Chuck Wepner never claimed to be the fastest or strongest boxer. He certainly wasn’t the smartest. But man, the guy sure could take a punch.
Chuck took that ability and turned it into a career. Sure, he wasn’t the heavyweight champion of the world, but champion of New Jersey? You bet. He earned that “CHAMP” vanity plate on his car, and he can walk the streets of Bayonne, N.J., like a celebrity. He doesn’t make enough in the ring to quit his job as a liquor distributor. But he wins more fights than he loses, and he almost always gives the crowd a good show. They don’t call him the “Bayonne Bleeder” for nothing.
On the home front, he’s got a beautiful wife (Phyliss) a great kid (Kimberly). But if he gets bored with his spouse, he can always find plenty of action elsewhere. He’s the eighth-ranked heavyweight in the world, after all. Who’s gonna turn down a drink—or a night—with him?
No one, that’s who. Not even Muhammad Ali.
Chuck was supposed to fight George Foreman in 1975—the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champ. When Ali knocked Foreman out during the Rumble in the Jungle, Chuck figured his title shot was gone. But hold the phone: Ali’s interested in fighting a “white guy,” and Chuck’s the only Caucasian in the division’s Top 10. He still has his shot.
But it’s a long shot. Vegas makes him a 40-1 underdog. The press figures he’ll go down in three rounds.
“I don’t care about getting hurt,” Chuck tells Phyliss. “I just want to show that I belong. Go the distance.”
It won’t be easy: Ali’s now a two-time world champion, backing up his boast as being the greatest of all time. Chuck’s 36 years old and only famous for bleeding. If Chuck comes anywhere close to standing toe-to-toe with the champ, it’d be the stuff of Hollywood.
And guess what? It just might be.
Chuck, the movie, makes the case—and a convincing one—that its title character’s bout with Muhammad Ali was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s genre-defining underdog film Rocky. And for all Chuck’s personal failures outside the ring, the boxer is indeed an inspirational guy in it. He tackles his bout with Ali with humor and humility. He doesn’t run away, but stands and slugs. And as the 15-round battle wears on, fans start chanting Chuck’s name—honoring him for his toughness and courage.
Chuck’s life outside the ring is not so inspirational (as we’ll see). Never exactly a role model, he gets further lost in his newfound success and celebrity—obviously not a good thing. But when Chuck hits his low point, someone dresses him down, reminding the boxer that there are family and friends who love and care for him, people he’s been ignoring. “The only thing they want from you is you,” she says.
That challenge the catalyst he needs (well, that and a prison sentence) to patch things up with the people who really matter in Chuck’s life.
“I’m gonna pray for you, Chuck,” his wife, Phyliss (who’s estranged from him at that point) tells Chuck after a disastrous school meeting with their daughter, Kimberly, at her Catholic school. “I haven’t prayed since grammar school, but I’m gonna pray that you find the strength to be a father to your daughter.”
That’s the only jab at spirituality that truly finds its mark. The others are mostly glancing blows.
Chuck fights a guy known as “The Stormin’ Mormon,” knocking him out. A fan later compliments Chuck for beating “that Mormon a–.” Al Braverman, Chuck’s trainer, mocks Mohammad Ali’s Muslim name. Chuck flirts with a bartender by asking what astrological sign she is. (Hey, it’s the ’70s.) Chuck’s family decorates a Christmas tree.
Chuck does seem to love his wife. We see them smooch on a bed. And when she goes to a boutique to try on lingerie, he comes into the dressing room himself. When she asks him if he likes the negligee she’s wearing, Chuck says he likes it better when she takes it off.
But Chuck’s marriage to Phyliss doesn’t contain his wandering eye—or hands, and his philandering is a point of contention in their marriage. When Phyliss tells him that she caught him ogling some girls, Chuck tells her that he never laid a hand on them. “It’s not your hands I’m worried about,” she says. Later, he flirts with someone else’s girl and then meets her at a diner. Phyliss finds them and sits down. “He does this all the time,” she says. And she’s furious when Chuck mentions during a television interview that he spends his out-of-the-ring time enjoying “wine, women and song.”
Chuck flirts with a couple of female bartenders, who show varying degrees of interest. “I’m so in love with you it hurts,” he tells one. “Let’s get married.”
“Yeah?” she answers. “Let me call your wife.”
Chuck’s philandering reaches its on-screen apex when he parties at a local nightclub (where he’s a regular). We see him dance with several women, clutching their rears and running his hands over their chests. Later, in a stupor, he bench-presses a mostly naked women (we see her breasts) as other topless ladies lounge around and watch. The next morning, Phyliss confronts her hung-over husband, telling him that she smells the women’s scent all over him, and that he needs to clear out. (They eventually get divorced.)
Chuck and his friend, John, cavort with two busty ladies in a hotel swimming pool. Chuck is naked, and we see his bare rear when he plunges in the pool. (He cavorts in his underwear, too.) Chuck kisses other women as well.
Several females wear tight, revealing garb. There are several references to testicles, including those found on a gorilla.
Chuck hates the nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder,” but it often seems appropriate. We see him bleed profusely during one pre-Ali fight, and one cut seems impossible to close. (He and his trainer, Al, conspire to hide the cut from the ring doctor so the fight can continue.) The next morning, Chuck is a mass of cuts and bruises; his daughter asks him if he fought last night, because his “funny” face is a dead giveaway.
Chuck’s no prettier during his bout with Ali. Afterward he says that even early on, Ali was “beating the crap out of me.” Then, when Chuck knocks Ali down—only the third time in Ali’s career that someone managed to do that—Ali comes out angry. (Chuck uses a more obscene descriptor.) By the later rounds, Ali had “closed both eyes [with cuts], broke my nose and was still dancing circles around me.” He was a mass of bloody injuries by then, and his only goal was to stay upright.
When Chuck’s a teen, we see him get into a fight with a few kids who had stolen his basketball. One of his assailants winds up on the ground from a punch, while Chuck gets clocked several times in the face. He smiles, even though his nose is running with blood. Later in his career, Chuck “fights” the professional wrestler Andre the Giant. (We see old footage of Andre throwing the real Wepner out of the ring.) Chuck prepares to wrestle a bear, too: We don’t see the scrum, but the bear does roar threateningly. Al slaps Chuck several times. Chuck slams his head against a car steering wheel, drawing blood.
More than 60 f-words and nearly 25 s-words. God’s name is misused about half a dozen times, once with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused eight times. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—,” “p-ss,” “p–sy” and “pr–k.”
Chuck doesn’t shy away from alcohol. He drinks regularly, often to excess. He sells liquor to bars as his day job. But his life doesn’t swing seriously out of control until a nightclub-owning friend of his introduces him to cocaine.
Chuck’s use of the stuff leads to the sexual escapades (listed above) that eventually cause Phyliss to leave him. He doesn’t stop the habit, though: He snorts it in his new apartment. He, John and a couple of ladies use it the night before he’s supposed to read for a bit part in Rocky II—continuing to consume coke even on the drive to Philadelphia.
In his drug-addled state, Chuck forgets an important parent-teacher conference with Phyliss. John tells him that he doesn’t look so good and suggests he take a “bump” to help straighten him out. Chuck does, and the results are terrible.
By this time, Chuck is apparently a petty drug dealer, too. It catches up with him when he tries to sell drugs to an undercover cop: He’s sent to prison, serving 26 months. As pervasive as drugs are in this film, the movie at least shows the consequences Chuck faces for using and selling them.
(Ironically, the real Chuck Wepner isn’t so circumspect. When asked if he regrets his hard-living days, he told ESPN in 2010, “Not at all. I had a great time.” He did also added, though, “I’m very proud of the fact now that I’ve got about 22 or 23 years clean.”)
Chuck can show a callous disregard for others, shaming his wife, embarrassing his daughter and forgetting how many kids (and what gender, too) his brother has.
Chuck says that Ali called him “whitey” in the ring, along with other words he’d rather not mention.
Boxing movies are almost always are about more than boxing. And while Chuck’s unlikely moral victory against the great Mohammad Ali might’ve inspired the movie Rocky, this flick is really about how Rocky changed Chuck—and not for the better.
Chuck Wepner wars with himself more than his opponents—his better angels fighting his inner demons, the family man in him battling the showman. Sure, even before the Ali bout changed his life, before Rocky, he’d risk the love of his wife in terrible ways. He knew better. But after he went from a minor Bayonne celebrity to a guy desperately trying to lengthen his 15 minutes of fame, he didn’t know better: It seemed like he didn’t know anything at all. He wanted everyone to love him—but in so doing, he pushed away the people who actually did.
That’s what can happen to all of us when our priorities aren’t screwed on straight. We can lose more than a fight: We can lose our way. And as such, Chuck’s cautionary message is a good one.
Chuck’s content, on the other hand, ain’t so hot. The boxer’s unfortunate escapades are inescapable, often aided and abetted by his best friend John (played by Christian comedian Jim Gaffigan). And while we can’t blame the filmmakers for honestly depicting this New Jersey boxing legend’s checkered life, the blow-by-blow account of it will put it outside the ring for many.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.