IN 1975, boxing underdog Chuck Wepner went 15 rounds with the great Muhammad Ali. The fortitude shown by Wepner, nicknamed ‘the bleeder’ for his tendency to get cut during fights, in this brutal bout provided the inspiration for little-known actor Sylvester Stallone to write box-office knockout Rocky.
The rest is history for Sly and Ali. But what happened to Wepner, the real life Rocky? Director Phillippe Falardeau (The Good Lie) tells the boxer’s fascinating, whirlwind story in The Bleeder – available on DVD and Blu-ray from August 21.
We join Wepner, played by Liev Schreiber (Donovan and Spotlight), as a relatively unknown fighter and liquor salesman in the city of Bayonne, New Jersey. After Ali upsets George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle, Wepner is surprisingly (for race reasons) picked out by promoter Don King for a showdown with the new Heavyweight Champion of the World.
It is a fight that changes Wepner’s life – but not all for the better. His humble surroundings make way for nightclubs, beautiful young women, fur coats and – most concerning – cocaine. Just a mere mention of this lifestyle is enough to drive away straight-talking and no-nonsense wife Phyliss (Elisabeth Moss). Her absence leaves Wepner to fumble around in the dark with his newfound folk hero status.
This fumbling, although tinged with tragedy, takes some amusing turns. Among them, we see a coked-up Wepner audition to be in Rocky II – Morgan Spector looks and sounds the part as a young Stallone.
Wepner also agrees to box a grizzly bear and take part in a cross-promotion wrestling match with WWF – and Princess Bride – legend Andre the Giant. The latter encounter feels particularly relevant given this month’s upcoming circus-like mega-fight between Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather and the UFC’s Connor McGregor.
Despite Wepner’s troubles, The Bleeder is an upbeat, charming and refreshingly light watch. As a result, Falardeau’s film is not comparable with Martin Scorsese’s relentless and aggression-fuelled study of boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), or the inspirational, sports-driven uphill battle of Stallone’s Rocky.
The Bleeder, which shows Wepner’s monumental moment against Ali early in the film, is more concerned with the fighter’s life after his moment of glory. This is reflected in Falardeau’s allusions to Anthony Quinn’s desperate and exploited character, Louis ‘Mountain’ Rivera, in Requiem for Heavyweight (1962).
Falardeau gives the film a personal tone by utilising documentary-style camerawork, narration and stock footage. Most effective is Schreiber’s well-measured leading performance as Wepner. He captures an affability and commonality to Wepner that never leaves him, even when his ego-inflates.
The impressive supporting cast is also worth mentioning, particularly those playing the tough women in Wepner’s life. Moss and Naomi Watts, who plays a barmaid named Linda, turn in fine performances and go toe-to-toe with in-form Schreiber in every scene.
Wepner – now 78 years old – will surely raise a smile if he hears the rumours that Rocky may be gearing up for a return bout with Russian nemesis Ivan Drago in the upcoming Creed sequel. At least his legacy has finally been cemented by The Bleeder, the fulfilling (and hugely watchable) story of the real life Rocky.
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The Bleeder – 4/5
Liev Schreiber – Chuck Wepner
Elisabeth Moss – Phyliss
Naomi Watts – Linda
Ron Perlman – Al Braverman
Morgan Spector – Stallone
Pooch Hall – Muhammad Ali