Sport: In Stitches

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For eleven years, Chuck Wepner was a moonlight boxer. Once a night-shift security guard, he switched after 1970 to a routine of road work in the morning, selling liquor during the day in eastern New Jersey, and sparring at night in the sweaty clubs of his home town, Bayonne, N.J. After 41 fights, Wepner was hardly a superstar heavyweight; he had an unspectacular 30-9-2 record and ranked eighth on Ring magazine's list. Dubbed "the Bayonne Bleeder" because of the more than 300 stitches he had accumulated in the easy-to-open skin above his eyes, Wepner was an implausible opponent for Muhammad Ali, boxing's great and jaded world heavyweight champ. But Ali wanted an easy fight as a warmup for his next major title bout; and a guarantee of $1.5 million helped him to make up his mind. Wepner signed for $100,000, ten times more than he had ever earned for a single match.

With his boxing days on the wane, Wepner, 35, needed no coaxing. For the first time in his career, he could afford to train full time. He spent eight weeks near the Catskill Mountains under the watchful eyes of his amiably foul-mouthed manager, Al Braverman, and his trainer, Bill Prezant. During the long workouts, Wepner constantly dreamed of dropping Ali to the mat with a battering-ram right to the champ's unblemished chin; Braverman had visions of a Wepner TV commercial endorsing a shaving cream that gave even the world champion Bayonne Bleeder a smooth, nick-free shave. Prophesied Trainer Prezant: "This will be the biggest surprise in boxing." And Wepner's second wife Phyllis, a post office clerk, announced that she would like a Mercedes-Benz if her husband won.

Only once during the fight, for eight glorious seconds, did these Elysian hopes near fulfillment. Catching the 33-year-old Ali off balance, the 225-lb. Wepner sent a solid blow to the ribs that dumped the champ on his rump. Until then, a condescending Ali had dominated the contest in The Coliseum near Cleveland. Unusually heavy at 233%, Ali intentionally spent most of the first six rounds on the ropes, guarding his face and upper body from Wepner's pummeling and waiting for his opponent to wear down. Unable to penetrate Ali's defense, Wepner began to pound him on the back of the head; when Referee Tony Perez failed to stop Wepner, Ali returned the rabbit punches. In Round 7, Ali stung Wepner, opening a cut over his left eye that Wepner's handlers struggled to close by smearing it with a special salve.

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