Chuck Wepner goes by many names. To some he is The Champ, a heavyweight boxer who once went fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. To others he is the Bayonne Bleeder, a fighter sometimes sidelined by his tendency to bleed out all over the ring. Still others call him the Real Rocky in reference to the rumour that his career inspired the Sylvester Stallone movie. He’s an American brawler played by Liev Schreiber in a new movie simply called “Chuck.”
Wepner became a local hero when he was tapped to take on boxing legend George Foreman. There was just one catch. Foreman had to beat Muhammad Ali first. The odds were in his favour but, in an upset, Foreman lost. That defeat should have put Wepner out of the running but the Ali fight was being positioned as a battle of the races and since he was the only white boxer on a long list of fighters qualified to take on the champ, he got the gig. The odds against him were 40-to-1 but the lure of a $100,000 payday was too great to resist. As expected he lost but the fact he shared the ring with Ali burnished his reputation, if not his bank account.
And thus the template of Wepner’s career was set. He’s an also ran, a man who can see the brass ring but never quite grab hold of it.
In the wake of the Ali fight Wepner’s life was turned topsy-turvy. He coulda been a contender but instead moonlighted as a liquor salesman. He was a star at night, hanging around clubs, cheating on his wife Phyllis (Elisabeth Moss) and developing a cocaine problem. His notoriety increased with the release of “Rocky,” the Stallone movie reportedly semi-based on Wepner’s life. A failed audition for “Rocky 2” forces the fighter further down the rabbit hole into a “Requiem for a Heavyweight-esque” life outside the ring.
“Chuck’s” story is little known but feels familiar. The “Rocky” twist and Ali fight add some nice colour to the tale, but this is, essentially, another retelling of an arrogant also ran boxer whose life outside the ring spiralled out of control. In Schreiber’s hands it’s easy to see why people were drawn to Wepner. He’s charismatic and despite his myriad flaws, likeable.
Good supporting work also comes from Moss (in an underwritten role), Ron Perlman and Jim Gaffigan as Wepner’s manager and best friend respectively but the movie, directed by Philippe Falardeau, like it’s main character, feels workmanlike. It covers large sections of the man’s life when it feels like a concentrated version may have been more compelling.