Requiem For A Heavyweight – Boxing Great Wepner Battling Cancer
Chuck Wepner is 82-years-old, and he's still fighting.
In the ring, good, bad, or ugly, however the punches were going, Wepner knew how to handle himself. Posting a lifetime record of 35-14 ( eight of his defeats resulted from eye cuts ) -2, Wepner felt safe in the ring. At 6'5", the Bayonne (NJ) native used the one tool that he was gifted, his fists, to get him a payday.
Learning how to fight came from settling scores in the streets of Bayonne. Then, while serving his country as a United States Marine, Wepner progressed in boxing on Uncle Sam's time.
Turning pro in 1964, the New Jersey State heavyweight title would be earned, and ultimately a shot at the heavyweight championship, as the fight would be brokered by a budding, young promoter from Ohio named Don King.
All the pummeling his body took leading up to his fight for the title against Muhammad Ali in March of 1975, this was by choice for Wepner. Along with his devastating punching power, Wepner could take a punch, too.
But, he could bleed. Wow, could Wepner bleed. Throughout his career, with his final pro
bout coming in May 1978, doctors would need 328 stitches to close his wounds.
Toss in nine broken noses and a left eardrum busted beyond repair, and Wepner survived many beatings.
Now, the former champ is in a fight that's looking for a knockdown; to put him out of the game of life permanently.
Speaking last weekend from his native Garden State, Wepner was upbeat, but sounding weak. Although he was never knocked out as a pro, the flurries of punches connecting to his head, and going south down his body, haven't clouded his memory.
Wepner says he has stage III colon cancer.
"I'm done with chemo, " said Wepner during a telephone conversation. " I've had three operations, went through radiation, and now I'm just watching my diet. My doctor has me eating rice, apples, and bananas."
Stomach problems continue for Wepner.
A half dozen doctors over the past three years haven't thrown in the towel on one of boxing's most beloved characters.
Trying to keep a normal schedule is what Wepner tells is part of his appreciating waking up each day. He has the same job, a liquor salesman for the past 52 years. Keeping busy writing up orders for booze allows Wepner to "stick with it;" battling cancer.
Allied Beverage Group is who Wepner remains loyal to, in keeping good cheer flowing in taverns in his sales territory. His third wife Linda is also employed by Allied, ringing up sales for beer, wine, and distilled spirits.
"They (Allied) are the biggest in the state. Linda's been at it for 28 years. She's one of the superstars for the company ( $3 million-plus in sales ).
Keeping as normal a schedule as he has been accustomed to for as far back as Wepner could remember is now more important than ever. Trips to the gym are part of the champ's routine. This is where he feels comfortable.
Down 40 pounds from his fighting weight, Wepner boasts of regularly bench pressing 260 lb while in the ring. Today, he can do no more than 100 pounds.
The voice is weak, but not gone. Wepner is upbeat but realistic about his future.
Wepner attributes his current cancer diagnosis, in part, to not following up on being screened. When his doctor died, Wepner admits to allowing seven years to pass before getting checked out.
The colorful life that he has lived seems to be an elixir for Wepner's survival. He loves telling stories, offering precise details, of who he's met, and how he conquered them.
There's the two-times Wepner went into the ring facing Victor the Wrestling Bear. Yep, a 450 lb. bear. Following the Ali fight, in which he was reportedly paid $100,000, Wepner stepped into a ring set up at Shea Stadium squaring off against professional wrestler Andre the Giant.
Watch the Wepner fight from Utica College broadcast live on ABC featuring an open by Howard Cosell and ring announcer Hank Brown
In June of 1976, as the semi-main event on a night that Ali was also taking on a professional wrestler (Antonio Inoki) in Japan, Wepner gave the fans a good show, before finally getting thrown over the top rope, and onto the stadium's infield.
"We worked out a couple of times before our match," Wepner tells of his encounter with Andre. " I promised not to hit him in his face (ha, ha). Andre promised not to throw me too far."
The fight with Ali is what Wepner talks best about.
Wepner, most thought, would be an easy mark for the world champion. At the very least, King, the media, and pundits figured Wepner would live up to his billing as the "Bayonne Bleeder", and count himself out of the scheduled 15 round fight.
The bout went 19 seconds short of 15 full rounds, before being stopped, as a result of a technical knockout to Wepner.
Wepner's life, and opportunity to fight for the world title inspired actor Sylvester Stallone's creating his Rocky character.
In 2017 Wepner's life story was released in the film - Chuck. Actor Liev Schreiber portrayed Wepner, and actress Naomi Watts does a marvelous job is playing Linda Wepner.
"The movie took five years to make. " (Schreiber) did a great job. I made the right pick," Wepner explains. " I took the upfront money, as usual, which I shouldn't have. The film is still playing. You can get it on Netflix."
Bleeding around his eyes and nose used to be Wepner's work hazard. Today, with much of his stomach "cut out" after undergoing several surgeries, Wepner looks forward for what tomorrow could bring.
He's a fighter. Always has been, always will be. Wepner isn't someone to bet against or especially now, to root against - even when his opponent is cancer.
Chuck Wepner is best at going the distance.
Don Laible is a freelance sportswriter living in the Mohawk Valley. He has reported on professional baseball and hockey for print, radio, and on the web since the 1980's. His columns are featured weekly at WIBX950.com. Don can be contacted via email at Don@icechipsdiamonddust.com.
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