The Eye of the Lawsuit

Times Staff Writer

"Rocky VI" opened Wednesday in a New Jersey courtroom, pitting the reel Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone, against the real Rocky, Chuck Wepner, in a legal battle.

Wepner, whose performance in a 1975 title match against Muhammad Ali was the inspiration for the "Rocky" movie character, is suing Stallone in state Superior Court for $15 million, claiming the actor has reneged on promises to reward Wepner for his pivotal role.

After 28 years of waiting, the 65-year-old Wepner said, he has had enough.

"Always the promises from Sylvester Stallone," Wepner said, "always the handshakes, always the pats on back, but nothing else. He was making hundreds of millions, but there was nothing for me. Not one red cent. Nothing in any way, shape or form."

"Rocky" was released in 1976, won three Academy Awards, including best picture, and was followed by four sequels,

"Stallone uses the Rocky name and the franchise for all sorts of products," said Wepner's attorney, Anthony Mango, "and he uses Chuck Wepner's name in connection with Rocky without his consent, without compensation."

Mango estimates Rocky movies and products have brought in $1 billion over the last three decades.

Representatives of Stallone declined to comment.

There are strong similarities between Wepner, known as "the Bayonne Bleeder" because of the 300 stitches he required in his career, and Rocky Balboa, whose face was distorted after most of his fictional fights by Hollywood makeup people. Both were club fighters, human punching bags hoping to land the one-in-a-million blow that could bring them fame and fortune. Both were white fighters given their dream match against flashy, garrulous black heavyweight champions who saw them as nothing more than foils for their shtick.

Both lost, Balboa in a close, brutal fight with Apollo Creed, Wepner by TKO in the final round. Wepner, however, got the shining moment of his life when he knocked down Ali in their match in Cleveland. Many, including Ali, called it a slip, but no matter. Wepner had made his mark in heavyweight lore.

There is no question, he had made an impression on Stallone.

On his Web site, Stallone writes: "Through fate or whatever, I ended up at the Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner fight ... It was called a public joke. [Wepner] would barely go three rounds, most of the predictions said. Well, the history books will read that he went 15 rounds.... He can hold his head up high forever, no matter what happens. I am sure that moment meant more to him than any money he could ever receive from fighting.... That night, I went home and I had the beginning of my character. I had him now. I was going to make a creation called Rocky Balboa, a man from the streets, a walking cliche of sorts, the All-American tragedy, a man who didn't have much mentality, but had incredible emotion and patriotism and spirituality and good nature even though nature had not been good to him."

Wepner said Stallone called him after writing the script.

"He said I inspired him," Wepner said. "I was invited to and attended the premiere."

For "Rocky II," Stallone offered Wepner an audition for a part.

"It was for his chief sparring partner, Ching Webber, a play on my name," Wepner said. "He brought me in twice to read for it, but then the part was cut out. There were other possible parts, but I never said I was an actor."

When Stallone filmed "Cop Land" in 1997 near Wepner's New Jersey home, Wepner came to the set.

"He called Robert De Niro over and said, 'Do you know who this is?' " Wepner recalled. "He's patting me on the back, hugging me, kissing me."

There weren't many accolades for Wepner in the ring, before or after Ali. He wound up with a 35-14-2 record and 17 knockouts, finishing in 1978 with a loss to somebody named Scott Frank.

After losing to Sonny Liston in 1970 in Liston's final fight, Wepner needed 120 stitches. Asked if Wepner was the bravest man he had fought, Liston said, "No, his manager is."

"I never told anybody I was a great fighter," Wepner said, "but I gave 100%."

After boxing, Wepner spent 18 months in prison for cocaine possession in the late 1980s.

Today, a father of three grown children with one grandchild, Wepner lives with his wife, Linda, in Bayonne, N.J., where he works as a salesman for a liquor distributorship and a spokesman for a pharmaceutical company.

And he makes money on the side with his Chuck "The Real Rocky" Wepner Web site, which offers an 8x10 autographed photo of him for $89.

"I live large," Wepner said. "This isn't about money. It's about respect. It's about broken promises. It's a shame. I really like and admire Sylvester Stallone, but I just got fed up. After years and years of frustration, after seeing Rocky movie after Rocky movie, I have gotten to the end of the line."

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