If I were a young journalist today I guess I would try to parlay my articles into a prominent place on the Huffington Post or a steady gig on the cable news shows. Back in the 1970s, when I was trying to carve out a living, the goal was turn an article into a book. I tried, came close, but ultimately failed, with Connie Francis, the singer (“Who’s Sorry Now?” — a 1984 New York Times bestseller), and with Ron Luciano, the baseball umpire (“The Umpire Strikes Back,” a 1983 bestseller, and the first of five books Luciano wrote with David Fisher — my replacement).
Oh well. And then there was Chuck Wepner, the boxer known as the Bayonne Bleeder who was a last-minute replacement in a 1975 fight against Muhammad Ali. Wepner, a huge underdog, went nearly 15 rounds against Ali before losing in a technical knockout. He inspired the story for the movie Rocky. And when the Sylvester Stallone movie hit the big screen, I went up to Bayonne to interview Wepner.
Next week, on Tuesday, October 25, ESPN will air a documentary on Wepner’s life. And sometime in 2012, a movie of Wepner’s story will come to theaters. What was I thinking back in the winter of 1977 when I spent a day with Wepner in north Jersey for stories that appeared in New Jersey Monthly and Cleveland magazine? Why didn’t I at least pitch a book idea?
Wepner was a piece of work — from the moment I first reached him on the phone. We agreed to meet in his home turf, where I would follow him through a training session for his next fight, and join him at a a couple of his favorite haunts. I asked him for directions and he answered, in a nasal voice that sounded like Hollywood casting’s version of a 37-year-old fighter who had taken his share of punches to the schnozz.
“Meet me Thursday at 4:30 at Exit 14-A of the Turnpike.”
I’m confused. Is there a rest stop there, or a nearby diner or bar?
“No,” Wepner replies. “Just pay the toll and pull over to the right shoulder. I’ll find you.”
A 29-year-old freelance writer, as I was at the time, doesn’t have much to lose. So I drove my battered Plymouth Cricket up the turnpike, paid the toll at 14-A, and pulled over. Eventually a jade green 1977 Lincoln Continental idled behind me. The vanity license plate confirmed the identity of the driver: CHAMP.
Next thing Wepner was driving me through a complicated maze of Jersey City streets to a gym called Bufano’s Gym and Pool Parlor.
Along the way I asked Wepner how he managed to catch Ali by surprise and give the champ a real fight. He did something, he told me, that he suspected most fighters never did when they met the legendary champion. He challenged Ali: “Gung-ho, black motherfucker,” Wepner claims he told Ali at the formal center-ring handshake before the first round. It wasn’t a racial taunt, Wepner explained. It was just Marine Corps macho, and he expected the same from Ali. But he didn’t get it — Ali was a conscientious objector, after all, never a Marine.
Wepner didn’t make any moral judgment, but he did believe he had caught the champ off guard.
A part-time boxer, fulltime liquor salesman, Wepner was also a consummate story teller, the kind of celebrity a ghostwriter dreams about. He bragged to the fighters at Bufano’s and to me about his womanizing: “The lawyer for one of my wives is a woman and the first time I met her I told her I’d like to make it with her. She said I was even worse than my wife said I was. But she had to admit that at least I was genuine.”
In the pre-publicity for the upcoming ESPN documentary, Wepner has polished up some more stories. He tells Steve Politi of the Star-Ledger about buying his then -wife a negligee right before the Ali fight. “You need to look right when you sleep with the heavyweight champion of the world,” Wepner told her. After the loss, as Wepner tells the story, his wife sat on the edge of the bed in the negligee and asked, “So, am I going to Ali’s room or what?”
After the 1977 workout Wepner changed back into his street clothes in a decrepit locker room — no shower, the pipes were frozen. We visited a few of Wepner’s favorite haunts and stopped by his one-bedroom apartment before he drove me back to my car on the edge of the turnpike.
Notwithstanding the dramatic Ali fight and the Hollywood blockbuster, not much had changed, he insisted. “The people I hang out with now respected me and liked me before the fight and nothing changed after the fight,” he said. “To tell you the truth, I guess my life hasn’t changed that much.”
But it was about to. After years on the party circuit, Wepner was charged with cocaine possession in 1985 and spent almost three years in prison. He left jail drug-free and has also become a faithful husband to his newest wife. Then in 2006 he settled a lawsuit — details not disclosed — with Stallone to give him some compensation for the Rocky movies.
So I probably did leave a book behind me at Exit 14-A. But it might not have been the story I imagined, and it might have been a long time in the writing. Gung-ho, Bayonne Bleeder.