Walking around Planet Fitness with Chuck Wepner, you know you’re in the company of a celeb. Lots of folks greet him and some want their pictures taken with him. He is unfailingly friendly and obliging. He’s with his wife, Linda, who is a very young-looking 66-year-old. The gorgeous actress Christina Hendricks, Big Red of Mad Men fame, will reportedly play her in an upcoming movie, according to Linda.
My biggest challenge is not “sparring” with a six-foot-five former heavyweight champ but figuring what hasn’t been said about one of Bayonne’s best-known personalities.
The 75-year-old boxer is a lot more than just a legend and a champion. He embodies the traits that Bayonne holds dear: He’s a proud father, good husband, and gives generously of his time to charitable causes.
Two events made Wepner famous. The first is his 1975 bout with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Wepner knocked Ali down in the ninth round. Ali got up and eventually scored a technical knockout with 19 seconds left in the 15th round. Wepner suffered cuts above both eyes and a broken nose.
The second is Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 blockbuster, Rocky. Wepner confirms that he was Stallone’s inspiration for the movie, relating how the legendary scenes with Stallone running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum are patterned after Wepner’s training ritual, which included running up the steps at County Park in Bayonne.
After Rocky, Wepner was offered some acting roles. “But I’m not an actor,” he says. When he had to read for a part, he says, “I showed up after two days on a bender. I’d been partying for three days. I didn’t want to be an actor.”
But he loves movies and was a fan of The Sopranos. “James Gandolfini was a good friend,” he says. “It’s very sad. He had a problem with his weight. He always did, and after The Sopranos, he put more weight on. Jimmy was a great actor and a great guy.”
Wepner has lived in town for 73 years. His parents split up when he was born. His mother moved to Bayonne from New York City, and they lived with her mother in her basement apartment on 28th Street. When he was 13, they moved to the projects on 49th Street.
He later joined the Marine Corps, married, and had three children. Chuck III is an New York University graduate. Daughter Kim works as an office manager for a plastic surgeon in New York City. Her career goal is to get into television production. Daughter Charlene is also a Bayonne luminary. In 2013, she was inducted into the Marist High School Hall of Fame for her stellar record as its cheerleading coach, leading her teams to a record-breaking number of championships.
At the time of her induction, she told Al Sullivan of the Bayonne Community News that her father was “an incredible inspiration to me. He taught me about … not settling for anything less.”
For her dad, there was no Ali-style “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” boxing technique. “I was a fighter, not a boxer,” Wepner says. “I don’t dance around.” And he’s got the injuries to prove it—328 stitches over his eyes, nine broken noses, broken eardrums, and broken cheekbones.
Wepner doesn’t have a lot of truck with today’s heavyweights, though he does have some good words for local champ Tomasz Adamek, who has been profiled in our sister publication, Jersey City Magazine. “He’s a very good fighter and an excellent heavyweight,” Wepner says.
In Wepner’s heyday, the ring was awash with legendary names, including Joe Frazier, Kenny Norton, and Jerry Quarry. “Ten guys could have been champion of the world,” Wepner says.
After 73 years, Wepner has no eyes for leaving Bayonne. “Everybody knows everybody,” he says. “It’s a great jumping off place to New York City or the Jersey Shore. I have a lot of friends here.” He owns a condo on Third Street, where he is president of the condo association. He’s on no special diet, going out to dinner four or five times a month, and is partial to Café Bello.
His days are filled with charity events and speaking engagements all around the country. “I’ve been able to market myself,” he says. “I like to speak. I do it well. I add a little levity, tell a few stories, people seem to like it.”
Wepner jokes that Linda, his third wife, is his “trophy wife.”
After the shoot, Wepner stays to do his workout. Three days a week he lifts weights, does aerobic exercises, and straddle-hops. “In my top shape, I could bench 300 pounds,” he says, “but I don’t do anything crazy—weightlifting for 35-40 minutes, cool down, and leave in under an hour. I don’t hit the bags anymore. I’m done with that.”—Kate Rounds