Muhammad Ali fought professionally from 1960 to 1981, compiling a record of 56-5. He won 37 of his bouts by knockout, and lost one by knockout. He was not knocked down in the fight he lost by knockout (against Larry Holmes in 1980), but he was knocked down four times in his career. The four knockdowns came in four different fights, three of which he went on to win, and one of which he lost.
Ali was heavyweight champion of the world from 1964 to 1967, when boxing’s governing bodies took away his title and his license to box in response to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. After a three and a half year forced layoff, he finally resumed his career. His first opportunity to regain his title came against Joe Frazier in 1971, when he narrowly lost one of the greatest fights in history. (It was also one of the fights in which he suffered a knockdown. Earlier in his career he had been knocked down by Sonny Banks in 1962, and by Henry Cooper in 1963.) In his second opportunity, in 1974, he pulled off a stunning upset of George Foreman when almost everyone was convinced he was over the hill, finally regaining the title more than seven years after it had been taken away from him for political reasons.
Following that historic victory, Ali followed the tradition of many of his predecessors as titleholders of mixing in some “easy” defenses before facing another top contender. His first defense of his second reign as heavyweight champion came on March 24, 1975, against little known Chuck Wepner.
The Bayonne, New Jersey native was certainly no Joe Frazier or George Foreman, but he wasn’t as embarrassingly bad an opponent as many champions had chosen to fight. (The immortal Joe Louis had fought so many dubious challengers that they came to be known collectively as his “bum of the month club.”) Wepner, with a record of 30-9-2, was ranked 9th in the world after all, though some observers opined that all that really indicated was that the heavyweight division was quite thin after you got past the top handful of contenders.
For most of the fight, things went pretty much as expected. Ali was in mediocre shape, and didn’t push himself. He comfortably won most rounds, though he didn’t look as flashy or impressive as he could on a good night. Wepner oafishly plodded after Ali, throwing punches but unable to land anything of consequence, except for his constant rabbit punches (illegal punches to the back of the head).
Then in the 9th round, which can be seen here, came the stunner. The round was looking like the preceding eight-dull, with the clear edge to Ali-when Wepner strode forward and momentarily stepped on Ali’s foot or got his foot tangled with Ali’s. As Ali stepped back off balance, Wepner threw a lunging right to the body, which was half punch and half push. The champion went down.
Really if referee Tony Perez had seen clearly what had happened, he probably would have ruled it a slip instead of a knockdown. It was definitely the most dubious of the four knockdowns Ali suffered in his career.
Ali didn’t protest it however. He immediately got up, clearly unhurt, and resumed what he had been doing, winning the remainder of the round.
As Ali continued to dominate the fight in the subsequent rounds, really the only remaining suspense was whether Wepner could survive to lose by decision instead of by a knockout.
He almost did, but not quite. Ali battered the exhausted Wepner around the ring in the 15th and final round. A flurry put the challenger down. Wepner weakly tried to haul himself up by grabbing onto the ropes, but the referee stepped in and stopped the fight in Ali’s favor, with just 19 seconds remaining.
Interestingly, what the Ali-Wepner fight is best remembered for today is not the unlikely knockdown of Ali, but the fight’s influence on movie history.
One of the fans watching the fight that night was a small time actor named Sylvester Stallone. Inspired by the underdog Wepner’s valiant effort to survive 15 rounds against a legendary champion, Stallone wrote a movie script about an unknown heavyweight challenger’s efforts to “go the distance” when he’s granted a surprise fight against the champion. Stallone cast himself in the lead in his movie, which was called Rocky and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1976.
Mark Collings, “Chuck Wepner: The True Story of the Real Rocky.” Sabotage Times.
Chad Millman, “Yo, Big Chuck.” New Jersey Monthly.
“Muhammad Ali vs Chuck Wepner.” Boxing Memorabilia.