Continuing the network’s stellar “30 for 30” series on a less ambitious scale, ESPN’s latest string of sports-related documentaries is again distinguishing the channel for more than just “SportsCenter.”
Next up: “The Real Rocky,” a fascinating one-hour doc devoted to Chuck Wepner, which deftly straddles the line between sports and showbiz, chronicling the easily bloodied heavyweight’s career in the ring – and eventual lawsuit against Sylvester Stallone, accusing him of stealing the idea for his 1976 hit “Rocky” from Wepner’s life. The program premieres on Oct. 25.
Wepner certainly fit the part, having taken Muhammad Ali to the limit in a memorable bout that filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig chronicles in great detail. Still, that’s really just where the story begins, as Wepner went on to engage in various crazy PR stunts – such as fighting a bear, or going toe to toe with wrestler Andre the Giant – that also appeared to become fodder for future “Rocky” sequels.
Feuerzeig’s film is filled with wonderful little tidbits, like Ali trying to prod Wepner into using a racial epithet to stoke interest in the fight, or Wepner’s descent into cocaine use and, eventually, prison.
If there’s a journalistic lapse here, it’s the apparent lack of an effort to get Stallone or anyone close to him to speak on the matter, other than transcripts from his deposition, in which he acknowledged being aware of Wepner but denied having pilfered his pugilistic exploits.
Still, for anyone familiar with boxing or even just the “Rocky” franchise, “The Real Rocky” – shot partly in black and white to heighten its cinematic feel, and featuring boxing reporters as a sort of Greek chorus – is the genuine article, all right. In fact, Wepner’s story is so interesting, ESPN actually could have easily expanded its length to go a couple more rounds.
ESPN is no stranger to excessively celebrating itself, but in this case, they have reason to cue the "Rocky" theme and take a victory lap.
Produced by Triple Threat Television and Tollin Prods. Executive producer, Mike Tollin; producers, Gary Cohen, Matt McDonald; co-producer, Michael Simmons; director, Jeff Feuerzeig; camera, Fortunato Procopio; editor, Chris Perkel; music, Woody Jackson. 60 MIN.
Featuring: Chuck Wepner