Chuck Wepner and Muhammad Ali in 1975 (Tony Tomsic/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
With the passing of Muhammad Ali on Friday at the age of 74, the world lost one of the greatest athletes and cultural figures of modern times. As just a sidenote to his extraordinary life, he also happened to be the inspiration for one of America’s most hallowed underdog sports movies, which was based in part on one of his bouts.
We’re speaking, of course, about Rocky, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 tale of a little-known South Philly boxer who chugs raw eggs and punches slabs of beef on his way to a battle with brash heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) — a title-holder meant to evoke Ali. Stallone wrote his Academy Award-winning film in three days after watching Ali take on Chuck Wepner on March 24, 1975, in a bout that was supposed to be an easy post-“Rumble in the Jungle” win for the champ, who was a 40-1 favorite. Nonetheless, Wepner — nicknamed “The Bayonne Bleeder” for his ability to take a beating — became, improbably, only the fourth man to knock Ali down in the ring, and he lasted until the 15th round before finally losing in a TKO.
Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers in ‘Rocky’ (Everett)
Watch some highlights from the Ali-Wepner fight:
While Ali said that he only hit the canvas because Wepner stepped on his foot, the 6-foot-5-inch challenger’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with his world-famous adversary became the basis — in spirit, if not detail — for Stallone’s subsequent movie. For awhile, Wepner basked in the fame Rocky brought him and even tried out for a small roll in Rocky II (before discovering he had no knack for acting.) Wepner later sued Stallone in 2003 (they settled out of court), and his own story was recounted in a 2011 ESPN documentary, The Real Rocky.
Watch a clip from the documentary:
Wepner’s life will receive even grander big-screen treatment come this fall, when The Bleeder begins making the festival rounds. Having recently wrapped production, the biopic is headlined by Liev Schreiber as Wepner and co-stars Schreiber’s real-life spouse Naomi Watts as Wepner’s third wife Linda, and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as his first wife Phyllis. Wepner was more than pleased with the casting of Schreiber, remarking to NJ.com, “I was absolutely thrilled. This is a superstar.” The 77-year-old was also interviewed over the weekend about Ali’s death. “I’m crushed by it,“ he told The Jersey Journal. "I thought that he’d come out of this one too, because he was the greatest."
As for Weathers, he told The Hollywood Reporter last December — around the release of Creed, the Rocky’s sequel about his late character’s son — that Ali was always ready to humorously put him in his just-a-pretender place:
"One time in Beverly Hills, I was siting outside a restaurant and Ali was coming down the street and had a group of people around him .. and they look over where I’m sitting and Ali goes ‘Apollo Creed!’” Weathers relates, mimicking the former champ’s booming voice. “Then all of a sudden, there is Muhammad and I standing on the sidewalk throwing punches. It was so bizarre. It was all just in good fun, of course,” he says, laughing.
“Last time I saw him was in New York in a hotel lobby, and it has to be 11:30 at night, and he makes me get up to make sure I know he can still whip me,” Weather says. “And there we were on our toes, bouncing, and it was just so bizarre but such fun.”
Ali also playfully challenged Stallone when, at the 1977 Oscars, he surprised the then-nominee on-stage and let him know who the real Apollo Creed was. (Watch the clip below.) In the process, he proved that no matter Rocky’s greatness, he was indisputably “The Greatest.”