A 2,500-pound bronze statue of “The Real Rocky” Chuck Wepner was unveiled at Dennis P. Collins Park in Bayonne on Saturday afternoon with hundreds on hand to honor the hometown hero.
By John Heinis/Hudson County View
“Hello Bayonne. I just want to say that I know everybody thought this story was the Rocky story, the [Muhammad] Ali story, his story was the Sly Stallone story, I gotta say – at risk of being punched in the head – everything I knew about Chuck pointed to the fact that this was my story,” said actor Liev Schreiber, who portrayed Wepner in the 2016 biopic “Chuck.”
“This was a guy who was fighting his own demons harder and better than any person I’ve ever met in my life and that’s what made him the great champion that he is. He won every fight he fought – every single fight he fought.”
At that point Wepner interjected “that was in the street,” invoking laughter from the crowd.
Schreiber also praised Wepner’s self-determination, drive, and discipline to overcome his demons, later joking that he was thankful Bayonne decided to erect a statue of him [Schreiber] and that he thought Wepner was responsible for the Russians pulling out of Kherson in the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis, who has often said the two things most emblematic of the Peninsula City are the Bayonne Bridge and Chuck Wepner, joked that Schreiber wouldn’t be saying it’s his statue when the head was revealed.
“He may be the best looking Chuck Wepner we’ll ever see,” Davis added before issue a proclamation to Zhen Wu: the sculptor who built the statue after moving in next door to Bruce Dillon, a local businessman and long time friend of Wepner.
He agreed to sculpt Wepner’s likeness for free as long as Dillon provided the materials needed, which he did after fundraising about $80,000 for the cause through three different events.
Wu, who had also received a proclamation from Assemblyman Will Sampson earlier, briefly approached the microphone after insistence from Wepner.
“42 years ago, I immigrated to the United States. The United States gave me an opportunity … Thank you everybody who support[ed] me. Thank you to the city. Especially thanks [to] my terrible neighbor, Bruce! He bother[ed] me too much!”
Wepner, 83, who retired in September 1978 with a 35-14-2 record, is a former USA New Jersey State heavyweight champion best known for going 12 rounds with Ali in March 1975, inspiring Stallone’s ultra successful Rocky franchise.
Fellow former prizefighters Larry Holmes, Iran Barkley, Gerry Cooney, and Nino Gonzalez were also on hand for the event.
During his remarks to the crowd, Wepner joked that he wanted to be buried next to his statue.
“The reason that I’m here is because of all of you guys. I’ll never leave Bayonne and I’m gonna ask the mayor, when they die and have me cremated, stick me in the ground next to my statue: that’ll make me happy,” he said to applause from the crowd.
Speaking to HCV after the event concluded, Schreiber joked that he thought the statue was a little short, the pecs and the rhomboids are a little too big, and the back of the statue is a little too big – though he felt he deserved that much.
“I think it works and I’m super happy for Chuck. This is Bayonne’s guy, they’re gonna show up for him, absolutely. Chuck put Bayonne on the map, Chuck put America on the map, Chuck put the world on the map in my mind. I’m just thrilled that he’s getting recognized for it, it’s super important.”
Others in attendance included former Govs. Richard Codey and Jim McGreevey, Congressman-Elect Rob Menendez (D-8), County Commissioner Kenny Kopacz, Council members Neil Carroll, Juan Perez, Jacqueline Weimmer, Gary La Pelusa, and Loyad Booker, former Councilman Ray Greaves, Hudson County Executive candidate Craig Guy, and Dr. John Franconeri, among many others.