Before Rocky Balboa, there was Chuck Wepner.
While the surprise smash, which would go on to win Best Picture in 1977, wasn’t directly based on a true story, it certainly wasn’t fiction. The character of Rocky Balboa, with his scrappy story, was loosely based on Wepner’s career and legendary fights.
“He asked me to read for the part [of Rocky],” Wepner — whose storied career included blockbuster matches against George Foreman and Sonny Liston — tells PEOPLE exclusively. “He said, ‘You’re my inspiration, I want you in the movie.’ But I’m not an actor.”
After watching the film, Wepner says he knew his life was about to change.
“Everybody in the audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation when the movie was over,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The iconic bouts portrayed in the film served as a source of pride — and identity — for the cocksure pugilist.
“I like fighting and I like what comes from it — the money, the publicity, the recognition,” he once told PEOPLE in a 1975 story. “My friends bring champagne when they come to see me fight, and if I win they climb up into the ring and we drink it together. That’s my lifestyle. I like nice clothes and big cars and I like to live well. And anybody who comes to see me fight doesn’t get gypped. I come to fight, and I give them their money’s worth.”
Now, 41 years later, the full story of the real Wepner is coming to the big screen.
So who is “The real Rocky” Chuck Wepner?
Born in 1939, Wepner learned to fight on the streets of his hometown in Bayonne, New Jersey.
“This was a tough town with a lot of people from the docks and the naval base, and you had to fight to survive,” he told the Hudson Reporter in 2007.
Wepner joined the U.S. Marines, where he learned to put his love for fighting to use by joining the boxing team. His athletic talents served him well, and he became a military champion at one of the airbases.
Following his discharge, Wepner continued to fight in a local amateur boxing league while working as a security guard and nightclub bouncer. He eventually competed in the New York Golden Gloves tournament, where he won the heavyweight championship.
“No one from New Jersey had ever won that title — and no one has won it since,” he tells PEOPLE. “You have to fight every tough guy in the world to win that.”
Wepner turned professional in 1964 and became a popular fighter on the Northeast’s Club Boxing circuit, earning the nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder” for his ability to withstand nonstop punches.
He won a slew of boxing titles, including All American Champion, National Golden Gloves Champion, North American and National American Champion. At one point, he was ranked the No. 8 among world heavyweight boxers.
Throughout his career, Wepner would trade blows with some of boxing’s greatest fighters, including Foreman, who defeated Wepner in a controversial 1969 match that ended in a knockout.
And while Wepner’s most famous fight was against Ali, the boxer says his most difficult one pitted him against champion Liston in 1970. The fight became so brutal that Wepner’s eyes were swollen shut by the 10th round.
“I went 10 rounds with him,” he says. “He was the most dangerous puncher alive and I got busted up. I had 71 stitches, a broken nose and broken cheekbone. It was a war.”
Wepner admits that after that fight, he considered calling it quits.
“I said, ‘You know what, maybe this is the end of the road for me,’ ” he explains. “Six months I laid off, but I just missed the gym. I said, ‘Let me give it one more try.’ ”
“I went on a nine-bat winning streak,” he says.
Showdown with Ali
At the age of 35, Wepner entered the ring with the famed prizefighter.
Chatting with PEOPLE in 1975, Wepner was pumped up about his chances of victory.
“I see myself winning,” he said. “I feel I’m catching a guy going downhill. Ali gets himself tied up in the corners and on the ropes, and anybody who does that against me is going to get beat.”
As in Rocky, the fight went 15 rounds. And while many assumed it would be an easy win for Ali, Wepner proved to be a worthy opponent. In the ninth round, Wepner scored a knockdown, which Ali claimed happened because Wepner had been stepping on his foot.
In the final rounds, Ali took the lead and pummeled Wepner, leaving him with a broken nose and cuts above his eyes. Ali knocked him down with 19 seconds left in the 15th round. The referee counted to seven before calling a technical knockout.
“It’s gone down as one of the classics because I was the first guy to have Ali down,” Wepner says today. “That fight has done a lot for me.”
By the end of his career, Wepner would rack up 31 wins (17 by knockout), 14 losses and two draws, according to the Hudson Reporter.
Punching Through the Big Screen
The film Chuck — which also stars Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan — follows the legendary boxer’s famed career and personal struggles, including a conviction for drug sales and the subsequent prison time he served.
“I wanted this movie to be truthful,” he tells PEOPLE. “I realized there were going to be parts of the movie that might be a little embarrassing for me, but that’s why they make motion pictures.”
Today, Wepner lives a quiet life with his wife Linda — who is played in the film by Schreiber’s ex Watts — in Carlstadt, New Jersey, where he works as a liquor distributor for a wine-and-spirits company.
So is he the real Rocky or the Bayonne Bleeder?
“I like Champ,” he says. “Most people just call me Champ — because I am one.”