BY ED CHURCH (September 2022)

For any fan of the Rocky films, it is almost impossible to watch an Oscar Bonavena fight without experiencing an uncanny sense of familiarity. Aside from a basic physical similarity between the real-life heavyweight and Sylvester Stallone’s screen creation, there is something about the way the pair go about their business. Bonavena, the iron-jawed brawler, walking through punches, never backing down, always willing – as one observer put it – “to take two to give one”.

Sure, the Argentine fighter didn’t endure quite as many undefended head shots as Rocky Balboa (no-one could), but in a 68-fight career spanning 1964-1976, he probably came closer than most. That Bonavena chalked up 58 victories bears testimony to the crunching blows with which he responded. In fact, the only man to ever knock him out was some guy called Muhammad Ali – and even The Greatest took until the 15th round.    

So, could Oscar Bonavena have been a source of inspiration when a young Sylvester Stallone was penning the original Rocky script? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this if the answer was a flat ‘No’. But things are a little more complicated than that…

Born in Buenos Aires in 1942, Oscar Natalio Bonavena certainly grew up a long way from Rocky’s Philadelphia, though both the man and the character were the offspring of Italian immigrants. By his early 20s, Bonavena’s pugilistic talent had brought him to the east coast of America and a fast rise through the pro ranks in New York. ‘Ringo’ Bonavena was the moniker plastered on the boxing posters, the nickname attributed to a Beatles-like haircut. Ringo Bonavena… Rocky Balboa… Catchy names, those.

In 1968, four years into his professional career and with 38 wins already to his name, Bonavena suffered a painful points defeat to Joe Frazier in a title bout in Philadelphia. Aside from Frazier’s successful defence of his NYSAC belt, however, the story of the night came from the press photos of Bonavena’s battered and swollen face at the end. Arresting images of a challenger’s stubborn refusal to give up on his shot at glory – a theme later echoed in the Rocky v Apollo fights.

Back in New York, by the time of Bonavena’s next two high-profile bouts at Maddison Square Gardens (the 15th round KO by Ali in 1970 and a points defeat to former champ Floyd Paterson in 1972) an aspiring writer and actor, born Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, was living in the city and indulging his love of boxing.

If you look for them, the quirky little Rocky / Ringo connections never seem too far away. Like the prominence of the name Adrian or Adriana in their family life (Balboa’s wife and Bonavena’s daughter), or the tempestuous relationship both had with their brother-in-law (Bonavena missing a fight with George Foreman when he was charged with assaulting his wife’s brother). Another curious nexus: the first time we ever see Stallone on screen as Rocky, he is in the ring with Bonavena’s compatriot Pedro Lovell (the Argentine boxer playing the character of Spider Rico). 

Nevertheless, if we’re trying to construct all the pieces of Rocky here, then Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena only takes us so far. I mean, what about the whole Philadelphia angle? The art museum steps that Rocky ran up in all the training montages? Or the slaughterhouse he worked in, throwing punches at the swinging sides of beef?

Well, for that we need to return to that Bonavena v Frazier fight, except this time look at the guy in the other corner. Funny thing about Joe Frazier – he lived in Philadelphia, trained by running up the art museum steps, and worked in a slaughterhouse where he would throw punches at the sides of beef. Huh…

The bout which resulted in the images of Bonavena’s battered face was, in fact, the second time the pair had met, Bonavena faring better in their earlier encounter and putting ‘Smokin’ Joe’ down twice before a narrow defeat on the judges’ cards. In other words, the entire smorgasbord of Rocky character traits shared between these two warriors was served up twice to any boxing fan watching. Somewhere, in the mind of the as-yet-unknown Stallone, is it just possible that his most famous character was absorbing bits and pieces from both fighters? Adopting and adapting traits? Starting to take shape?

Well, officially… Nope.

Twenty-five years after the release of the original film, when Sylvester Stallone was interviewed by a magazine about Rocky’s origins, the fighter he pointed to was former US marine Chuck Wepner. The story goes that watching Wepner’s courageous defeat to Muhammad Ali in 1975, including his shock knockdown of the champion, was the trigger for Stallone to create his ultimate underdog tale.

Now… There are certainly parallels between Wepner’s story and that original Rocky script. Both were long-shot underdogs when awarded their title chance, kept going through fearsome beatings, and stunned the crowd by putting their respective champs on the canvas before ultimately losing. But… while not exactly wanting to disagree with Rocky’s creator… I wonder if we’re only getting one piece of the jigsaw here.

The 6’5” Wepner was an ungainly fighter, whose main plan against Ali consisted of constantly wrapping him up in those long arms and ‘rabbit punching’ the champion in the back of the head. The illegal tactic infuriated Ali and should have led to Wepner being docked points or even disqualified. Instead it went entirely unpunished by the referee, quickly spoiling the fight as a spectacle. The famous knockdown with which Wepner is credited in the ninth round is also not quite as it seems, with Ali appearing to trip in a tangle of feet. 

(Credit where it’s due, there is no denying Wepner’s courage as Ali finally asserts himself in the later rounds, breaking Wepner’s nose and putting him down repeatedly before the ref finally gets something right by saving the challenger from himself).

So, with all the usual caveats that this is nothing more than a personal opinion, what might be going on with this less-than-complete version of Rocky’s origins? If Oscar Bonavena scores high on the ‘Rocky-meter’ in the ring, Joe Frazier for his biographical details, and Chuck Wepner for his underdog credentials, why might Sylvester Stallone be happy for us to gloss over the first two and focus on Wepner?  

The first thing I would suggest is… statues. Or, rather, one statue, and another conspicuous by its absence. Long before public statues and their place in social history became such a hot topic, Philadelphia had managed to get itself into a bit of pickle when it came to their acknowledgement of Rocky Balboa and Joe Frazier. In a nutshell, the city’s fictional, white, world champion had enjoyed a prominent sculpture in Philly since 1982; while their real, black, world champion had been granted no such recognition. The accolade of ‘Philadelphia’s favourite son’ applied to Rocky, not Frazier. Awkward.

I wonder if, at some level, Stallone realised that saying the much-heralded Rocky had been based on the under-appreciated Frazier would only draw further attention to the unfortunate disparity.

Then there is Oscar ‘Ringo’ Bonavena. Charismatic but difficult. A hard-drinking womaniser who lived in the moral grey areas (including the darker shades), he has been variously accused of being a racist, a bully and a homophobe – instantly ruling him out from ever being credited as an inspiration for the loveable Rocky.

(Bonavena might be cut a little slack where the charges relate to his pre-fight trash talk with Muhammad Ali. In footage of the weigh-in, his insults are delivered in halting English while the fast-talking Ali appears to orchestrate the animosity. After the fight, the two look best of friends as they laugh and joke in the locker room. “We worked together and sold some tickets,” says Ali…).

Still, all of that leaves Chuck Wepner as the last man standing in the ‘real Rocky’ stakes. And since the Rocky movies are not averse to a bit of flag-waving patriotism, the choice of the former US marine is a nice safe bet. It avoids all the controversies that might have been stirred up had Stallone pointed to either of the other would-be claimants. Plus, if you take your inspiration from multiple sources and choose to only highlight one, then it’s not not true… Just, perhaps, not the full picture.  

As a result of the 2001 interview identifying him as the real-life Rocky, the long-retired Wepner brought a lawsuit against Sylvester Stallone claiming he deserved remuneration for inspiring the successful franchise. In 2003, he received an undisclosed pay-out as the parties settled out of court. The ‘real Rocky’ tag helped Wepner turn his life around, though a part of me wonders if the outcome wasn’t entirely without benefit for Stallone too – any other, thornier, claims now officially excluded from the debate.    

As for what Oscar Bonavena thought of it all, we will never know. In the spring of 1976, six months before the original film’s release, he was shot dead in confused circumstances in Reno, Nevada. The boxer’s closeness to his new female manager had incurred the ire of her husband, powerful owner of the state’s only legal brothel (a new book by Patrick Connor, Shot at a Brothel, looks deeper into the events).

Joe Frazier rarely commented on the whole Rocky controversy, and even made a cameo appearance in the first film. But, later in life, the rubber-stamping of Wepner as the official inspiration appeared to sting. “He never paid me for none of my past,” he said of Stallone in a 2008 interview. “I only got paid for a walk-on part. Rocky is a sad story for me.” 

In 2015, some four years after Frazier’s death from liver cancer, a publicly-funded statue of him was finally unveiled in Philadelphia, three decades after the one of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky began attracting tourists. The push to recognise Frazier was led by Joe Hand, a former police officer who, while on the force, had befriended Frazier as part of a group that helped fund his early career.

“I figured it would cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars,” Hand said of the long-overdue sculpture. “And I was willing to come up with that if necessary.”

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