Directed by Jeff Feuerzeig
One of the most unattractive personality traits in my opinion is selfishness, and somehow this film sets out to simply get under my skin because of it, and not because director Jeff Feuerzeig sets out to do so, but because that is how the story of the life of Chuck Wepner, who it is claimed is the “real Rocky”, plays out. The film Rocky is without a doubt a cultural phenomenon, perhaps not as big as other things, but a franchise with six installments and an Oscar for Best Picture for the original make it one of the most successful and popular franchises of the last 40 years. So I guess the question here becomes what was Sylvester Stallone’s inspiration for this great character, and where does/should Chuck Wepner fit in?
Wepner was an underdog heavyweight fighter his entire career. After winning the Golden Gloves in New York (Wepner is from New Jersey), Wepner started his professional career and was a decent heavyweight. At one time he rose into the top 10 in the world rankings and he was given a title shot against Muhammad Ali, knocking him down en route to an impressive, 15 round loss against the Greatest of All Time. There is little debate about the fact that Apollo Creed was modeled after Ali, and there is little doubt that this fight was at least some inspiration to Stallone for the climax of the Oscar winner, but does that mean Stallone owes something to Wepner?
It is an interesting question and one the documentary tries to answer, albeit in a round about way. Artistic license is something that is a bit open for interpretation. Using the logic of Wepner, who sued and ultimately settled with Stallone, the families of fallen soldiers of World War II or should sue the likes of Steven Spielberg or Oliver Stone for drawing inspiration from their loved ones experiences in war. That is a generalization, but where does the line stop? Rocky is a work of fiction and in my own opinion Stallone does not owe anything to Wepner, and if he did, why isn’t Muhammad Ali equally offended by Stallone’s use of his likeness as Apollo Creed in the film? I think the answer comes in the picture Feuerzeig paints of Wepner’s life.
And that is where the selfishness comes into play. Wepner is a strange character to pin down exactly, and one that is so foreign to me that I can’t imagine personally knowing someone like him. He entered the Marines to chase girls for the heck of it, service to his country not used in his reasoning. And then when life handed him the chance to use his size and physicality as a bouncer, and then ultimately a heavyweight boxer, he took it. There never seemed to be any passion for where his life led him, which is fine, but when it comes to suing Stallone it all seems so desperate. Wepner seems to revel in his 15 minutes of fame of knocking Ali down, and why shouldn’t he? But do we really need to see Wepner running up a flight of steps, wearing a gray hoodie and black cap, reimagining the famous sequence that caps off the training montage in Rocky?
I don’t feel sorry for Wepner at all in terms of his story being used in Rocky and him not getting compensated. Stallone described it as him wanting to tell his own story, but using Wepner’s circumstance as a more mainstream vehicle to communicate that story to the masses, and he succeeded brilliantly. That was his right as an artist and I respect him for being able to construct a great film like Rocky. But it is too hard for me to respect Wepner for taking more credit than he deserves for the story, and for trying to sue Stallone for $15 million, and for agreeing to meet Andre the Giant in a cross-genre fighting match. I struggle to respect him as a rabbit-punching boxer. And ultimately I struggle to respect the film itself for its gimmick round table discussion and poorly imagined narrative.