Meeting Chuck Wepner On The Way To Pacquiao vs. Rios in NYC
It's a perfect summer day so I decide to cycle the fifteen or so miles from NJ to Chinatown to observe the Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios press conference.
Riding down Broad Ave. in Leonia, NJ, a boxing legend walks across the street in front of me. It's Chuck Wepner, former world heavyweight championship challenger and inspiration to the historic film character "Rocky Balboa."
I tell Chuck I'm going to the Pacquiao press conference and he replies that he adores Pacquiao, that he met him at the big Muhammad Ali birthday bash last year, but he would prefer to see Manny retire, so that there is no chance he will ever get hurt or KOed again. Wepner, at 74 and is very good physical shape and showing zero hints of punchiness, clearly cares very much for Pacquiao's well-being.
We talk a bit more and Chuck informs me of some interesting facts. He shows me the actual telegram Don King sent him two days after their memorable Cleveland fight. Wepner says promoter Bob Arum saw the telegram and offered to buy the artifact for $25,000 but Check declined. Check allows me to take a photo of the telegram which King writes some very nice things about Chuck, saying he loves Chuck, to keep "Bangin in there" and has big ideas for the future.
Chuck has a special place in his heart for King and defends him against charges of ripping off certain fighters, saying King kept his word and always delivered the purses he promised. He says King used to give boxers advances when they needed it and then reduced their purses by these "draws." Wepner never needed a draw on his purse because he always had a job to supplement his boxing career.
Interestingly, Wepner also said that King borrowed money from the mob to stage Ali vs. Wepner and if the fight lost money, they were going to kill King. But the fight was profitable - and the rest is history.
It made me think about when I asked Bob Arum last year at the Pac-Marquez press conference about giving Pacquiao an easy fight, for a change, against a Wepner type opponent (Check told me he was a 40-l underdog vs. Ali) and Arum said that fight didn't make any money. But I think Pacquiao is like Ali, he could fight anybody and it will sell big numbers. Pacquiao has had to face a murderer's row over the last four or five or six years and it has to have taken a toll, but then again, maybe facing such formidable opposition is also a factor in what has made Pac become one of the most amazing and electrifying fighting marvels in ring history.
Chuck, who drives a shiny new black Lincoln, has to get back to work - he's a liquor distributor - and I carry on to the City, where I meet a friend Lynn Quayle for lunch at Columbus Circle. Lynn was the long time assistant of the artist LeRoy Neiman. We talk about old times and stuff, both of us missing our companionship with our dear friend.
I arrive at the Chinese restaurant on Elizabeth St. off Canal St. early, minutes before Arum arrives with Rios. Arum is in a great mood, and takes photos and gives autographs to the dozens of boxing fans at the entrance. Some fans at the very front tell me they have been there since noon.
Rios is also in a very friendly mood, he's a good kid with a great spirit. Hard not to like Rios who is clearly enjoying his time in the limelight.
Rios told me later that this is his last chance to make the big money, he has not come to terms with working with the infamous fitness coach Heredia, and that he wishes his dad was here to experience the build up to the Pacquiao fight. Rios said his dad always believed in the dream to be in a superfight like this and always knew it was going to come true for his son. Now it has.
Arum is at his best at the podium, giving about a 20 minute statement, sharing his excitement about this new venture to expand his boxing empire to China. Boxing was banned in China for thirty years, he tells us, but the ban was lifted before the 2008 Olympics.
Arum remarked how earlier in the day he and Pacquiao were at the Time Magazine editorial offices and one of the editors told Arum and Pacquiao about his lackluster experience of attending a recent Mayweather fight, saying it lacked the pizazz of a Pacquiao event.
Rios spoke and showed not a hint of malevolance toward Pacquiao, nor did his trainer Robert Garcia. They respect and admire Pacquiao, for what he has achieved in boxing and the way he carries himself outside of the sport, as much as any boxing fan. I mean, how can you not. Pacquiao never says a bad word about anyone and he is devoted to helping his people as much as he possibly can.
When Pacquiao speaks it's clear he has not been affected by the KO loss in any noticeable way. His spirit and smile shine as always. He says he was in superb condition for the last fight, he felt very strong and sharp, but he just got careless and got hit with a perfect punch. He is ready to redeem himself and looking forward to feeling the thrill of victory once again.
When it was time for the photo pose for photographers, both smiled and joked with the cameras, with Manny happily directing the order of different poses for the different angles of cameras. Rios played a long and was smiling too. I have never seen two warriors enjoy a photo-op as much as they did yesterday.
But surely, it will be all business in November, when the most popular boxer in the world attempts to save his career in Macau, China, against the very dangerous and hard-nosed Brandon Rios.
Notes: An MTV rep was there to get a photo of Manny and Rios with the famous MTV "Moonman" award for publicity of the MTV Video Music Awards later this summer. The ref Jeff told me that he took photos of NBA All Stars and other celebrities with the Moonman but he did not take it to be photographed with Mayweather...The media turnout for this event was missing some of the familiar faces, in attendance were: Thomas Hauser, Tim Smith, Zach Levin, Mitch Abramson, Steve Farhood, John Gatling, Francisco from Boxing Scene, Jerry Glick, Jeff from Bokser.org, but that was about it. There were thirteen video cameras filming the festivities.