Here comes the Bleeder, rolling into the mall parking lot in a Lincoln MKS that practically drives itself. High-powered engine, buttery leather seats, voice-activated telephone dialing, plus all sorts of goo-gaws and gizmos he couldn't even begin to decipher. Not long ago he got this sucker up to 108 on the Pennsylvania Turnpike before he started to scare the crap out of himself. The Bleeder's 72 years old now, and he ain't the wild man he once was.
"I got a ticket in Pennsylvania one time, and I was so drunk I didn't know my own name," he says. "But the judge did, and he threw my case out."
He hobbles out of the car (license plate: CHAMP), unravels his 6-foot, 5-inch frame, and crosses the parking lot toward a covered tent whose entrance is guarded by one of New Jersey's finest. The Bleeder needs no introduction. The cop says, "How you doin' today, Chuck?" and they make small talk, and the Bleeder engulfs the cop's hand with his own gnarled paws. He ducks into the tent, drapes an arm around a perplexed Panda Express employee, and introduces himself. "Chuck Wepner," he says. "Former heavyweight champion."
He pulls out a stack of business cards, wrapped in a rubber band. He's got hundreds of these things, and over the course of the afternoon, he'll distribute one to nearly everyone inside that tent; halfway through, he'll duck back out to the car to grab some more. On the front: Chuck Wepner, Former NABA Heavyweight Champion, Inspiration for Rocky Movies, Went 15 Rounds With Muhammad Ali for World Championship. On the back: A photo of Wepner in his trunks and his Fu Manchu, crimson stain above his left eye, a referee shouting instructions as Ali kneels up against the ropes.
This is home territory for the Bleeder. The mall is five minutes from his house, and he and Linda — that's his wife, Linda, the busty redhead with the don't-bullshit-me gaze — have already eaten at its steakhouses and trolled its discount store aisles. Today is the official grand opening, and the people who developed Bayonne Crossing — and have gathered together in this tent to celebrate their endeavor — understood that they couldn't baptize anything here without the blessing of the Bayonne Bleeder, the man who stood toe-to-toe with Sonny Liston and came away with 120 stitches, the man Sylvester Stallone watched on closed-circuit television against Ali in 1975 and thought, This would make one hell of a movie.
For decades, these events have formed the contours of Wepner's life: He traded on that knockdown of Ali (which may or may not have been caused by his foot tromping on Ali's shoe rather than by his fists), and on his status as the inspiration for one of the most beloved fictional characters in American cinema. Long before Rocky ran up those stairs in Philadelphia, Wepner huffed up the steps in Bayonne County Park; Stallone filmed training scenes in Wepner's gym, and borrowed certain elements of his life.1 Wepner struck up a friendship with Stallone, auditioned for a role in Rocky II, failed to get it, fought a pro wrestler2 and a wrestling bear, partied like a madman down the shore, hung out with Belushi a couple of times, developed a bit of a cocaine habit, landed in prison on a drug charge, and then got out and went right back to the same job he'd had since the early 1970s: selling booze for a company called Allied Beverage.
Ever since that stint in the pen, he's been mostly happy. He quit the drugs, and toned down the drinking. He got married for the third time, to Linda, a Brooklyn-born spark plug who first met the Bleeder when she was bartending in Staten Island years and years ago (now she sells liquor for Allied, too). Between sales calls, Wepner showed up at ribbon cuttings and Friars Club roasts — he's an honorary member — and dinners for local politicians, greeting just about everyone who rode across the Bayonne Bridge. He told the same stories over and over again until even the lies became true.
Linda doesn't sugarcoat: The first time she went out with Wepner, it was because he'd fought Ali, and she loved Ali. She and Chuck dated casually a couple of times, lost touch for 16 years, and then they crossed paths again, and when they found out they shared the same birthday (though she's nine years younger), Chuck figured it was fate (or at least he used that line). They've been inseparable ever since: eighteen years of marriage. Where Chuck goes, Linda goes. He calls her The Warden for the way she regulates his drinking. And one day a few years back, she finally prevailed on him to take control of his identity. She'd always assumed he'd been compensated by Stallone, and when she found out he hadn't earned a cent, she was indignant, same way she was when she found out a local restaurateur pulled his business from Chuck and gave it to another sales rep. It's about the principle, she says. So she makes sure they don't go to that restaurant anymore.
"I more or less got him to get it together," she says, standing in the kitchen of their two-bedroom apartment overlooking the water, with a scenic view of the shipping containers in Newark. "Why shouldn't he get his? I did it out of principle. He's the real deal, not some actor. Apparently, Stallone forgot where he came from. But all of this wouldn't have erupted if it wasn't for my big mouth."
Linda made her husband contact his lawyer. He filed suit against Stallone, citing a principle known as right to publicity, which is a right that Wepner's never had much trouble exercising in his life. In 2006, Stallone — who had cited Wepner's influence in dozens of interviews — settled for an undisclosed amount (Linda isn't allowed to say the number, but she says it's not as much as I think). By then, Hollywood had latched onto the Bleeder, recognizing that the truth was as improbable as the fiction. Tonight at 8, Jeff Feuerzeig's documentary, The Real Rocky, premieres on ESPN; next year Feuerzeig will direct a feature film starring Liev Schreiber as Chuck and Naomi Watts as his ex-wife and Mad Men's Christina Hendricks as Linda. That last little bit wasn't a sure thing, Linda says, but when Chuck balked about certain elements of the script, the producers knew she was the only one who could get Chuck to say yes. So she tells me she made them write her into the movie, too.
Already they've been to Los Angeles, where Chuck charmed a room full of television critics with stories like that old chestnut about buying his ex-wife a powder-blue negligee the night before the Ali fight and telling her to wear it because she'd soon be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world. And Wepner's ex-wife comes back after the fight with, "Do I go to his room, or does he come to mine?" (It's all BS, Linda tells me: She says Wepner and his ex-wife had stopped sleeping together long before that fight. But that's not the point.)
Last weekend they went to Philadelphia for the premiere of the documentary. This week they're flying to Oklahoma to meet with an Internet start-up that wants to hire Wepner as its spokesman. It's all happening now, and they couldn't be more thrilled. And, of course, the money's a factor — "People say money doesn't matter, but they're full of shit," Wepner tells me — but there really is more to it than just the royalty checks. All those years of jibing with a fictional identity, and now Chuck Wepner can finally be famous for being himself. The truth of his life isn't always pretty, but Wepner starts telling me about this interview he watched with Kelsey Grammer the other night, and how he's liked Grammer in everything he's done and how Grammer was honest about his life and his drug problem and his divorces and how he never ducked a question from that interviewer, that interviewer whose name was
"LINDA!" he calls out across the apartment. "What's his name who interviewed Kelsey Grammer?"
"PIERS MORGAN," she says.
"PIERS MORGAN," he says. "I like him too. Anyway, it's better that people know the truth. I was the real Rocky. I was a womanizer, I ran around, I drank. Women used to throw their underwear at me, and I used to say I never dropped a pair of underwear in my life. Between the women, the good times, the partying, the fights — everything I've done in my life, I think it's very interesting. It's nice to be known, and it's nice to have people know you."
Hi, Cath, it's the crazy man, Chuck. Put me through to POS, honey."
This morning, in his haste to arrive in time to meet with me, Wepner left five boxes of cocktail napkins in the parking lot at his office. He's ringing from the car to check and make sure somebody brought them inside, even though he's already made two other calls, even though the napkins are already safe. He knows everyone in the company, and he's still a valuable employee: He wrote up 35 grand's worth of liquor sales while Linda and I talked in the kitchen. He's not punch-drunk, and he doesn't forget things because he took too many shots to the noggin. He forgets things because he's got too much on his mind, because he meets more people in one day than most people do in a month and legitimately wants to be friends with all of them. The other night he showed up at a private party at the W Hotel in Hoboken and it took him a few rounds before he realized he was in the wrong room.
"My doctor told me I had CRS very bad," he says. "Can't Remember Shit. It's just my job and the lifestyle. I got so many things going on all the time. A lot of people would die to have this kind of publicity, but it just seems like everything's happening all at once. I read stories about famous actors and actresses who wear sunglasses, and I used to think that was bullshit, but I can understand why. People won't leave you alone."
There's a little smidgen of bullshit in that, too, because the Bleeder doesn't want to be left alone. He's a born kibitzer. Inside the tent, he plants kisses on the cheeks of the females and compliments the haberdashery of the males. He asks about their family trees and nationalities; he tells me several times that I look like Gene Wilder, and then starts insisting to everyone else that I look like Gene Wilder. He cops some free food and drains a couple of vodka cocktails, and when these random souls show up outside the tent (apparently alerted by a story about the opening in the local paper) and ask him to sign an old boxing magazine or a photograph of him and his old karate mentor, he obliges with pleasure. He doesn't charge for autographs; several times each year, people send him a copy of that issue of Sports Illustrated with his sweaty mug on the cover, and he drapes it with his John Hancock and mails it right back. There's one in his backseat right now; guy wrote him such a nice letter, how could he resist?
Eight years ago, he showed up at the groundbreaking for this same mall, which was built on a toxic patch of land down by the waterfront. Six years ago, a friend of one of the developers told him they had to hire Wepner for the grand opening, whenever it happened. He's not a hard get, at least for now. When it's his turn, somebody cues the Rocky theme song — he's been making grand entrances to that song for half his life — and the Bleeder gives a spiel about this little peninsula of land where he's lived for 71 of his 72 years.
"A lot of people say, 'Chuck, you're getting pretty famous now, where are you going to move to?' And I always tell them, 'I'm not going anywhere. I'm from Bayonne.' I'm so happy to be here today."
Applause. Wepner grins and grips and yuks it up. A female comedian takes his place on stage and throws out a steady patter of Jersey housewife humor. I keep asking if there's anything about the prospect of achieving a new level of fame that scares Wepner, but I don't think he really understands the concept. He's too busy picking off egg rolls from the Panda Express station and slapping backs with city council members and picking up a free T-shirt from the band playing the tent, known as the Jersey Four. Some people in the parking lot showed up with a laminated copy of the article about him that appeared in the Star-Ledger a few weeks back; now Linda's lugging all that stuff around for him.
On the way out, the band plays "Walk Like a Man" and Wepner glad-hands another cop and asks his name again, and then he gets a call from a reporter who's waiting outside his apartment for an interview he'd forgotten he'd scheduled. He pulls the Lincoln around toward what he thinks is the exit, and we wind up behind a cell-phone store — "Aw for Chrissakes, this is one-way, and I'm only going one way" — and we drive past a therapy center and Wepner starts telling me about his back surgery, that he was awake for it all and had to squeeze down on a towel and it hurt like hell, but it was nothing like the aftermath of the Liston fight. "I was in shock for two days," he says. "They had to ice me down. That's the only time I really felt afraid for my health."
But now everything feels good. The Bleeder's got three kids from his previous marriages, and he's solid with his ex-wives, and he and Linda are thinking about buying a place in Florida where they can retreat for the winter. They're talking about building a statue of him in Bayonne County Park. Everything's happening at once. Who knows where it goes from here on out? All he knows is that he and Linda will do it together. "She's the right one for me," he says. "Linda is the perfect fit."
It feels like a Hollywood ending, but why shouldn't it? Maybe the reason the Bleeder can't act a lick is because he's been living like a movie character for 35 years. It's about time he got to play the role for himself.
Michael Weinreb is a Grantland staff writer and the author, most recently, of Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, the Punky QB and How the '80s Created the Modern Athlete.
Previously from Michael Weinreb:
Who Invented the Seven-Game Series?
The Best Passing Quarterback Ever
The Saturday Agenda
The Quarterback Quandary
Annoying Boise State
The Rise of Indiana Football
Where is Micheal Ray Richardson?
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Not the turtles. Wepner would like to make that clear. Those damn turtles were Stallone's idea.
A storyline Stallone later utilized in Rocky III.