On the morning of his fight with Muhammad Ali, 45 years ago today, Chuck Wepner presented his wife with a ‘very sexy’ powder-blue negligee and told her: ‘Wear that to bed tonight, honey. You’re gonna be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world.
Late that night, when her husband arrived back at their hotel having been knocked out in the 15 round, Mrs Wepner was duly perched on the edge of the bed scantily attired as instructed and said: ‘OK, bigshot. Is Ali coming to my room or am I going to his?’ Wepner had to laugh, even though that intensified the pain of 23 stitches to his face.
Not for nothing was he nicknamed The Bayonne Bleeder. That was 97 stitches fewer than he needed at the end of a previous fight against Sonny Liston.
Wepner was smiling, also, because he knew he had found his niche in boxing history towards the end of a run-of-the-mill career which would amount to 36 wins, 14 defeats, two draws and no titles of any consequence.
This was Ali’s first defence of the world championship regained by his historic Rumble in the Jungle victory over George Foreman the preceding October.
The venue on 24 March 1975, could hardly have been more distant or different from the ramshackle stadium in Zaire which had been the scene of probably the most famous fight in the annals of the prize-ring.
The Coliseum erected the year before on farmland outside the village of Richfield, Ohio, stood beside a multiple highway junction on the road to Cleveland. It had been opened by Frank Sinatra and played host to virtually every pop, rock and country superstar until Roger Daltrey brought down the curtain 20 years later.
But to this day it is remembered mostly for the night Don King brought The Greatest to his home state.
The man from Bayonne, New Jersey, feared that his world title chance had gone when Big George fell down and out in Africa, but King delivered the even bigger prize of Ali.
Cleveland business tycoon Carl Lombardo put up most of the money $1.5 million for Ali, $100,000 for Wepner. Not that the challenger complained about the differential.
His previous highest purse had been a mere $10,000 and he recognised the value of his idol, telling his renowned trainer-manager Al Braverman: ‘Ali is the king of boxing.’
The gnarled Braverman replied: ‘And you’re the king of dirty boxing. You’re both royalty.’
Wepner also told all who cared to listen: “I’m not in this for the money, I’m coming for the title.”
Few believed him. Ali was the 1-10 favourite, Wepner such a rank outsider that the champion tried to boost ticket sales by asking him to ‘call me an effing n***** on television’.
Even though King entitled the event Give The White Guy A Break, Wepner refused, saying: “I didn’t see it as a racist fight and I wouldn’t make it a racist fight. Ali said later he respected me for that.
“A crowd of 14,847 drove out to the 20,000-seat arena. They watched Ali toy with the moustachioed Wepner for eight rounds, showboating to such an extent that he lost three or four of them to his challenger’s notorious roughhouse tactics.
Then, in the ninth, the unthinkable happened. The Greatest hit the deck. Referee Tony Perez ruled it a knockdown, although most agreed with Ali that Wepner had stood on his foot and pushed him off balance.
Wepner argued: “Foot or not, I landed a big right-hand shot below his heart and that’s what put him down.’ In that conviction, he turned and shouted to his trainer: ‘Start the car, Al. We’re going to the bank. We’re going to be millionaires.”
To which Braverman replied: “You’d better turn round. He’s getting up and he looks p***** off.’ Which Ali was. From then on he dominated the fight, working Wepner over until he dropped him in the 15 and last round and Perez called a halt with just 19 seconds remaining. ‘I’m still proud of what I accomplished,” said Wepner. ‘I was the only guy to knock him down when he was champion of the world.’
That was the fourth and last time Ali hit the canvas. The three preceding knockdowns were inflicted by the little-known Sonny Banks, Britain’s own Henry Cooper when Ali was still Cassius Clay and the great Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Something else Wepner said to his wife helped open the door to movies and wider fame than his boxing. The night before the fight, he told her: Even if I don’t win, I want to prove that I belong in there.
He proved it to Sylvester Stallone. When the Hollywood star told him his gutsy performance was inspiring him to create the Rocky character, Wepner repeated that quote and it was used in the first of those fight films.
Just four years ago, his own life story hit the big screen in a movie entitled Chuck, released in the UK as The Bleeder, with Naomi Watts wearing the blue negligee.
In the intervening years, Wepner took to working as an alcohol salesman. Now 81 and living in Bayonne with his third wife, he still hands out those business cards with a photograph of the Ali knockdown on the back.
When Ali died four years ago, aged 74, Wepner said: “He was not only The Greatest in the ring but a great man and we became great friends. It was an honour to fight the guy. I thought he’d beat this (Parkinson’s), too. I’m crushed.”
For Wepner, the memory lives on. He chuckles again as he recalls his reply to his wife’s jest about spending that night with Ali: ‘Come here, baby. This is the greatest day of my life.’