On this date in 1975, the Bayonne Bleeder, Chuck Wepner, challenged the great Muhammad Ali for the Heavyweight Championship of the World at the Richfield Coliseum, in Richfield, Ohio. The tough journeyman sported a 30-9-2 record when he faced Ali, making him an unlikely choice for such a big fight.
Wepner had been knocked out by George Foreman in 1969 and by Joe Bugnar and Sonny Liston in 1970 (in Liston’s last fight, six months before he was found dead). But in 1973, Wepner had defeated an over-the-hill Ernie Terrell, which made him at least a fringe contender.
Besides, Ali would end up fighting four times in 1975, and frankly was due for a soft touch after fighting Joe Frazier and George Foreman in back-to-back fights in 1974. However, a soft touch is not exactly what he got in Wepner.
Wepner received a $100,000 payday for the fight, allowing him to train full time for the first time in his career. Wepner was a hard-nosed, tough guy who had started boxing in the Marine Corps and toiled in the professional ranks for 11 years by the time he got his big break against Ali. With the opportunity to focus all his energy on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Wepner prepared like never before, and ended up making himself a minor, but compelling, piece of boxing history.
In Round 9 of his battle with Ali, Wepner dropped the champion. In point of fact, the knockdown came from Wepner stepping on Ali’s foot. But it counted on the cards.
It also made Ali angry and caused him to bear down on Wepner with laser-like attention. For the remainder of the fight, he beat Wepner badly, busting him open around both eyes and breaking his nose. When Wepner went down for a seven count near the end of the 15th and final round, the referee decided he had seen enough and waved off the fight.
But Wepner’s gutsy performance against The Greatest caught the imagination of the American public and made Wepner an instant celebrity. Sylvester Stallone wrote his script for “Rocky” after watching the fight and later settled out of court when Wepner sued him for stealing his life story.
In 1976, Wepner would even take part in a professional wrestling exhibition against Andre the Giant that ended with Andre tossing him over the top ring rope. The episode bore a striking resemblance to the scene in Rocky III where the Italian Stallion battles professional wrestler Thunderlips, portrayed by Hulk Hogan.
After beating Wepner by TKO, Ali would finish 1975 by defeating Ron Lyle and Joe Bugnar, before winning the rubber match “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier on October 1.