Chuck

Chuck

Chuck is the story of heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner, known to history for two (related) reasons: One, he fought for the title against Muhammad Ali in 1975, and, two, that fight against Ali inspired a young Sylvester Stallone to make a movie about a Wepner-like character named Rocky.

Chuck covers Wepner’s life from a bit before the Ali fight through several years after—something of a rise and fall story. It tells its story more or less straight, but while it’s not a comedy per se, it has a bit of a light touch, painting the flawed Wepner as something of a lovable loser type.

As a boxer, Wepner was many things, mostly bad or at least dubious. He could absorb a lot of punishment without getting knocked out, he cut easily and often (making him one of multiple boxers to earn the nickname “the Bleeder”), and he routinely bent and broke the rules with his penchant for rabbit punches, kidney punches, and low blows. But it’s not as if he was a joke. He had some skills, and he had some power. As I recall he was ranked as the number nine contender by Ring magazine when he fought Ali. If you’re in the top ten of all the heavyweights in the entire world, then you’re legit. (And if the paunchy Wepner had ever put down his beer long enough to train, presumably he would have been even better—maybe top five?)

Wepner, as portrayed in the movie, was a fun-loving oaf. Chuck is a ’70s period piece, with its disco bars, cocaine, and pre-AIDS era easy sex. Wepner fully partook in all that—practically living at the bars, abusing alcohol and drugs, hanging with strippers and lowlifes, chasing tail nonstop, etc.—which took a predictable toll on his career, marriage, and life.

But, again, Wepner would be even more unknown to the world than he is but for those two main things: the Ali fight and Rocky. So, not surprisingly, they, especially Rocky, are central to Chuck.

I’d say the title fight with Ali is depicted reasonably accurately, as least as movies go. As far as the inaccuracies or imperfections in that depiction, I suppose we can start with the fact that the actor who portrays Ali looks about as much like Ali as Don Knotts.

In real life, the Ali-Wepner bout was a travesty. It was Ali’s first defense of the title since he regained it in his famous upset of George Foreman in Zaire. Though as noted Wepner was a top-ten contender, he was far enough down the list that this was considered something of a throwaway fight for Ali, a chance to pick up a decent purse without having to get in top shape or risk his title and physical well-being against a Frazier or Foreman again. Wepner was a huge underdog.

Wepner’s sole strategy was to fight even dirtier than usual, in the hopes of either injuring Ali sufficiently to make him ineffective, or more likely provoking him into some kind of retaliation that could get him disqualified. I mean, he really took it to an extreme, throwing illegal punches throughout every round, especially rabbit punches to the back of Ali’s head.

Ali and his corner complained repeatedly to referee Tony Perez—at one point Ali grabbed Wepner and theatrically whopped him on the back of his head and neck with some exaggerated rabbit punches of his own to emphasize his point—but Perez turned a blind eye to Wepner’s antics. He warned him occasionally and may have even taken a point away from him at one point as I recall, but it’s about the worst performance I’ve ever seen from a boxing referee. Wepner shouldn’t have made it through one round without being disqualified if he insisted on continuing with his dirty tactics.

Wepner landed little the entire fight beyond his illegal blows. Ali was far from his best, but he dominated what little action there was, popping the awkward Wepner with enough jabs, right leads, and combinations to give him the edge in almost every round.

Wepner’s one big moment was in the ninth round. He landed a solid body shot and Ali went down. The knockdown arguably shouldn’t have been ruled a knockdown, because Wepner’s foot was on Ali’s when the blow landed and that contributed to Ali’s not being able to keep his balance. But I’m not going to fault Perez too much on that one; it happened in a split second and it’s tough for a referee to simultaneously see a blow land and see the precise position of the fighters’ feet.

In any case, legitimate knockdown or not, the incident provided the impetus for Ali to push himself a little more and try to finish Wepner off. Since the scoring was surely too one-sided for a decision to be in doubt, really the only drama of the last several rounds was whether Wepner would survive to the end of the fifteenth round as he absorbed more and more punishment. He almost did too. But with just a few seconds left, Ali flattened the exhausted and beaten Wepner, and as Wepner tried to pull himself up by the ring ropes to get back on his very unsteady feet, Perez waved the fight over, awarding Ali a technical knockout.

The movie does show Wepner throwing illegal punches, and even includes a prefight scene with his manager stating that their strategy would be precisely to fight dirty like that, so good job there, though I would say even that still underplays what an outrageously dirty fight Wepner got away with fighting.

At first I thought the movie took a little dramatic license in overplaying the knockdown as if Wepner came close to winning the fight with that blow, but then it presents the evidence that Wepner stepped on Ali’s foot when he threw that punch, so I’ll say it does a fairly good job there too.

Then there’s the Rocky connection. I’ll leave aside the accuracy of the relevant scenes, since I really don’t know much about the details from Wepner’s real life, though there are elements depicted here that strike me as unlikely.

Stallone is portrayed as a nice fellow who genuinely liked Wepner and even tried to help him out years later. The issue of Wepner not receiving any compensation for Rocky is brought up, but not much is made of it, and Wepner himself is shown mostly not having a problem with it.

Rightly so I would think. Just because you get an idea from something you see in the news or on TV or whatever, I don’t think there’s a legal (or ethical) obligation to pay whomever was connected with the story you saw.

It’s not as if Stallone took the Wepner story, or the story of the Ali-Wepner fight, and just changed the names and a few minor details. Certainly Rocky overlaps with Wepner’s story in multiple respects—white guy fights popular glib superstar black heavyweight champion as a heavy underdog, and gives his all trying to “go the distance,” even knocking down the champion in the process—but there are also many, major differences. Rocky as an individual has a considerably different overall life story than Wepner (one is single; one is married with a kid, to cite one obvious difference); Rocky was way more obscure as a heavyweight than Wepner (he would never have been ranked in the top ten in the world at that point of his career, probably not even top fifty); Rocky succeeded in going the distance, while Wepner did not; and Rocky came within an eyelash of winning a decision, while Wepner was never close on the scorecards.

Rocky was inspired in a loose sense by the Ali-Wepner fight; Rocky is not the Chuck Wepner story.

In Chuck, Wepner has an almost entirely favorable reaction to Rocky, developing a strong emotional attachment to the movie and the character. I found that rather endearing.

There’s a scene almost at the end of the film—you’ve seen it if you’ve seen the trailer—where he is walking along the boardwalk with a date and they happen to come across a statue of Rocky. Chuck excitedly goes to pose next to it for a photo. His date finds this rather excessive—“It’s like he’s your girlfriend or something”—but he insists.

There’s something really sweet and human about that scene, something that reached me, something that made me like Wepner and Chuck noticeably more.

Throughout Chuck my reaction was that this is decent, this is somewhat interesting, but it’s really not doing all that much for me, and I have the sense they’re not getting all they could out of this material.

For example, they bring up the issue of Wepner being positioned to fight Foreman for the title, and then that fight not coming off because in the interim Foreman was upset by Ali, but then they don’t really do anything with it. In reality, that kind of thing happens often in boxing, and typically the way it then plays out is if you were probably going to fight the champion but then the champion gets beat, you become a logical opponent for the new champion and end up fighting him instead, if not immediately then soon, which is exactly what happened in Wepner’s case. So it was a non-issue, and there was no apparent point to its inclusion in the movie.

But that last cute little scene (and the update during the credits of where the real life Wepner is now in life) left me with a warm feeling as I left the theater, and bumped Chuck from borderline leaning thumbs up, to a clear thumbs up though still not anything great.

I’ll mention one final factor in the film’s favor, at least on a personal level. Before Rocky came along, Wepner evidently had a real attachment to the film Requiem for a Heavyweight. He is depicted multiple times quoting from his favorite scenes and such, and there are even clips of the film in Chuck.

Well, Requiem for a Heavyweight and Rocky are two of my all-time favorite movies. I would guess that I have watched Requiem for a Heavyweight all the way through from start to finish more than any other movie in my life (10-15 times, maybe more, not including many other times I’ve watched parts of it), and Rocky would likely be in the top ten. They are among the miniscule number of movies that I’m so familiar with and have such an emotional connection with that it feels like the characters are real people in my life.

So anything that associates itself with those two films has a major head start with me.

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