In 1975, an unheralded boxer named Chuck Wepner shocked the world when he managed to go nearly 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali. (He only fell short by 19 seconds.) The fight not only made Wepner a temporary celebrity but it also inspired a down-on-his-luck actor to write a script about an aging boxer who just wants to show that he can go the distance. The name of that script was Rocky and it made Sylvester Stallone a star.
As for Chuck Wepner, he initially enjoyed being known as “the Real Rocky,” but he soon learned that fame is often fleeting. After Wepner retired from the ring (but not before one exhibition match against Andre the Giant), he attempted to reinvent himself as an actor but a combination of bad friends, bad decisions, and a bad cocaine habit conspired to derail his life and Wepner eventually ended up serving a 10-year prison sentence. While he was incarcerated, Wepner did get to see a film being shot on location in the prison. The name of the film was Lock-Up and the star was none other than Sylvester Stallone.
With Chuck, Chuck Wepner finally gets the movie that he deserves. Wepner’s fight with Ali occurs early on in the film. The rest of Chuck deals with Wepner’s attempts to deal the aftermath of the biggest night of his life. Wepner may love his fame but secretly, he knows that it’s not going to last. While Stallone makes millions playing the role of Rocky Balboa, Chuck struggles to make ends meet. Even when given a chance to appear in Rocky II, Wepner falls victim to his insecurity and blows the audition. Seeking escape though drugs, the real Rocky ends up in prison, watching the other Rocky shoot his latest movie. Though the film suggests that Chuck finally found some peace with his third wife and a career as a liquor distributor, it’s still hard not to feel that Chuck Wepner deserved more.
Featuring a great lead performance from Liev Schreiber and outstanding supporting work from Naomi Watts, Jim Gaffigan, Michael Rapaport, Ron Perlman, and Morgan Spector (who plays Sylvester Stallone as being well-meaning but often insensitive), Chuck is a heartfelt, warts-and-all portrait of Chuck Wepner. The film sets out to give Wepner the recognition that he deserves and it largely succeeds. Watch it as a double feature with ESPN’s The Real Rocky.