In the Front Row: This scene never made it into the movie
My dad died two years ago, just two days before Father's Day.
I'm not telling you that to evoke sympathy or pity. I just wanted to get it out of the way in case you were wondering where I was going with this.
Last Friday night I was getting ready to hit the sack when I decided to take one more spin through the TV channels. I'm bad that way. I can't go to sleep while wondering if there's a late-night showing of "The Dirty Dozen," or war suddenly breaks out in the Middle East and I don't know about it.
Anyway, I was methodically pressing the button on the remote but nothing was grabbing my attention. Then I stumbled on a replay of the Muhammad Ali - Chuck Wepner fight from 1975 on ESPN 2. There was no way I could go to bed now.
I grew up less than a mile from Wepner in Bayonne, N.J. His son, Chuck Jr., and I were around the same age and used to play basketball against each other in the Police Athletic League. Needless to say, he was the hands-down winner in the "My dad can beat up your dad" argument.
Chuck Sr. was a living legend in Bayonne. He was a former Marine who became the New Jersey State Heavyweight Boxing Champion and a contender for the world heavyweight title. After losing to Sonny Liston in Liston's last fight in 1970 he needed over 120 sutures in his face. From then on he was known as The Bayonne Bleeder.
Wepner went on to win nine of his next 11 fights and became the No. 8 ranked heavyweight in the world. Then, on March 24, 1975, the Bayonne Bleeder earned his shot against the world heavyweight champion, Ali.
Nobody gave Wepner a chance, and Ali spent most of the early rounds dancing around his bigger, slower opponent, occasionally slipping in a lightning-quick jab at the New Jersey heavyweight's face.
Suddenly in the ninth round, Wepner connected with a right hand to Ali's chest, knocking the reigning champ to the canvass. Wepner reportedly went to his corner and said to his manager, "Hey, did you see that? I knocked him down." "Yeah," Wepner's manager replied. "But he looks really pissed off now."
And he was. From then on, Ali dispensed with his "Rope-a-dope" tactics and did everything he could to knock Wepner out. He broke Wepner's nose and opened cuts above both of Wepner's eyes, but the former Marine just wouldn't go down.
This went on through the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds. Back then title fights went 15 rounds, and Wepner continued to answer every bell, and continued to get pummeled by Ali. But no matter how hard Ali hit him, Wepner just wouldn't go down.
Finally, with 19 seconds left in the 15th and final round, Ali connected with a left hand that sent Wepner stumbling backwards into the ropes and onto the canvas. It was the first time in his career he had been knocked down. He quickly popped to his feet but the referee gave him a standing eight count and ruled the fight over.
Years later, Sylvester Stallone admitted he was inspired to write the script for "Rocky" after watching Wepner that night.
Two years ago, on the day after Father's Day, I was gathered with my family at Sweeney Funeral Home in Bayonne greeting an endless stream of visitors at my dad's wake. All of a sudden there was Wepner, extending his big right hand and saying, "Bobby, you look just like your father."
"Yeah," I responded. "I've decided to start taking that as a compliment."
He laughed and squeezed my hand. I couldn't believe I was touching the same right hand that had knocked down Muhammad Ali 32 years earlier.
"He was a great man," he went on to say about my dad. "They don't make them any better."
Watching the replay of that fight last Friday night, that's all I could think about. I knew what the outcome would be, just like I know the outcome of "The Dirty Dozen." But as I was watching Ali deliver one staggering blow after another to Wepner's body and face, I just kept picturing Wepner standing in front of me in Sweeney Funeral Home telling me what a great man my dad was.
I was glad I stayed up late that night.