When Chuck Wepner pushes the OnStar button in his 2003 Cadillac—the pearl-white DeVille with the red toreador top, designer hubcaps and leather seats—the concierge's voice says, "Yes, Champ?" Almost everyone calls him Champ: people in checkout lines, bank tellers, cops. CHAMP is even on the New Jersey license plates, with boxing gloves painted on, that were presented to Wepner by Governor Richard Hughes 26 years ago in a ceremony at the state house in Trenton.
The honorific is only a mild stretch. Wepner once was the heavyweight champion of the NABA (North American Boxing Association), a long-forgotten acronym at the bottom of boxing's alphabet-soup bowl, and held the New Jersey state professional crown for, by his reckoning, 15 years. Never mind that he only boxed professionally for 15 years; Wepner can remember the name of every man he ever fought as well as every stitch he ever took, but dates are sometimes as elusive as Muhammad Ali. He is dead certain, however, that he has been a liquor salesman for Allied Beverage Group for 35 years.
Wepner was working that job in early 1975 when he took a seven-week leave of absence to train for a title bout against Ali. On March 24 in suburban Cleveland, Wepner had the effrontery to knock down the champ in the ninth round with a right hand that landed under his heart. ( Ali's camp claimed that Wepner was standing on the champ's foot at the time.) Wepner lasted into the 15th before Ali was declared the winner by TKO, and his performance inspired a billion-dollar Rocky franchise for a fledgling writer and actor named Sylvester Stallone. Reporters covering the fight were given red wind-breakers, which they were supposed to wear in anticipation of Wepner, a.k.a. the Bayonne Bleeder, spilling some type-0 ringside.
The thing was, Wepner suffered little damage against Ali—"butterflies for a couple of nicks around my eyes, not even sewn stitches," he says—and he looked like a million bucks when he got home and resumed his sales job. He would go into the bar of a client, buy a round for the house and two for himself, then proclaim, "If the fight'd been in a phone booth, I'd be heavyweight champion of the world." Wepner has refined his patter over the years. Now when he climbs out of his Caddy (a traveling man who makes six figures working 30-hour weeks deserves a snazzy ride) and ambles into a joint, he gets right to the point: "I say, 'Listen, you buy or you die.' "
Wepner throws back his head and laughs at his joke. He knows he is blessed, a 64-year-old who was able to leave boxing with his brains and his sense of humor intact. He took an improbable fight against Ali and a colorful nickname, mixed them with street sense and loyalty to his hometown and cobbled together a wonderful life. There was a significant detour—he was convicted of cocaine possession (three ounces) in 1988 and sentenced to 10 years at Northern State Prison in Newark—but when people in Bayonne talk about his record, it is his 35-14-2 mark in the ring in the 1960s and '70s and not the drug rap from the '80s.
Wepner was living large after retiring from boxing, enjoying a bacchanal of parties, blow and women. He was 50 when he went to jail, caught in what he says was a setup by a snitch. When Wepner was released after 18 months—he spent another 20 months in a supervised program performing community service—he received a pardon of sorts, not from the governor but from the people of Bayonne, the working-class city of 61,000 in northern New Jersey where he has lived his entire life. Wepner, who says he has been drug-free for close to 20 years, was O.K. by them. And why not? He had bled in their name.
The nickname was a gift in 1969 from Rosie Rosenberg ("God rest his soul," Wepner says), who was sports editor of the now defunct Bayonne Times. Rosenberg was in the second row on June 29,1970, when Wepner fought Sonny Liston at the Jersey City Armory. It was Liston's last bout, a 10-rounder in which the former world champion turned the ring into an abattoir—Wepner suffered a broken cheekbone and a broken nose and took 72 stitches—and the blood sprayed onto Rosenberg's clothes. That was always the problem. Wepner was a rugged fighter who could take a punch, but he was a walking blood-donor clinic. By his count he took 329 stitches around his eyes. Of his 14 losses he calculates eight were stopped because of cuts.
Wepner thought he would get a shot at heavyweight champ George Foreman until Foreman lost the title to Ali in the rope-a-dope bout in Zaire. Then Wepner was as shocked as anyone when Ali took the fight with him. He learned about it late one night when his mother called while he was watching his favorite TV show. Wepner recalls this conversation:
"Mom, I told you never to interrupt during Kojak?"
"Did you see the newspaper today?"