Whether you have ever seen it or not, you all know the Rocky movie saga, yet few know who inspired Sylvester Stallone to write and play this character, namely the boxer protagonist of 2016’s The Bleeder.
We are talking about Chuck Wepner, a tough-as-steel and stubborn-as-a-mule guy born and raised on the poor streets of Bayonne, New Jersey.
His boxing technique could be more evolved and impressive, as has been much of his sporting career. Still, in the business, everyone knows his incredible stamina and knack for taking punches from any opponent.
That is why his trainer and manager, Al Braverman, received a phone call from Don King, who was in Zaire for the famous Rumble in the Jungle, the legendary fight where Muhammad Ali had to regain the heavyweight throne against George Foreman.
Sure of Foreman’s victory, Don King proposes to Chuck to challenge him immediately afterward to provide a white opponent for his champion.
However, as we all know, in the eighth round, Ali knocked out Foreman, again becoming the world champion.
Chuck is not very happy with the result, as he would have preferred to challenge a less dangerous and unpredictable opponent. Yet, he absolutely cannot pass up the chance of a lifetime.
Meanwhile, the family collapses when his wife Phyliss leaves home, taking their little girl, fed up and disappointed with his constant betrayals.
However, convinced by his friend John Stoehr, she returns to stand by him during the terrible and interminable match against Ali, where Chuck endures for 15 rounds only to lose in the final seconds.
Despite the defeat, the public cheers his name, just as the young Sylvester Stallone in the crowd took inspiration from that sports performance to write a screenplay destined for the Academy Award.
Fly like a butterfly, bleed like a New Yorker
I already know what you are thinking. How boring The Bleeder, another movie from 2016 with a boxer epic facing a difficult challenge, training, and then fighting bravely.
You couldn’t be more wrong because what you read above is only the first half hour of the whole story.
Narrating the life of Chuck Wepner, rather than Rocky Balboa, we are closer to a character like Jake LaMotta, the protagonist of the legendary Raging Bull.
Chuck does not have the violent and surly personality of Martin Scorsese‘s famous fighter protagonist, battling everyone because of his bad temper.
However, he has the same predisposition to get into trouble all the time, tearing his family apart and driving his wife and brother to despair.
This starts an endless merry-go-round of alcohol, cocaine, partying, and women, alienating everyone he was close to.
The only thing in life seemingly going smoothly was his career, which after meeting Ali, became a popular figure stimulating the dreams and imagination of poor people.
Among these humble folks, we find the young Stallone starting a solid career that, amidst ups and downs, survives great to this day.
At one point, for example, Chuck ends up in prison, where shortly afterward, he meets the old Sly again, standing in preparation for the 1989 movie Lock Up.
From the worst moment of his life, we finally see him rise out of the darkness, accepting to face his problems instead of pretending they do not exist.
Of course, we are talking about an athlete not even among the top 100 in sports history, that’s for sure.
Nevertheless, his crazy spirit and unstoppable heart have become a movie icon who will outlast time and the memory of all those who, as he says, know him without even knowing his name.
A hard-fighting emotional cast
The excellent historical reconstruction of the settings and the spirit of that era blend perfectly with a cast giving their best in every scene.
Liev Schreiber literally becomes Chuck Wepner, and you must never call him Bleeder, or he will get angry.
Through the actor, we can empathize with this man even when he foolishly commits mistakes and reprehensible acts.
The relationship between Wepner and his wife, played by the talented Elisabeth Moss, is funny and dramatic.
Moss performs excellently as an exasperated but stubborn mother and wife like her husband, who challenges her patience and forbearance to the point of her running away.
Equally entertaining is the usually reliable Ron Perlman, who plays the cunning and opportunistic manager Al Braverman.
There is no job the manager will turn down, including challenging wrestler André the Giant to make money and keep his boxer’s reputation high.
Jim Gaffigan, as John Stoehr, is equally unwavering as the friend who will do anything for Wepner, whether he is wrong or right.
The beautiful and, at times, unrecognizable Naomi Watts plays Linda Wepner, the one who will become Chuck’s partner; although she initially seems like the one girl he will never win over, their romance will come gliding sweetly in the finale.
We also appreciate Michael Rapaport as the brother Don Wepner;. However, we do not immediately understand why he is so angry; we eventually decipher through the insults that he also deeply loves his screwed-up brother and is the only one to help him when he has no one left.
Although Pooch Hall is not much convincing as Muhammad Ali, undoubtedly preferring Will Smith in Michael Mann‘s masterpiece, Morgan Spector gives an excellent performance of a young Sylvester Stallone, showing the strength and insecurities of the famous actor.