The Brawler is a biopic of boxer Chuck Wepner (adequately played by Zach McGowan). A resident of Bayonne, New Jersey and nicknamed “The Bleeder” because of how much he usually bled in the ring, Wepner was the first boxer to face Muhammad Ali (played by Jerrod Page, who looks and sounds like Ali but who has none of his fabled charisma) after Ali’s famous defeat of George Foreman. No one gave Wepner much of a chance. Ali barely bothered to train for the match and falsely accused Wepner of using racial slurs while talking to him. To everyone’s shock, Wepner not only went 15 rounds with the champ but he even knocked Ali off of his feet. Wepner ultimately lost the fight but he won the hearts of many of the people watching. He also inspired Sylvester Stallone to write and star in a movie called Rocky.
Though he was famous being “the Real Rocky,” Wepner initially didn’t make a dime off of Rocky or any of the sequels that followed. While Stallone became a superstar, Wepner got addicted to cocaine, fought exhibition matches against Andre the Giant and a bear, and finally ended up in prison. After getting out of prison, Wepner returned to his old job of selling liquor and made money signing memorabilia. After he nearly got arrested as a part of a fraudulent autograph scam, Wepner finally took Stallone to court and sued for the money that he felt Stallone owed him. Stallone settled, making Chuck Wepner the only man to go the distance with both Muhammad Ali and Sylvester Stallone.
If the plot of The Brawler sounds familiar, maybe you’ve seen one of the many documentaries that have been made about Chuck Wepner. Or maybe you saw Chuck, a 2016 film about Chuck Wepner that starred Liev Schrieber. The Brawler hits all of the same points as Chuck, so much so that it almost feels like an unofficial remake. (Both films even features a voice-over narration from the actor playing Chuck.) The main difference between the two films is that The Brawler spends a lot more time on Wepner’s time as a drug addict and it also portrays Stallone (played unconvincingly by Anthony Mangano) in a much more negative light. Even though Wepner screws up every opportunity that he’s offered (including a chance to appear in Rocky II), it’s Stallone who is portrayed as being a villain because he didn’t always return Wepner’s calls and Stallone’s assistants were sometimes rude. While Chuck spends all of time whining about how unfair his life is, Stallone comes across as being often clueless but hardly malicious in the way he treated Chuck. It’s not easy to make a Hollywood superstar into a more sympathetic character than the poor underdog who is suing for the money that he’s owed for inspiring one of the most successful franchises of all time but The Brawler manages to pull it off. In Chuck, Wepner is an inspiring underdog who never lets life keep him down. In The Brawler, Wepner is a self-destructive child who lets down everyone who tries to help him. When it comes to Chuck vs The Brawler, it’s Chuck by a clear knock-out.
The most interesting thing about The Brawler is that Burt Young has a cameo as a man watching the Wepner/Ali fight in a bar. You have to wonder how Stallone felt about that. Et tu, Paulie?
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