Chuck Wepner calls the day he lost to Muhammad Ali the greatest of his life
Across 61 fights and 56 wins in his storied boxing career, Muhammad Ali was knocked down four times.
The first came in his 11th career fight, at Madison Square Garden in February 1962. An unknown named Sonny Banks put Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — on his seat. Clay jumped up, returned the favor in the second round, and finished Banks in the fourth.
Sixteen months and eight fights later at Wembley Stadium, Henry Cooper, a left-handed Brit, dropped Clay to the mat with a vicious left hook at the end of the fourth round. Had the bell not saved Clay, an upset may have been in order, but by the middle of the fifth round, Cooper had been badly bloodied and referee Tommy Little stopped the match.
The brash Clay later asserted that he’d been knocked down only because he was distracted by Liz Taylor sitting ringside.
The third, and arguably most infamous, Ali knockdown came eight years later in March 1971. By then, Ali was Ali and, at 31-0, already had won a championship. His belt had been stripped years earlier due to his refusal to serve in Vietnam, but by all accounts he was expected to win it back from an unbeaten Joe Frazier. However, Frazier had other ideas.
In the 15th round, Frazier caught Ali in the jaw, sending him to the canvas for just the third time in his life. Ali subsequently lost by unanimous decision — his first defeat coming in the so-called "Fight of the Century" — but later beat Frazier twice, in 1974 and ’75.
The common thread among all these knockdowns is that they came when Ali was a contender, but only one man put Ali on his back as a champion. His name is Chuck Wepner, and even now, he calls March 24, 1975 the greatest day of his life.
"I was the only guy to knock him down when he was champion of the world," the 77-year-old Wepner told FOX Sports by phone from his Bayonne, N.J., home on Friday. "(Sonny) Liston was the biggest puncher I ever fought, but all around, the most skilled fighter, it was Muhammad Ali by far. It was an honor to fight the guy, and to this day I’m very proud of myself for what I accomplished in that fight."
Though he lost and never became a world champion, Wepner was a respected contender in the ring. Known as the "Bayonne Bleeder," Wepner made his debut in 1964 and went 35-14-2 as a pro. He’d faced a former champ in Liston and went toe to toe with a young George Foreman — Wepner lost both fights — and once beat a former WBA champion in Ernie Terrell.
In September 1974, Wepner beat fellow heavyweight contender Terry Hinke in Salt Lake City, setting up what he figured to be a title rematch with Foreman. But less than two months later, Ali stunned the undefeated Foreman at "The Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire, leaving Wepner without a match — or so he thought.
"When Ali knocks out Foreman, I said to Don King, ‘Do you believe that? I was supposed to fight for the title,’" Wepner recalled. "But Don King said, ‘You’re going to fight for the title. I’m going to make this bout and you’re going to fight Ali.’ And sure enough, three months and a day later, they broke it in the paper. Ali was with Don King in Cleveland, and he’d agreed to the fight."
Though not the No. 1 contender at the time, Wepner was one of the few in the top 10 whom Ali hadn’t already faced. It also worked in Wepner’s favor that he was white — King didn’t want Ali to face another black fighter, and Ali already had beaten Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo — a fact that the famously mouthy Ali attempted to exploit during the lead-up to the fight at Richfield Coliseum, located halfway between Cleveland and Akron.
"He had buttons made up, ‘Give the white guy a break’," Wepner said of the Ali hype machine. "In those days it was usually, ‘Give the black guy a break.’ He was also trying to get me to use the N-word, which I wouldn’t, and years later he said how he respected that, how I wouldn’t go along with making the fight a race fight. I didn’t believe it was, and I wasn’t going to make the fight into that."
Wepner didn’t stand idly by as Ali soaked up the attention. A massive underdog, Wepner still believed Ali could be had.
"He said later on I was the smartest man he ever fought," Wepner said. "I wrote two poems about him — ‘Goodbye Ali, Hello Chuck’ and ‘What’s In A Word.’ That’s why the fight was so watched. Don King, the first fight he had done was with Ali and Foreman in Zaire, and that fell flat, they made no money. So my shot was a do-or-die thing for him, and I have a telegram from Don King that says, ‘You changed my water into wine, you changed my life, and I love you.’
"I wasn’t just there for the money," added Wepner, who received $100,000 for the bout. "I was there to win the fight."
In fact, so confident was Wepner that he made a promise to his wife before he left for the arena.
"That night, before the title bout, I bought my wife a powder blue negligee, and I gave it to her," Wepner said. "I said, ‘Wear this to bed tonight, because tonight you’re going to be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.’ Anyway, after the fight, I come back to the room, I walked in, and she’s sitting on the edge of the bed in the negligee. She says, ‘Am I going to Ali’s room, or is he coming to mine?’"
The fight itself was typical of Ali’s in that era. Ali spent most of the early rounds evading, toying with Wepner and hoping to wear him out until he knocked him out. The strategy didn’t faze Wepner, who had factored that into his own game plan.
"I thought maybe he’d look past me," Wepner said. "He just finished knocking out Foreman, he was in camp for seven or eight weeks. I thought maybe he’d take the fight lightly. I was always in great shape, I was never knocked out or down. The only time in my whole career I was off my feet was with Ali in the 15th round, and I got up from that. I just figured I could wear him down, you know? Maybe take him late into the fight and knock him out late.
"But he was so great that even though I pressured him most of the fight, it didn’t work," Wepner continued. "He was just too good for me, that’s all. Everybody says, ‘Why do you think you lost?’ Well, I lost because I fought a better fighter."
However, for a split second in the ninth round, Wepner emerged as the man to beat.
"I was pressing him as usual, trying to slip jabs, which wasn’t easy because he used to double and triple it," Wepner said. "But my manager (Al Braverman) says to me, ‘Yeah, he throws that jab and it’s getting lazy, Chuck. Look to slip under the jab and hit him with a punch,’ and that’s just what I did. He threw a jab and pulled it back slowly, and I hit him right under the heart with a good right hand, and he went down.
"Everybody says, ‘Oh, you stepped on his foot,’ but let me tell you something, if you’re in a world title fight or any battle and the guy drops you and steps on your foot, the first thing you do after you get up is tell the ref, ‘Hey, ref, he stepped on my foot,’" Wepner continued. "But he never said that. He took the eight count and then he kept fighting, because he knew it was the punch under the heart that knocked him down."
So impressed was Wepner with his own punch that he briefly thought he might win the fight.
"He fell backward and went under the bottom rope," Wepner said. "I went back to the corner and I said, ‘Al, start the car. We’re going to the bank, we’re millionaires,’ but he said to me, ‘Chuck, you better turn around. He’s getting up and he looks pissed off.’ I turned around and he had a shocked look on his face, and (Ali cornerman) Drew Bundini Brown was going nuts — ‘What the hell’s wrong with you? What are you doing? This whitey is kicking your ass, get in there.’ He was screaming the whole fight."
The knockdown, Wepner said, seemed to incite rage in the champ, and by the 13th round, Wepner, who had never gone longer than 12 rounds, was gassed.
"By the 13th round my legs were starting to give out on me a little bit," Wepner said. "I was getting tired in my legs, and I remember after the 14th round, I come back to the corner just before the 15th round, and I said to Al, ‘Take my mouthpiece out.’ I was going to fight the 15th round without a mouthpiece to help me breathe more. And Al says, ‘I’m not doing that, leave your mouthpiece in, and just go out and do the best you can.’ He says, ‘You’ve got just one round to go,’ and that’s what happened."
It appeared Wepner would at least survive the fight, until a late strike from Ali did him in.
"I went out there and he caught me with a punch off my left shoulder and the side of the head," Wepner said of the shot that ended the fight. "It wasn’t a solid punch, but my legs were weak. They were wobbly and I went down, and I remember the ref counting. I pulled myself up on the rope and the ref looked at my eyes, Tony Perez, and he asks if I’m OK. I said yeah, but he waved off the fight with 19 seconds to go.
"Later on I was (angry he called the fight), but at that time I was so damn tired, I didn’t realize what he did," Wepner added. "I more or less stumbled over to the corner and I said, ‘What happened? What happened?’ and Al said, ‘He stopped the fight, Chuck.’ I went to the press conference afterward and they asked me if I was disappointed, and I said, ‘Of course I was, but you know what, I went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali.’ Not too many people did that."
Wepner also knew that had the fight gone to a decision, he didn’t stand a chance.
"One guy had me winning five rounds, another guy had me winning five rounds, and another guy gave me four, but if you watch that fight, the first four rounds of that fight he didn’t do anything," Wepner said. "I pressed the whole fight, and I landed 30-something punches. I don’t think he landed 10. All he did was dance around and show off, but they had him winning the fight.
"I would have had to knock him out to win the fight," Wepner continued. "I knew that, and that’s why we kept pressing him. You’re not going to get a decision against Muhammad Ali, even if you’re in there throwing punches, hitting him the whole 15 rounds. Because if you land 10 and he lands five, they’re going to give him the round. He’s Muhammad Ali. He’s the champion. You’ve got to take it from him, they’re not going to give it to you."
The loss wasn’t for naught, however. As fate would have it, a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone happened to be watching the fight. So moved was Stallone by Wepner’s effort that he wrote a screenplay for a film inspired by Wepner. Less than two years later, "Rocky" was released, and for all intents and purposes, Rocky Balboa was Chuck Wepner.
Now, nearly 40 years after Rocky’s release, a Wepner biopic titled "The Bleeder" is set to be released. The film, starring Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts, will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September, with a theatrical release by the end of the year. With Ali gone, reliving the fight has become bittersweet for Wepner, but for four decades, he says he remained close with Ali, who gave him the highlight of his career with one thundering fall to the mat.
"He’s not only a great fighter, but he’s a great man," Wepner said of Ali. "He’s the most famous man who ever lived, he was a great friend, and I love the guy."
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