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‘The Real Rocky’: Chuck Wepner takes on Sylvester Stallone in new ESPN documentary

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In the world of motion pictures, it’s not hard to find movies or films with inspirational and legendary heroes. And believe it or not, the actual story of what inspired the character can be just as interesting.

In the case of Chuck Wepner, truer words were never spoken.Stallone and Wepner in happier times. Photo: espn.go.com

Wepner is the subject of ’The Real Rocky,’ the new ESPN film directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and Philadelphia native Mike Tollin, which made its debut at the Philadelphia Film Festival Friday.

Wepner, a former boxer once known as the Bayonne Bleeder (Wepner hails from Bayonne, New Jersey) fought through the professional ranks in the 1960’s and 70’s (even fighting Sonny Liston and George Foreman along the way) to land a shot at the heavyweight championship against Muhammad Ali  in 1975. In a valiant fight, Wepner lost to Ali in the 15th round, just 19 seconds before the final bell.


 

Little did anyone know that a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone was watching the fight that night.

Stallone was so inspired by what he saw that he began to write Rocky. And the rest they say, is history.

When Stallone first sold the script to Rocky, he contacted Wepner to tell him all about it. He even offered him a part in Rocky II, but Wepner admits that his audition was not his finest hour.

But despite the obvious parallels between Wepner and The Italian Stallion, Wepner had never seen a dime from Stallone from using Wepner’s story as the inspiration for an estimated billion dollar franchise with a larger than life fanbase. Throughout the years, Stallone has acknowledged in several interviews (some shown in the film) that Wepner (in some form) was the basis for the character of Rocky. Stallone even visited Wepner when he was incarcerated for cocaine distribution and possession in the 1980’s offering encouragement.

But by 2003, Wepner had enough broken promises and lip service from Stallone, so he hired attorney Anthony Mango, who helped Wepner sue Stallone for benefiting from the use of Wepner's name and story.  We don’t want to give too much away, but Stallone, according to the deposition, got quite agitated over the turn of events, at one point accusing Mango and Wepner of “bottom feeding.”Wepner and attorney Anthony Mango. Photo: stallonezone.com

It’s not like Wepner doesn’t have a leg to stand on and he’s trying to make a fast buck. The similarities of Wepner's life and Rocky are just too obvious to ignore, and although Wepner fell from grace when his boxing days ended, he has gone on to make (according to Wepner) a “very good living” as a sales associate for a wine and spirits outlet in North Jersey.

After the film, Wepner himself came to the front of the stage with Feuerzeig and Tollin for a Q&A session. One of the first things he did was introduce his wife Linda, whom he credits for helping him get what he deserved from Stallone. Wepner referenced a conversation the two had in regards to the ordeal.

“‘You know what, Stallone made enough money on you. It’s time for you to get something back,” Wepner recalled her saying.

Wepner also praised the work of Feuerzeig and Tollin for their tireless dedication towards the project, which took seven years to put together.

“I cannot tell you what kind of men they really are. I couldn’t be with better people. They are the real deal,” emphasized Wepner.

Throughout the film, directors Feuerzeig and Tollin did an excellent job of showing the perspectives of Wepner and Stallone. And although Stallone was asked to participate in ‘The Real Rocky,’ there was enough footage in the final cut and he wasn’t even needed, according to Tollin.

In the end Stallone never apologized to Wepner, but the outcome of the lawsuit is enough closure for the now 72-year old former heavyweight, who is the subject of a motion picture tentatively set for a 2012 release.

“I just wanted him to admit I was the real Rocky, and we proved it in court,” Wepner proudly stated.

Spoken like a man who finally got his due.

 

‘The Real Rocky’ was directed by Jeff Feuerzeig and Mike Tollin. It premieres Tuesday night at 8pm on ESPN.

Contact Joe Vallee at jvallee@philly2philly.com

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