Ali vs Wepner (1975): The punch that spawned 'Rocky' 45 years ago
The iconic film, made on a budget of just over $1 million and shot in a mere 28 days, was a sleeper hit; It generated $225 million in global box office receipts was the highest grossing film of 1976 and went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture.
Rocky received many positive reviews and turned a little-known Sylvester Stallone into a major star while its sequels would hatch the careers of Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, Hulk Hogan and Carl Weathers and Michael B. Jordan.
So, how did it all begin?
Ali vs Wepner 1975
Rocky (1976) was inspired by fight legend Muhammad Ali's bout with Chuck Wepner 45 years ago today, March 24, 1975.
Ali, the brash and arrogant champion and a colossal favorite, toyed with the woefully overmatched Wepner for 8 rounds.
And then came the moment....
In Round 9, Wepner stepped on Ali's foot and hit him with a right to the ribs, sending the great champion flat on his back for an official knockdown.
It was that incident - and Wepner's gutsy performance overall - that served as the brainchild for Rocky.
“It was like a bolt of lightning from some Greek god in the sky,” Stallone told GQ in 2018.
Ali, of course, was more embarrassed than anything else. The legend would survive the knockdown and go on to batter Wepner, who had a reputation for being durable, in Rounds 10-14. Ali would also have the last laugh, earning a TKO with just 19 seconds left in the 15th and final stanza.
Angered, perhaps, by the knockdown, Ali refused to allow Wepner to finish on his feet.
“Most people never heard of me,” Chuck Wepner told the New York Post a few years ago. “And those that heard of me thought I didn’t have a prayer.”
Ali vs Wepner stats and facts
- Ali's record was 45-2; Wepner's record was 31-9-2
- The venue was Richfield Coliseum, a good 25 miles south of downtown Cleveland.
- Only 14,847 of a possible 21,000 attended the fight which took place on a Monday night
- Ali vs Wepner was shown on closed circuit TV in 150 locations.
- Muhammad Ali's first bout since lifting the heavyweight title belt five months earlier, upsetting George Foreman in the famous Rumble in the Jungle
- Because Ali vs Wepner was considered so one-sided, it wasn't even the fight of the night in boxing. On the same evening, Ken Norton would knock out Jerry Quarry at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in a bout that was shown at Richfield Coliseum on closed-circuit TV as the last part of the Ali vs Wepner undercard.
Rocky III 1982
It's also believed Wepner played a role inspiring Rocky vs Thunderlips in the third movie of the Rocky series. Thunderlips, of course, was the massive wrestler played by Hulk Hogan who fought Balboa in a freakshow affair for charity.
A year after facing Ali, Wepner participated in a gimmicky boxer vs wrestler match against Andre the Giant. It was the undercard of bizarre fight card headlined by Ali vs Japanese wrestling legend Antonio Inoki in another circus bout that served as the main event.
Was André the Giant vs boxer Chuck Wepner a legitimate match?
Answer: It's highly unlikely. For starters, Wepner would have been at a clear disadvantage because he was forced to wear gloves while André was not. Not being able to land punches with bare-fisted force nor hold or clinch effectively would have severely limited Wepner if such a match was real.
In the end, Wepner lost by countout after Andre threw him out of the ring in Round 3. And in Rocky III, of course, Thunderlips and Rocky threw each other out of the ring.
André the Giant's popularity was peaking at this time so a loss to a non-wrestler or serious injury would have certainly been a big setback so it's not likely the WWF's McMahon would have allowed an all-out fight to take place.
Today, Wepner is 81.
(Does Rocky die in Creed 3?)