepner was there with lead-lined gloves ready to rumble. "He's not a bully," says a friend, "but don't press him." Their favorite description for Wepner is "ordinary guy," which is the highest rank given among the working class; it is not the word, but how they say it.
So here he sits in his room among these mountains, the light eerily undulating across his battered face, as loose as a big tree limb in a strong wind. Less than 2% of all fighters, he says, make it to the main events, but "here I am going in with a damn legend. You know, most people live dull lives, never get a break, but with one punch I could be a millionaire, and my wife wouldn't have to work on the post office night shift anymore, and my name would mean something for a long, long time." Throughout each day, he says, he is cornered by curious people who want to help him: one man who had found a way to put springs in his shoes; another who said he was a hypnotist, and wanted him to stare at a big, odd medal dangling from his hand; another who said he had a secret potion from the jungles of New Guinea.
"They're all crazy," Wepner says, "and maybe I am, too, to some people. But Ali is in for a hard day's work."
Don King then says, "I am confident that he is confident."
And Al Braverman, suddenly flinching from an indelicate use of the word mismatch, roars, "Mismatch! Mismatch! The whole world's a flaming mismatch!"