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December 5, 2018

One for the ages

By Dom Cioffi

On March 24, 1975, in Summit County, Ohio, a heavyweight boxing match was held between Muhammad Ali and a relatively obscure fighter named Chuck Wepner.

Wepner was a journeyman boxer with a semi-respectable record. What he was known most for was leaving fights covered in his own blood, as attested by his moniker, “The Bayonne Bleeder.” In fact, it’s been said that after fighting Sonny Liston, Wepner had to be hospitalized so a doctor could sew up the countless cuts on his face, eventually totaling over 120 stitches.

The fight against Ali was billed as the “Give the White Guy A Break” bout since no Caucasian man had legitimately contended for the heavyweight title in years. It was widely believed that Ali would destroy Wepner with minimal effort.

Ali must have felt the same way since he did little training for the bout. When asked about this, Ali commented that the reason his career lasted so long was that he didn’t waste too much physical effort on boxers he knew he could beat.

However, Ali nearly blew this one when an inspired Wepner came out strong, eventually knocking Ali to the mat in the 9th round (only one of four times that The Champ was flattened in his career). Ali has always claimed that Wepner stepped on his foot, causing him to stumble. And while film and photographic records support this claim, Wepner has always contended that the mid-section blow he delivered truly hobbled Ali.

Ali went on to knock out Wepner in the 15th round, thus securing his stellar record, but Wepner gained priceless recognition that has remained until this day, along with a $100,000 paycheck (a nice payout for a late-career bout in 1975, but a paltry sum compared to Ali’s guaranteed $1.5 million).

Because of the drama, this fight became an interesting footnote in the history of sports, but what makes it truly noteworthy is what it inspired.

On the night of the fight, far away on the West Coast in California, a young actor named Sylvester Stallone happened to be watching. At the time, Stallone was desperate for work and in such dire straits financially that he sold his dog for food money.

Stallone was moved by the storyline that played out between Ali and Wepner and the electricity that he felt as the crowd started to root for the underdog. The experience was so commanding  that, after the fight, he went home and penned the script for “Rocky” in just three days, at one point writing at his desk for 20 straight hours.

Stallone approached several studios with the script, but all passed. Eventually he found interest with a studio willing to put up $350,000. However, they planned to do their own casting, uninterested in having Stallone in the lead role as he requested. Stallone balked, saying that “Rocky” would never be made unless he was portraying the title role. The studio later renegotiated and allowed Stallone to portray the iconic role of Rocky Balboa.

The rest is truly history as “Rocky” went on to gross over $200 million at the box office and be nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including a Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nomination for Stallone. The film eventually went on to win Best Picture, Best Directing and Best Film Editing. It also spurred a franchise that continues to this day – nearly 43 years after the original release. Stallone also went on to a stellar career, with acting and directing credits that cover nearly 75 films.

A few years ago, Stallone revisited the “Rocky” franchise with the release of “Creed,” the emotional story of Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who is determined to become a boxer himself. In that film, the younger Creed searches out Rocky Balboa in the hope that the ex-boxer will help him train.

In this week’s film, “Creed II,” Adonis is now faced with his greatest challenge when Russian boxer Ivan Drago (the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring years earlier) suggests that the younger Creed face off against his son, Viktor, who is also an internationally acclaimed boxer. What follows is a battle of wills and an eventual match made for the ages.

No matter what incarnation this franchise takes, it always seems to deliver. “Creed II” simmers for the first half of the film and then explodes, providing an uplifting and emotional experience that will have any fan of boxing (or any sport for that matter) cheering from their theater seat.

Give this one a shot if you’re in the mood for an inspirational battle between good and evil. “Creed II” delivers on the same level that “Rocky” did so many years ago.

A knockout “B” for “Creed II.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.

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