The Rocky franchise is, without question, the most successful sports movie franchise of all time (sorry, Air-Bud). Over the course of six films, plus the recent spinoff Creed, Sylvester Stallone's creation has earned nearly $1.5 billion at the worldwide box office, but someone else besides Stallone may be responsible for the series' massive success. Many believe that Chuck Wepner really inspired Rocky, and the retired boxer is now finally getting his due with the new movie Chuck.
As pretty much everyone knows, the story of the original Rocky goes like this: Working class Philly native Rocky Balboa has a dream of competing for the heavyweight boxing title and he gets his chance against flamboyant superstar world champion Apollo Creed. Rocky is a huge underdog, but through his grit and determination, he is able to go the distance against Creed. Even though Rocky loses the fight, his ability to defy the odds and not give up prove that he has the heart of a champion. It's one of the most inspirational movies ever, but most agree that it didn't just appear out of thin air. Stallone penned the screenplay shortly after watching a real life boxing match featuring Wepner that bared some striking similarities to the film.
In 1975, Wepner — a little-known fighter at the time — scored a fight with the heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammed Ali. Ali was to earn $1.5 million for the fight, while Wepner was set to get just $100,000, which was still his largest payday by far. No one expected Wepner to be much of a challenge to the greatest fighter of all time, but the Bayonne, New Jersey native surprised everyone and had Ali on his toes in the early rounds, even managing in the ninth round to become just the third fighter ever to knock Ali down. After the knockdown, however, Ali went on to dominate the rest of the fight, but Wepner wouldn't give up. He ended up lasting until the 15th and final round, when the referee stopped the fight with just 19 seconds remaining. Stallone watched the fight and almost immediately wrote his seemingly inspired screenplay for Rocky. Stallone has never publicly admitted that Wepner was his inspiration — but he's never denied it, either. And he did admit in a 1976 interview with The New York Times that the fight at least triggered his inspiration.
In 2006 Stallone settled a lawsuit brought forth by Wepner in 2003 that accused the filmmaker of profiting off Wepner's image. Wepner had sued for $15 million, though the amount eventually paid to him by Stallone has never been revealed.
Chuck, which opens on May 5, makes the direct claim that Stallone did indeed base Rocky on Chuck Wepner, and the evidence is certainly convincing.