When Chuck Wepner pushes the OnStar button in his 2003
Cadillac--the pearl-white DeVille with the red toreador top,
designer hubcaps and leather seats--the concierge's voice says,
"Yes, Champ?" Almost everyone calls him Champ: people in checkout
lines, bank tellers, cops. CHAMP is even on the New Jersey
license plates, with boxing gloves painted on, that were
presented to Wepner by Governor Richard Hughes 26 years ago in a
ceremony at the state house in Trenton. ¬∂ The honorific is only a
mild stretch. Wepner once was the heavyweight champion of the
NABA (North American Boxing Association), a long-forgotten
acronym at the bottom of boxing's alphabet-soup bowl, and held
the New Jersey state professional crown for, by his reckoning, 15
years. Never mind that he only boxed professionally for 15 years;
Wepner can remember the name of every man he ever fought as well
as every stitch he ever took, but dates are sometimes as elusive
as Muhammad Ali. He is dead certain, however, that he has been a
liquor salesman for Allied Beverage Group for 35 years.
Wepner was working that job in early 1975 when he took a
seven-week leave of absence to train for a title bout against
Ali. On March 24 in suburban Cleveland, Wepner had the effrontery
to knock down the champ in the ninth round with a right hand that
landed under his heart. (Ali's camp claimed that Wepner was
standing on the champ's foot at the time.) Wepner lasted into the
15th before Ali was declared the winner by TKO, and his
performance inspired a billion-dollar Rocky franchise for a
fledgling writer and actor named Sylvester Stallone. Reporters
covering the fight were given red windbreakers, which they were
supposed to wear in anticipation of Wepner, a.k.a. the Bayonne
Bleeder, spilling some type-O ringside.
The thing was, Wepner suffered little damage against
Ali--"butterflies for a couple of nicks around my eyes, not even
sewn stitches," he says--and he looked like a million bucks when
he got home and resumed his sales job. He would go into the bar
of a client, buy a round for the house and two for himself, then
proclaim, "If the fight'd been in a phone booth, I'd be
heavyweight champion of the world." Wepner has refined his patter
over the years. Now when he climbs out of his Caddy (a traveling
man who makes six figures working 30-hour weeks deserves a snazzy
ride) and ambles into a joint, he gets right to the point: "I
say, 'Listen, you buy or you die.'"
Wepner throws back his head and laughs at his joke. He knows he
is blessed, a 64-year-old who was able to leave boxing with his
brains and his sense of humor intact. He took an improbable fight
against Ali and a colorful nickname, mixed them with street sense
and loyalty to his hometown and cobbled together a wonderful
life. There was a significant detour--he was convicted of cocaine
possession (three ounces) in 1988 and sentenced to 10 years at
Northern State Prison in Newark--but when people in Bayonne talk
about his record, it is his 35-14-2 mark in the ring in the 1960s
and '70s and not the drug rap from the '80s.
Wepner was living large after retiring from boxing, enjoying a
bacchanal of parties, blow and women. He was 50 when he went to
jail, caught in what he says was a setup by a snitch. When Wepner
was released after 18 months--he spent another 20 months in a
supervised program performing community service--he received a
pardon of sorts, not from the governor but from the people of
Bayonne, the working-class city of 61,000 in northern New Jersey
where he has lived his entire life. Wepner, who says he has been
drug-free for close to 20 years, was O.K. by them. And why not?
He had bled in their name.
The nickname was a gift in 1969 from Rosie Rosenberg ("God rest
his soul," Wepner says), who was sports editor of the now defunct
Bayonne Times. Rosenberg was in the second row on June 29, 1970,
when Wepner fought Sonny Liston at the Jersey City Armory. It was
Liston's last bout, a 10-rounder in which the former world
champion turned the ring into an abattoir--Wepner suffered a
broken cheekbone and a broken nose and took 72 stitches--and the
blood sprayed onto Rosenberg's clothes. That was always the
problem. Wepner was a rugged fighter who could take a punch, but
he was a walking blood-donor clinic. By his count he took 329
stitches around his eyes. Of his 14 losses he calculates eight
were stopped because of cuts.
Wepner thought he would get a shot at heavyweight champ George
Foreman until Foreman lost the title to Ali in the rope-a-dope
bout in Zaire. Then Wepner was as shocked as anyone when Ali took
the fight with him. He learned about it late one night when his
mother called while he was watching his favorite TV show. Wepner
recalls this conversation:
"Mom, I told you never to interrupt during Kojak."
"Did you see the newspaper today?"
"It's in the [New York Daily] News. You're fighting for the
Wepner drove to a nearby movie theater and bought the remaining
copies from a newsboy outside. His picture was on the back page.
The fight changed Wepner, made him something more than a New
Jersey tough guy. There are just a few boxing mementos on display
in Wepner's pin-neat condominium; the most cherished is a framed
photo of a glistening Ali, probably taken in his early 20s, that
the Greatest sent when Chuck married his third wife, Linda, 10
years ago. The inscription: "To Chuck and Linda: Good luck to my
dear friends. Love, Muhammad Ali. After me, there will never be
another. (Get off my foot.)"
Linda is a brassy woman who joined Wepner in the liquor business
and is every bit the salesman he is. Unlike Chuck, she rarely
samples the product, but a few years ago she took two drinks with
dinner. Driving home from the restaurant Chuck started teasing
that he had thrown the Ali fight. "You gotta understand," Wepner
says, "my wife and I, we're both ballbreakers." He kept joking
about taking a dive until Linda snapped. She threw a straight
right, breaking four nails and busting Chuck's upper lip.
"The Bayonne Bleeder," Wepner crows, finishing the story, "bleeds
clinic. By his count he took 329 stitches around his eyes.