March 24, 1975
Having recently taken the heavyweight title back, from George Foreman in the epic Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali was feeling charitable. So for his next title defense, in March 1975, he picked as his opponent a 36-year-old club fighter who moonlighted as a liquor salesman. Chuck Wepner, a 6'5", 225-pound ex-Marine from New Jersey, had a chin of rock, but his face ripped apart like rice paper. Hence his nickname: the Bayonne Bleeder. This was the Great White Hope? "That's the only hope he's got," Ali said.
Wepner was further dismissed as a pretender in SI's prefight cover feature. But in the ninth round he became just the fourth man to knock Ali down, with a right to the chest. "It wasn't that great a punch, but he went under the ropes and almost went out of the ring," Wepner, 59, says. "He wouldn't have made it back in by 10, and I would have been the champ." In the 15th round an exhausted Ali sent an equally spent Wepner to one knee, and referee Tony Perez stopped the fight a mere 19 seconds from the final bell. Said Ali, "There's not another human being in the world that can go 15 rounds like that."
Wepner's courage soon became the stuff of Hollywood. Inspired by Wepner, Sylvester Stallone created Rocky, which would win the Oscar in 1976 and spawn four sequels. Though he served as a consultant on the movie, Wepner thought it would flop. "I took a one-time payment of $70,000 instead of one percent of the gross," he says. "Had I taken the percentage, with all five movies, I would have made millions."
He had nine more fights (plus an exhibition "match" against pro wrestler Andre the Giant at Shea Stadium) before retiring in 1978. Seven years later he was arrested for possession of cocaine. Wepner was given a 10-year sentence in March '88 and served three years in Newark's Northern State Prison before being released. He has been married to his third wife, Linda, since September '94 and does public relations work for a pharmaceutical and a packaging business in addition to giving motivational speeches. "I've been clean now for more than 12 years," says Wepner. "I'm very lucky. I have my health, and though I was never a champ, I'm treated like one."