Ground Chuck: By the time Ali got done with Chuck Wepner, it was pretty obvious how he got his nickname, the Bayonne Bleeder.
Ali and I were in the backyard of Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official digs. It was the year my generation of copyboys solidified their takeover of the Times, and I was suddenly a sports columnist again, tracking my Big Story. The debacle in Atlanta seemed never to have happened, but I was ready for another unpleasant incident. Ali was on a book tour, and an 11-week-old boy named Assad was traveling with Ali and his wife, Lonnie. The Official Friend and Photographer, Howard Bingham, specifically had ordained the baby "off the record." I didn't accept that, especially since little Off the Record was being toted all over the city to public appearances that included TV shows in which Ali afterward bemoaned how bad he looked and sounded, which was true. What would finally be diagnosed as Parkinson's disease had begun to turn his step into a lurch, his face into a stiffening mask. His words were not always intelligible. It was heartbreaking, yet also part of a Faustian bargain. Who else had ever been as lithe, beautiful, verbal?
But still, the baby was becoming the elephant in the room for me, as big as the fox in the motor home. Forget about wise man, wise guy, cool scribe -- this was about professional pride. Were we run by our sources?
I was wondering what I would do when Chuck Wepner slipped into the proceedings. He looked uncertain. The Bayonne Bleeder had reasons; he had a tendency to mess up. He was the acknowledged inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's "Rocky" movies, but he never got paid. He was a successful liquor salesman who had recently spent two years in prison for cocaine trafficking. His greatest feat in the ring was stepping on Ali's foot to knock him down. He still lost the fight.
Wepner lurked at the fringes of the party. He seemed worried that Ali would snub him because of his conviction or because he had stepped on his foot or, worst of all, simply would not recognize him. Wepner was having an attack of low self-esteem, and I wasn't much help. I told him he didn't need to lurk, that he should just walk right over and say, "Hello, Champ." But Wepner decided to leave and began walking away. Ali seemed to purposely look elsewhere as Chuck crossed his line of vision.
Wepner was almost out of the backyard when Ali, laughing madly, jumped up, ran across the lawn and mimed stamping on Chuck's foot. Everybody was very happy, especially me. It would be the perfect feel-good finish for my-week-with-Ali story, taking the edge off my mentioning the presence of the mysterious little Assad.