What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
“Rocky” is essentially a largely lifted and dramatized biography of a club fighter turned contender named Chuck Wepner. Known as “The Bayonne Bleeder,” Wepner was thought to be the prototypical “tomato can” of a fighter, meaning he was a guy set up to get beat up padding the record of a contender looking to get a shot at the champion. Wepner boxed in the U.S. Marine Corps before turning pro in 1964. For the first part of his career, he is what most thought…a professional punching bag. But he earns a reputation for being able withstand the best anybody has to offer. His nickname is a reflection of that; by his own admission, Wepner received over 300 stitches in his face over the course of his 51 professional bouts.
But the second part of Wepner’s career sees “The Bayonne Bleeder” capture the New Jersey state heavyweight title, after which he wins his next eight fights. That streak coupled with his tough showings earlier in his career against luminaries like George Foreman and Sonny Liston earned Wepner a shot at-then heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.
Nobody gave Wepner a chance, but he took Ali through 15 rounds in 1975. Ali was guaranteed $1.5 million and Wepner signed for $100,000. This bout was the first time Wepner had been able to train full-time and with top-flight trainers and managers. It made a difference, because in the ninth round Wepner sent the champ to the canvas. Really, all that did was piss off Ali, who then proceeded to spend the remaining rounds making “The Bayonne Bleeder” live up to his nickname. In today’s parlance, the heavyweight champion opened a restaurant-grade can of “whoop-ass” on Wepner; Ali opened up cuts above both Wepner’s eyes and broke his nose. “The Bayonne Bleeder” was far behind on the scorecards when Ali knocked him down with 19 seconds left in the 15th and final round. The referee counted to seven before calling a technical knockout.
Does that story sound familiar?
In fact, the plot of “Rocky” was so similar to the Wepner saga that “The Bayonne Bleeder” spent years pursuing Sylvester Stallone for compensation. Not only are the real Wepner and the fictional Rocky incredibly alike, but even Stevie Wonder can see Rocky’s nemesis Apollo Creed is just Muhammad Ali in the thinnest of disguises. Wepner’s claim that Stallone had blatantly stolen his life story ultimately didn’t succeed legally, but that doesn’t matter to my comparison.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
This installment actually features two analogies; one is recent and fairly obvious; the other is three-plus decades distant and not immediately evident.
The very reason why this is the first sports movie to be featured in this series has everything to do with my beloved Philadelphia Eagles. On their run to winning Super Bowl LII, they adopted the “underdog” theme as nobody thought they could win after their MVP-caliber quarterback suffered a season-ending injury.
The “underdog” theme is nothing new for the City of Brotherly Love; I mentioned that more that once throughout the Eagles triumphant march to their first Super Bowl title. One major difference between Chuck Wepner and Rocky Balboa is locale. Wepner was from northern New Jersey, but Balboa was a Philadelphian. You have to understand that 1976 represented the “perfect storm” of “underdog-ness” for Philadelphia. Combine a city with a “picked-on little brother” mindset in a country with a stagnated economy coming fresh off the Vietnam war and arguably the greatest movie “underdog” since Fletcher Christian is from their hometown…well, that’s why there’s a statue of Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But, there’s something else about “Rocky” and the film franchise it spawned which has an uncomfortable reality in the non-fictional boxing world. Rocky Balboa might be the greatest movie underdog of all time, Muhammad Ali was undoubtedly the “Greatest of all Time;” but they both suffered the same fate.
Neither of them knew when to hang up the gloves.
I couldn’t tell you how many “Rocky” movies they made. I stopped counting somewhere in the middle of the Reagan administration when every Stallone movie became just another warmed-over attempt to re-create the “Fuck yeah, we win!” moment at the end of Rocky II. It just became too much, and it went on too long.
That was sad, because if you take the first two “Rocky” movies, edit them into one three-hour epic à la “Patton,” you’d have one of the greatest American films ever made. Burn everything else. The problem is the longer the franchise went on, the more they fundamentally changed the “Rocky” character. The whole draw of “Rocky” was the fact he was that aforementioned “underdog.” But “Rocky III” started a fatal progression away from the character being an “underdog” to more of live-action cartoon character in a warped “good vs. evil” screed. Once “Rocky” wasn’t an underdog, he wasn’t “Rocky” anymore.
As for Ali, on September 15, 1978 in New Orleans, Ali exacted his revenge on Leon Spinks for taking the title away from him nine months earlier. Ali bounced Spinks around the ring like a cat with a ball of yarn for fifteen rounds. Ali won back the title by unanimous decision, thus making him the first three-time heavyweight champion in history.
If only Muhammad Ali had taken his three belts and had the “Rocky II” moment, he could have walked away from boxing on a pinnacle no other man will likely ever reach. While Ali was the undisputed “Greatest of all Time,” the fact was the World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight belt now rested around the waist of an old man who really didn’t have much left in the tank. The problem was seemingly solved when Ali announced his retirement from boxing on July 27, 1979.
However, Ali was only writing the book later to be mastered by Brett Favre. His retirement was short-lived; Ali announced his comeback to face Larry Holmes for the WBA belt in an attempt to win the heavyweight championship for an unprecedented fourth time. Realistically, this fight was largely motivated by Ali’s need for money, and everybody knew what this was going to be. Even Holmes didn’t want to take the fight because he knew Ali had nothing left and that it would be a “horror.”
And it was.
The fight took place on October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas. Holmes swept Ali aside as if he were the Polish Cavalry in 1939. People who saw the fight (myself included) described it in terms like:
Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee finally stopped the fight in the eleventh round, which made this the only fight Ali lost by knockout.
Despite pleas to definitively retire after the Holmes fight, Ali fought one last time on December 11, 1981 in Nassau against Trevor Berbick. This was just a goddamn shame. Muhammad Ali was literally helpless in this fight. It was beyond sad or pathetic. Boxing fans had to sit back and watch a virtual nobody pummel the greatest star the sport had ever known.
It may very well be the most ingracious exit we’ve ever seen for a professional athlete.
The Moral of the Story:
In the immoral words of cheese-tastic country music legend Kenny Rogers, not only do you have to know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em; you have to know when to walk away.