The face used to be a map of the careers of some fighters. It showed where they had been, the way they traveled and how much they endured for the sake of a trip that meant little to anyone except themselves or the promoter of the moment who gave them a few hundred to fill out a card, to be a gallant victim. You don't see many of them anymore, but once when most towns had a small club, there were long columns of those faces moving across boxing's landscape. It was a hard, busted-down life, one of dressing rooms with a single light bulb and no shower; of hotel rooms that smelled of disinfectant and offered smeared mirrors that would reveal over and over an awful truth as the finger climbed over new bumps and found its way through ridges of old scar tissue to fresh stitching; of dim side-street bars where loneliness and hurt could be drawn from the body and mind.
Light of a mountain evening softens the face of Chuck Wepner, who has spent almost a decade trying to kick reality in the teeth, the German-Ukrainian-Polish son of Bayonne, N.J. who will enter the ring this week in Cleveland to meet Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world. Wepner, who has a 30-9-2 record, is a wide, long slab of heart and dreams who is one of the last club fighters, the kind who gives you what he has, who turns a ring into a red-wine sea and keeps coming on for more—making you feel either ignoble or full of poesy about man's courage, depending on your sensibilities. By no stretch of even a healthy imagination should Chuck Wepner be up here in this Kerhonkson, N.Y. camp, cruelly whipping his 35-year-old body toward a strange rendezvous with Ali, child of the gods, a near-mythological figure in his own time.
Again, the light comes and goes across Wepner's face. It speaks. It tells of places like Scranton, North Bergen, Walpole, White Plains, Secaucus, none of which are galleries for pugilistic refinements. It tells of purses of $500, $700, maybe a couple of thousand, never enough to free him from the work of a daily job. But most of all the face tells of pain: well over 300 stitches after 41 fights. After his 1970 loss to Sonny Liston, Wepner received 120 stitches, and it took the doctor four hours to put his face back together. He refused any pain-killer. "I don't like the stuff," he says. "Besides, I'm used to the little stings by now." Wepner's wife Phyllis says she cannot bear to see him fight. "I'm there," she says, "but I won't watch the fights. I can tell you what kind of shoes everybody has on in my row because that's where my eyes are while he's fighting."
Contrast the contours, the texture of Wepner's face to Ali's, which is smooth, unmarked, a testament to magic in the ring. To most critics, Ali's face alone (forget his hands) provides indisputable evidence to the outcome of what they consider to be only a footnote in heavyweight history. The jokes are rife. "They should bring Wepner to the fight in an ambulance." "He has enough stitches in his face for a couple of double-knit suits." "After this one's over, he will be an object of art for the National Sewing Club." Ali simply says, "I don't intend to hit him in the face."
Such talk brings anxiety attacks to promoters, enrages the good citizens of Bayonne and cuts Wepner like no glove ever did. "So I bleed a little," he says. "What was that stuff all over Rocky Marciano? Water?"
The promoter is Don King of Video Techniques, who came out of Ohio to drop an anvil on boxing's more sophisticated dealers and give us Ali-Foreman in Zaire. " Doc Kearns sacked Shelby, a little town," says one of King's critics, "but this guy wasted a whole country. The guy is brilliant, but he needs a manager." Given to tent evangelism, far too heavy with boring racial rhetoric, an unrivaled producer of money, King seems to enjoy being in the middle of crises. If so, he has all that he can handle now, for the finances of the Ali-Wepner promotion seem ominous.
Ali gets $1.5 million, Wepner $100,000. As a closed-circuit TV companion fight, there was to have been, variously, Foreman against Oscar Bonavena, Ken Norton versus Bonavena, Norton versus Jimmy Young. It finally came down to Jerry Quarry against Norton, with Quarry getting $175,000, Norton $100,000. To the above figures add as much as $700,000 for promotional expenses, which have been considerable because of all the negative early publicity. Nothing could stave off" the bad press, not even Ali saying he was turning philanthropist, saying he was going to give all his money to needy blacks. Calling on charity again, King said recently that 50� out of every ticket would be given to UNICEF and Africare. To some, the signs are evident: the promotion is teetering and King might not find much love among the ruins.
"With the two fights, King will have to gross $4 million to break even," says a closed-circuit authority. "That's a lot of seats, live and closed circuit. Oh, he'll get the fight fan, but what about the general public? That's where success lies. I'll give King this. He has tremendous staying power. It's plain what he's trying to do. He wants to keep the continuity, so he can nail the next big one [Foreman or Frazier] with Ali. I'm sure he has promised his backers that one. But with Wepner he may have taken too large a bite out of a salami sandwich. Look, I don't buy this stuff about a mismatch. Wepner has paid, earned his shot. But the promotion is way out of balance. For a fight like this, Ali should be getting only $250,000. There is madness in the air!"
Unswerved, King sends the words out, one after another on a forced march to credibility. Suppose Wepner's face splits like a cantaloupe in the third round, he is asked? "Noooo," says King, "God ain't gonna let that happen. I predict he will make a fight with which the whole nation will be proud. Anything can happen when the moment arrives. People have been known to transcend their earthly stature in the middle of the ring. We could have a miraculous happening!" King goes on to say that Ali is an equal-opportunity employer, and that it is about time a white man got a break. "I am," he says, lowering his voice, "for the heavy-laden and downtrodden."
Chuck Wepner does not qualify as either, thus raising the question as to what or who he is. For the sake of discourse, can he be called a bum, to use the classic term of the ring? His manager, Al Braverman, is an authority on bums, having chaperoned whole armies of them to every corner of the globe; some say it is symbolic that he owns two antique shops next to a cemetery in the Bronx. "Boxing is built on bums," Braverman used to say. "All sports are built on bums. How else you know from good or bad? How else is a good boy going to get on top and get experience unless he fights bums? I tell ya, there's a shortage of bums.