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In 1975, Chuck Wepner, a journeyman fighter known as the Bayonne Bleeder, was convinced he had snatched the world heavyweight title from Muhammad Ali after knocking the champ to the canvas in the ninth round of a matchup in Cleveland that just about everyone figured would be a cakewalk for Ali.
“I headed back to my corner and said, ‘Start the car — we’re going to the bank, we’re millionaires,’” recalled Mr. Wepner, 80. “And my manager said, ‘You better turn around because he’s getting up.’’
Ali rallied to score a technical knockout over Mr. Wepner, moments before the final bell, but the underdog from Bayonne, N.J., had succeeded in showing the world that he could go the distance with perhaps the greatest fighter ever.
Mr. Wepner’s gutsy performance made an impression on many, including a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone, who made it the climax of the screenplay he wrote for the 1976 film “Rocky.” The movie went on to win three Oscars, including best picture, and catapulted the young actor to stardom.
Mr. Wepner went back to his job as a liquor salesman in Bayonne, a working-class town across the harbor from New York City. His waning boxing career gave way to a series of tough breaks, including a prison sentence and cancer.
But the Bayonne Bleeder has enjoyed a comeback of sorts in recent years, as the subject of three films. “The Brawler,” starring Zach McGowan, opened in January. Before that there was a 2016 film, “Chuck” with Liev Schreiber. And in 2011 an ESPN documentary, “The Real Rocky,” named after Mr. Wepner’s other moniker around Bayonne, where he grew up in public housing and learned to use his fists in the streets and in barrooms.
A huge mural looming over an auto shop on Broadway in Bayonne pays tribute to his folk hero status. But one tribute Mr. Wepner never got was a statue like the one dedicated to the character, Rocky Balboa, outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, next to the steps the boxer famously ran up in the film.
“That scene is based on me running up the steps in Hudson County Park as part of my workouts,” said Mr. Wepner. “But it was Rocky, a fictional boxer, who got the statue.”
But now Mr. Wepner is getting his statue, at the site of the actual training steps. A longtime friend of Mr. Wepner’s who owns a tire repair shop has raised enough money to commission one.
“Chuck has always represented Bayonne, so we want a proper representation of him here — something that shows that he’s the real Rocky,” said Bruce Dillin, who has turned the waiting room of Dillin Tire, on Kennedy Boulevard, into a crowdsourced Chuck Wepner museum, filled with memorabilia largely donated by local friends of Mr. Wepner.
Tire ads and displays of transmission and brake fluid share space with images and mementos from Mr. Wepner’s career, including fight posters, boxing equipment and video clips.
The posters include a shot of Mr. Wepner in his boxing trunks, posing in a muffler ad for the shop. He agreed to appear in the ad “for a flat repair and an oil change,” Mr. Dillin joked.
To have the Wepner statue made, Mr. Dillin said he initially asked A. Thomas Schomberg, the artist who created the Rocky statue in Philadelphia. But Mr. Schomberg, according to Mr. Dillin, typically charges around $500,000 for such a job. So he turned to Wu Zhen, a painter and sculptor who happens to have a studio next door to the tire shop.
“Bruce bothered me everyday, he tortured me, until I agreed to do it,” said Mr. Wu, who charged $40,000, which he said barely covered his materials. The eight-foot-tall model of Mr. Wepner is complete, and Mr. Dillin is raising money to have it cast in bronze.
Mr. Wepner, who lives in an apartment with a view of his old high school, said he had many opportunities to move out of Bayonne once his profile as a fighter rose.
“Bayonne’s been so great to me, so why should I leave?” said Mr. Wepner, who presides over the town like an unofficial mayor — and that’s according to the official mayor, Jimmy Davis.
“Chuck was the epitome of what Bayonne was. It was a blue-collar town and Chuck was a blue-collar fighter,” Mr. Davis said. “Even today, he’s probably one of the biggest cheerleaders for Bayonne.”
“It’s not just Bayonne — he’s the mayor wherever he goes,” said Mr. Schreiber, who recently accompanied Mr. Wepner to boxing matches at Madison Square Garden. “Every cop in the Garden said hello to him, and so did every fighter on our way to our seats.”
Mr. Wepner was recently treated for rectal cancer, enduring three surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, but he seems to have lost none of his trademark charisma. He is still a fixture around town, driving around in his Lincoln with the “CHAMP” license plate and mini-gloves dangling from the mirror.
Mr. Wepner turned pro in 1964 and worked his way up from smoky joints in the Bayonne area to taking on such prominent fighters as George Foreman and Sonny Liston. The Liston fight left him with a broken nose, a broken cheekbone, 71 stitches in his face — and his Bayonne Bleeder nickname.
Of 52 pro fights and nearly 100 amateur bouts, Mr. Wepner said he won most of them. “And in bar fights,” he said, “I’m undefeated.”
Then there were the moneymaking gimmick matchups late in his career. In 1976, he fought a 1,250-pound grizzly bear and took on the professional wrestler André the Giant, who stood 7 feet 4 inches and tossed Mr. Wepner out of the ring long before Hulk Hogan did the same to Mr. Stallone in “Rocky 3.”
Other aspects of Mr. Wepner’s life reflected in the “Rocky” films include him as an enforcer for local moneylenders. Then there was his trainer, Dominick Bufano — “The real Mickey,” Mr. Wepner said, referring to the character in “Rocky’’ — who jumped in front of Ali and gave him an “evil-eye” curse before the fight. Mr. Wepner was a 40-to-1 underdog and earned $100,000 for the fight, by far the biggest purse of his career.
Mr. Wepner’s business card touts his Ali and “Rocky” claims to fame, and on the back, bears a photo of the Ali knockdown.
As the “Rocky” franchise grew with sequels, Mr. Wepner said he had never received payment, even though Mr. Stallone had added to the value of the movies by repeatedly naming him as Rocky’s real-life counterpart.
The actor did invite Mr. Wepner to audition for a minor role in “Rocky 2,’’ Mr. Wepner recalled, “but I blew the audition because I had been on a bender for two days.”
So in 2003, Mr. Wepner sued Mr. Stallone, arguing that the actor had inappropriately used his name to promote the movies without compensating him.
The case resulted in a private settlement, whose sum Mr. Wepner would not disclose, other than saying that, “I still have to work for a living.”
“I always loved the guy — he made me Rocky — but I needed him to acknowledge that I was the real Rocky,” said Mr. Wepner, who still works in liquor sales, as does his wife, Linda.
In the late 1980s he served 22 months in prison after being arrested with four ounces of cocaine. Mr. Wepner said he has been sober for years, but still has trouble sticking to the strict diet required after his cancer surgeries.
In front of the tire store on a recent weekday, he grabbed his second chili dog from a hot dog cart and motioned to a group of locals who had stopped to chat.
“Everything I’ve achieved, it all comes from my city,” he said. “So I’ll always be true-blue Bayonne.”