Did you know a boxing match at the Richfield Coliseum in March of 1975 served as inspiration for Rocky?
The match in question was actually Muhammad Ali’s first title defense after reclaiming the heavyweight boxing title from George Foreman for the third time in “The Rumble in the Jungle." when he squared off with “The Bayonne Bleeder” Chuck Wepner at the Richfield Coliseum, March 24th 1975.
There are so many twists and turns to this tale, including the fact that as a 16-year-old busboy at the Holiday Inn in North Randall, I actually had the honor of meeting Mr. Wepner as I cleared his meal plates several times during his training leading up to the fight.
It never occurred to me at the time that I may very well have been taking care of possibly the new heavyweight champion of the world. It just didn’t seem that it was even remotely possible that the man mostly well known for bleeding from cuts above his eyes easily and dirty tricks during fights would have a prayer against the greatest of all time. However, one thing I remember very clearly to this day made me at least think this giant of a man had a puncher’s chance.
Wepner had the largest hands I had ever seen and I thought to myself that I sure as heck wouldn’t want to get hit by them. That, combined with the amount of food the man could put away, made me pretty excited to watch the event on TV when March 24th rolled around. My friends thought I was nuts, but I stuck to my guns and told them they might just see the Coliseum’s first “miracle.”
Here is where the tale gets even more interesting.
While Ali was reclaiming the title from Foreman, only the most ardent of boxing fans would know that Wepner’s fight prior to his shot at the title was against another legend in Sonny Liston, which just so happened to also be Liston’s last fight. Wepner required 120 stitches after this fight and it was constantly a topic for discussion as to how many he would need after fighting Ali.
Cleveland native and promoter Don King was able to secure financial backing for the fight somewhat locally at the Richfield Coliseum, but it being held in the middle of seemingly nowhere failed to generate much enthusiasm from advertisers or from boxing enthusiasts. Little did they know that later in 1975, the Cleveland Cavaliers would become the talk of the NBA as they would embark on their “Miracle of Richfield” season that would put the Coliseum on the map.
It probably didn’t help that Ali did not seem to take the fight too seriously and publicly stated several times that he wasn’t really training all that hard for what he felt would be an easy first defense.
Wepner, however, had other plans, training harder than ever. Despite being ranked eighth to the title, he was considered little more than a rung on the ladder for more accomplished fighters to ascend for their own chances at the title. So confident was Wepner in his training, he told his wife in the hotel room to be ready when he got home because she would be sleeping with the Heavyweight Champion of the World. When Wepner got back after the fight, his wife, ever supportive, simply said, “Should I go to Ali, or is he coming to me?”
The fight went 14 rounds, ending in a KO for Ali, but the brawling Wepner did himself proud and excited the crowd to boot when he did something in the ninth round that had only happened three times previously: he knocked Ali down. Although disputed by Ali, and camera shots do seem to back up the claim that Wepner stepped on Ali’s foot and pushed him down, it was scored officially as a knockdown.
Wepner was very confident in his corner after the round, stating emphatically to get the celebration started, but Ali was seething in his corner and from the tenth round on, Wepner was totally outclassed and outboxed.
Now, two things are known about the fight. One is very well known, and the other is a pretty good bit of trivia to share with your friends.
The first is that none other than Sylvester Stallone, pretty well down on his luck as well at the time, saw the fight, heard Wepner’s story and a little over a year later in 1976 had the movie Rocky on the screen, claiming that he based Rocky on Wepner, and Apollo Creed on Ali.
The second bit of trivia is definitely not as well known. The fight between the two was not the only time they appeared on the same major boxing event card.
On June 26th, 1976, Ali was in Japan to fight a Japanese wrestler by the name of Antonio Inoki. Appearing on the undercard was none other than Chuck Wepner going up against a very well-known wrestler in his own right, the 540-pound Andre the Giant.
I really do miss the Richfield Coliseum (and something tells one Larry Bird might as well). It was a building way ahead of its time for sure, so I hope you enjoyed this trip back in time to one of its more memorable moments as much as we did.
(Image source: NPS collection)