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Boxer Chuck Wepner Decked Muhammad Ali

The fighter who inspired Rocky

Chuck Wepner then

The butterfly Muhammad Ali goes down in the ninth round of the heavyweight title bout against challenger Chuck Wepner. In the 15th round, the bee Ali knocks out Wepner to retain his title. — AP Photo

It's called a "puncher's chance." A fighter with powerful fists, no matter how outclassed he might be against a faster boxer with more endurance, can always — with good luck and perfect timing — win by a knockout.

And in the ninth round on the evening of March 24, 1975, Chuck Wepner believed he was about to be crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

This 6-foot-5, 225-pound brawler nicknamed the Bayonne Bleeder had just sent Muhammad Ali stumbling backward to the canvas.

Wepner headed to his corner where Al Braverman, his manager, was waiting. "I said, 'Al, start the car. We're going to the bank. We're millionaires,' and Al said, 'You'd better turn around. Ali's getting up and he's really pissed off,' " Wepner told the AARP Bulletin.

Ali had bounced to his feet even before referee Tony Perez began a standing eight count. Late in the 15th round Ali unleashed a withering fusillade that staggered the exhausted, gelatin-legged challenger, finally battering him into the ropes and to the canvas.

Perez started the count over the dazed and bloodied Wepner, then waved an end to the fight 19 seconds before the final bell.

Sylvester Stallone, a relatively unknown actor, watched the fight on pay-per-view and was inspired to write a screenplay. Rocky, made for about $1.1 million, debuted Dec. 3, 1976. It grossed about $225 million worldwide, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and spawned five sequels.

For years, Stallone referred to Wepner as the catalyst for his films and used his name to promote them. Wepner filed a $15 million federal lawsuit in 2003, alleging that Stallone had misappropriated his name. Three years later they settled out of court, the terms undisclosed.

The fight with Ali at the Richfield Coliseum near Cleveland, and Rocky, made Wepner an enduring celebrity. A film biography starring Liev Schreiber is in the works.

In his free time Wepner, 72, is a public speaker, mostly for charities. He and his younger brother, Don, a retired iron worker, were raised by their mother, Dee, in Bayonne, N.J., after their parents divorced. He still lives there with his third wife, Linda, whom he married in 1994. His three grown children from the previous marriages live in Bayonne as well. He and Linda also have a time share on Paradise Island in the Bahamas.

As a youngster, Chuck, whose father had been an average heavyweight, began boxing at Police Athletic League smokers. At 17 Wepner joined the Marines. He was chief of a crew that pulled pilots from planes that had crash-landed.

Next: Fighting in his spare time. >>

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