‘Rocky’ spark came from one punch thrown 45 years ago today

Upstairs, in the sparkling new arena called Richfield Coliseum, there were scores of empty seats. The place was only five months old but for some reason it was built in an old cornfield on West Streetsboro Road, a good 25 miles south of downtown Cleveland.

It sat 21,000 for boxing. Only 14,847 people paid their way in on that Monday night — March 24, 1975 — forking over as much as $100 a ticket ($482 in 2020 dollars). It didn’t matter that Muhammad Ali would be engaged in the 48th bout of his already storied professional career. He’d won the heavyweight title belt five months earlier after surviving the epic Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in Zaire.

This would be his first defense. And yet, this wasn’t even the most celebrated heavyweight bout of the night; in New York, Ken Norton would knock out Jerry Quarry at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, a bout that was shown at Richfield Coliseum on closed-circuit TV as the last part of the undercard. Yes, it was Ali, and Ali usually sold tickets. It was his opponent that was the issue.

“Most people never heard of me,” Chuck Wepner told me a few years ago. “And those that heard of me thought I didn’t have a prayer.”

Wepner was known as the “Bayonne Bleeder,” possibly the greatest nickname in the history of boxing, if not sports. He was known as a guy who had plenty of heart if a shortage of elite skill. He was 6-foot-5, brought a record of 31-9-2 into the fight as well as a reputation for taking a punch; back in 1970, Sonny Liston had given him such a beating one night at the Jersey City Armory he needed 200 stitches to repair all the damage.

He was a 40-to-1 shot that night. And for eight rounds, that seemed awfully generous. Ali toyed with him, clowning and hamming it up. Mostly, this generated groans from the customers at Richfield Coliseum — and from fans who’d plunked down $10 at closed-circuit theaters around the country.

One such onlooker, watching the fight in a Los Angeles cineplex, would remember many years later to a reporter from GQ magazine: “The guy didn’t even look like a fighter. He was terribly awkward and unskilled, and he looked like a heavy bag with eyeballs. It was really sad.”

Funny thing, though.

Midway through the ninth round, Wepner landed a hard right hand to Ali’s ribs — and the champ went down. Later, Ali would insist Wepner stepped on his foot, but it counted as a knockdown and it electrified the crowd in suburban Cleveland — and back in that theater in Los Angeles, it immediately lit a spark inside the imagination of a broke actor named Sylvester Stallone.

“It was like a bolt of lightning from some Greek god in the sky,” Stallone told GQ in 2018.

Not long after, Stallone would plant himself in front of a stack of paper and spent four straight days emptying his soul onto those pages. The result, of course, was “Rocky” — a movie produced and peopled by long shots every bit as profound as Chuck Wepner was on March 24, 1975 — 45 years ago Tuesday.

The studio wanted a big star to play Rocky Balboa; Stallone insisted he play the part, and took significantly less money to do it. The movie itself was an instant hit and remains on the short list of all-time greatest sports movies, but it was released in 1976, which also happened to be the year of “All the President’s Men,” and “Network,” and “Taxi Driver.”

Yet it was “Rocky” that won Best Picture. It was “Rocky” that spawned an irresistible franchise (and countless) sequels, and vaulted Stallone into superstardom. All these years later “Rocky” is a film that is almost impossible to find fault with, from a perfect score to a perfect hero to a perfect ending.

And really, it is the ending that sets it apart. Jimmy Chitwood doesn’t hit the winning shot, and Roy Hobbs doesn’t hit the game-winning home run, and Mike Eruzione doesn’t score the game-winning goal. Rocky loses to Apollo Creed.

Forty-five years ago, outside Cleveland, Wepner ultimately lost to Ali, finally succumbing 19 seconds before the end of the 15th round. He didn’t go the distance as Balboa did, but he was every bit as irresistible. It turns out he found out about the Ali fight from his mother, who’d broken a cardinal rule in delivering the news: She’d interrupted him while watching “Kojak,” his favorite show.

Wepner would sue Stallone years later for hijacking his story and the men settled up amicably. Liev Schreiber played him in his own movie, “Chuck,” in 2017, a movie that is certainly worth your time as well.

Still, “Rocky” is “Rocky,” and there can be only one of those, and there may never have even been that if Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder, hadn’t stood toe to toe with the Greatest of All Time in the middle of the northeastern Ohio wilderness 45 years ago.

“I think I showed the world a thing or two,” Wepner said in 2014.

The world was paying attention. Inspiration was waiting. “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney one night in a dream. Stallone decided to catch a fight one fateful night, 45 years ago. Amazing what can happen.

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