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Wepner’s ‘Rocky’ battle a knockout storyline for ESPN’s 30 for 30 sophomore season

Sports Broadcasting columnist Eric Deggans writes from the TV Critics Association’s summer tour now underway in Los Angeles.

For Chuck Wepner, the subject conjures 40 years of old news, stuff he thought the world figured out long ago – how the New Jersey heavyweight’s classic 1975 fight with Muhammad Ali inspired actor/writer Sylvester Stallone to create the Rocky Balboa character, right down to his talent for taking a beating during fights and tendency to lose them by getting nasty cuts.

Also, how his exhibition bout with Andre the Giant likely inspired Stallone to duke it out with wrestler Hulk Hogan in the third “Rocky” movie. And how he finally got tired of seeing Hollywood recycle and adapt his story, suing Stallone in 2003.

“I just took it for granted that everybody knew I was the inspiration (for Rocky), since (Stallone) mentioned it, I think the federal judge said 41 times on national television,” said Wepner, facing a roomful of journalists last week at the TV Critics Association’s summer press tour. “If you haven’t heard I’m the inspiration for the real Rocky…you must be living under a rock, son.”

But it turns out many sports fans may not know Wepner’s story or they only know parts of it. That alone makes him a perfect participant for ESPN’s next big challenge – launching a new series of ESPN Films-branded documentaries in the spirit of its groundbreaking “30 for 30” series.

 “’30 for 30’ was a celebration – 30 awesome filmmakers – to celebrate the 30th anniversary of ESPN,” said Keith Clinkscales, senior vice president of content development and enterprises for ESPN. The series was nominated for an Emmy award in July and given a Peabody award in May after concluding last year. “We wanted to show to the fans and the people…this is not something we’re doing temporarily; this is something we’re committed to do.”

To that end, the Worldwide Leader is unveiling a new lineup of films set to start Sept. 27, featuring everything from Wepner’s life (“The Real Rocky,” Oct. 25) to the life of two sports agents (“The Dotted Line,” from “Supersize Me” director Morgan Spurlock, Oct. 11) and the reasons why Chicago Cubs fans made a scapegoat out of Steve Bartman (“Catching Hell,” Sept. 27).

After the Bartman film, ESPN will premiere a different documentary film at 8 p.m. for seven consecutive Tuesday nights; an idea that makes a certain kind of sense.

Given that “30 for 30” was so closely tied to a specific event, ESPN needed a way to continue the creative spirit of the series without using its actual name.

And they hope to hang the future of this effort on two important elements: compelling-yet-somewhat-obscure sports stories and great filmmakers who want to tell them.

“When you think about movies that transcended, that come out of the sports world and became a part of pop culture, nothing really rivals ‘Rocky’,” said Mike Tollin, an Oscar-nominated film and TV producer (“Hardwood Dreams,” “Arli$$”) who produced “The Real Rocky.” “But then you start talking about Chuck Wepner…(and) some people have never heard of him.”

“It gives us an opportunity to really treat this thing almost like fiction,” Tollin added. “I’ve done lot of fictional films based on sports, and I tend to be attracted to stories that are relatively obscure, where you aren’t fighting people’s preconceptions about who that character was or what happened; where you can tell the story as you choose.

In Wepner’s case, that means exploring the many little-known details of his legend. The film notes how Wepner was promised a shot at the heavyweight title if George Foremen beat Muhammad Ali in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight in Africa.

Wepner also fought legendary heavyweight Sonny Liston, ran up steps in Bayonne, New Jersey, which looked an awful lot like the steps in Philadelphia where Rocky finished his iconic training run and faced an overconfident Ali, who claimed to beg off hard training before their fight in the same way the fictional Apollo Creed did in the “Rocky” film.

It was a heady time for heavyweight fighters, back when the big champs were household names and worldwide celebrities. But these days, even as an explosion of media has fueled new types of sports celebrities, the days of heavyweight boxers as mainstream icons seem long past.

“We have no American heavyweights that are any good anymore,” said Wepner, now 72. “The kids don’t want to train to fight anymore. They are looking to get a couple of quick paydays and then go on their way and do whatever they are going to do…I don’t even watch the fights anymore because they are not good.”

It’s that kind of confidence in his craft that led Wepner to pick out a powder blue negligee for his wife before his bout with Ali.

“I said ‘I want you to be wearing this, because tonight you are going to be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world,’” said the former boxer, who eventually lost that fight despite knocking Ali down during the clash.

“I came back to the room after the fight…She was sitting on the end of the bed in a negligee,” Wepner said of his wife, laughing. “She said, ’Am I going to Ali’s room or is he coming to mine?’”

These are the human stories behind the sports legends ESPN hopes to keep delivering, even at a time when viewers seem inundated with data from real-time reporting on sports across a multitude of media platforms.

“Now its accepted that these sports figures can, as much as an activist or musician or politician, represent something powerful and universal about human beings,” said Jonathan Hock, whose ESPN Film documentary “Unguarded” explores former NBA player Chris Herren’s problems with substance abuse. “That’s the stories we are telling.”

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed.

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