Chuck Wepner isn’t a guy most people would take jabs at, but wisecracks reigned supreme at a recent Wepner roast at The Chandelier.
The roast’s participants included members of the New York City’s Friar’s Club, a private comedy club that’s roasted a huge roster of celebrities since its formation in 1904.
“It was a pleasure to be able to come out for such a great cause,” Sean Morton of the Friar’s Club told the Bayonne Community News. Morton was the night’s roast master.
That cause is raising funds for the completion of a towering bronze statue of Wepner in his prime slated for Stephen R. Gregg County Park, atop the steps Wepner ran on during his workouts leading up to his bout with Muhammad Ali.
The steps are enshrined the “Rocky Steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Wepner, 80, was born and raised in Bayonne, and still lives in town. His 1975 heavyweight bout against Ali in Cleveland, many believe, was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone’s iconic “Rocky” series.
Wepner was one of the few boxers worldwide who knocked Ali down, which happened shortly before he lost by a technical knockout in the 15th round.
Wepner’s got a loyal following in Bayonne to this day. His fans hope he will get his very own sculpture at its rightful spot in Bayonne where he got his cardio training prior to the world championship bout.
Since “Rocky’s” debut, Wepner has earned the title “the real Rocky,” as well as the “Bayonne Bleeder.” His opponents include George Foreman, Andre the Giant, and even Victor the Wrestling Bear.
Today, Wepner’s opponent is cancer, but the roast raised his spirits. He said that the support he receives from his friends in Bayonne accounts for his positive outlook.
“They’ve been rallying around me for the 80 years that I’ve been here,” Wepner said. “This community is great.”
Immortalized in bronze
Bruce Dillin, one of Wepner’s best friends, has been at the forefront of fundraisers for the statue to immortalize Wepner’s boxing legacy. He was the chief organizer of the roast.
“We wanted to raise funds by doing an event that people will remember for the rest of their lives,” Dillin said, adding that the roast was a successful as any put on by the likes of Dean Martin.
“I told the mayor [Jimmy Davis] that I thought this was the most memorable Bayonne moment of 2019,” Dillin said. “He told me it was the most memorable Bayonne moment ever. We brought in professionals, who all came together to do everything free of charge for the cause. While it was about raising funds, we also wanted to put on an event that people will always remember.”
The statue was sculpted by Zhen Wu, a prominent painter and sculptor whose workshop is next door to Dillin’s tire shop.
With Dillin’s encouragement, Wu donated his his time and talent, but needed funds for the materials to create the mold and the final piece.
The design is being made into a reusable mold for bronze. It depicts a ’70s- era Wepner in full boxing getup, looking calm, collected, and ready to brawl.
Bayonne-based artist Mike Saviello donated several Chuck Wepner paintings to be sold at the roast, with the proceeds going to the statue.
One of the paintings depicted Liev Schreiber, who played Wepner in the 2018 biopic Chuck. Dillin gave that one to Schreiber when he turned up to the roast, to everyone’s excitement.
Wepner and Zach McGowan recently met. McGowan portrayed Wepner in “The Brawler,” the second of two recent Wepner biopics.
McGowan was in Bayonne for the production of an independent comedy called “Crabs in a Bucket.”