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Shoot or Work?: Andre The Giant vs. Chuck Wepner

Andre vs. Wepner

By Sean Wheelock for F4WOnline.com

Editor's note: Sean recently reached to us with a concept: an in-depth and analytical look at infamous matches from MMA, boxing, pro wrestling, kickboxing, and mixed match fighting to determine whether the controversial and contentious bouts were shoots (real competition) or works (predetermined result).

If you're not familiar with his work, Sean is an MMA, boxing, and combat sports television commentator, having broadcast over 3200 bouts across 21 countries.  He’s also the chairman of the ABC’s MMA Rules and Regulations Committee, a commission member of the Kansas Athletic Commission, and a former licensed professional boxing referee.

His first one: Andre The Giant vs. Chuck Wepner from New York's Shea Stadium on June 25, 1976."


Andre The Giant vs. Chuck Wepner was the headliner of a then-WWWF pro wrestling card dubbed “Showdown at Shea,” promoted by Vince McMahon, Sr.  The event was held at the then home of the New York Mets—Shea Stadium—in conjunction with the Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki bout, which was taking place at Budokan Hall in Tokyo.  The two wrestler vs. boxer matches were marketed under the banner “War of the Worlds” and were shown live on closed circuit television across the US, and internationally, including in Canada and the UK.

Immediately after “Showdown” had concluded, the New York crowd of almost 33,000 were able to watch Ali vs. Inoki live on a three-sided video screen, placed on the baseball infield.  I’d love to write about that infamous mixed match fight, but Josh Gross’ outstanding 2016 book on the subject now stands as the definitive word on the subject and he leaves absolutely no doubt that Ali vs. Inoki was a shoot.

Yet 42 years later, Andre vs. Wepner still has an air of unsolved mystery about it. The waters are made murky by numerous major media outlets that treated the mixed match fighting spectacle as a completely legitimate sporting event, Wepner’s multiple conflicting statements on the bout, and the fact that Andre never broke kayfabe, ever. And then there is the surviving video, which can be charitably described as low-resolution, making the differentiation between real and imagined that much more difficult.

At the time of the match, Andre was firmly entrenched as one of the genuine superstars of pro wrestling.  He had just turned 30, and was without question, one of McMahon, Sr.’s biggest draws in the WWWF, and the numerous promotions, foreign and domestic, where Andre went on loan. Billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” and in advertising material for the Wepner match at “7’5, 463 lbs,” Andre was clearly the A-side of the main event at Shea.

The B-side was then left to Wepner, known as both the “The Bayonne Brawler” and perhaps more appropriately, “The Bayonne Bleeder.”  His 15th round TKO loss to then WBA and WBC World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali one year earlier, is widely acknowledged as Sylvester Stallone’s primary inspiration for “Rocky". By the time he entered the ring vs. Andre, Wepner was 37 years old, and in the closing stages of his boxing career. But he was still a formidable heavyweight at 6’5, 232 lbs, with 33 pro wins—including a 2nd round knockout of Tommy Sheehan the month prior.  While never a full-blown star in boxing, Wepner had fought—and lost to—some legitimate greats like Ali, George Forman, and Sonny Liston.

The rules for the match were fairly straight forward: Andre could execute anything in his pro wrestling arsenal, but would have to release Wepner, and any hold applied, whenever the boxer touched the ring ropes. Wepner would wear boxing gloves, and would throw punches as his only strikes, and, indeed, his only offense.

The bout was scheduled for 10 three-minute rounds with referee John Stanley, and judges Al Lee and Harry Lewis all keeping scorecards. The possible outcomes were pinfall, submission, knockout, TKO, decision, draw, countout, or disqualification.

The Match

Completely bare fisted and in his standard pro wrestling attire, Andre immediately moved forward in a poor man’s Archie Moore cross armed striking guard, while keeping his chest square to the target.  Wepner, dressed like he would for any pro boxing bout, quickly went to work with his left jab from the outside in his orthodox (right handed) stance. On the first clinch, a bear hug by Andre, Wepner fell back into the ropes, and then grabbed the top rope with his left glove. Per the rules, referee John Stanley called for the break, a recurring theme.

Next up, we get an Andre side head lock, Wepner into the ropes, and the break. Then, another Andre bear hug, Wepner into the ropes, and the break—this time met by a chorus of boos from the Shea Stadium crowd.

As the first round progressed, Wepner established his jab from range, and at times made Andre look really slow and somewhat uncoordinated. Absent was the big man grace that Andre exhibited so freely in this era during his pro wrestling matches. There were some very slick and subtle feints by Wepner with his left, for which Andre had no answer.

In center ring, with space between them, Wepner’s boxing looked sharp and repeated jabs to the body and the head land. Wepner, thought, threw limited right hands to the body, and failed to throw a single right to Andre’s head during the entire round.  The pro wrestler’s offense in Round 1 came in the form of closing the distance and then clinching or locking up—always immediately countered by Wepner moving to the ring ropes to force the break.

In the final minute of the round, Andre came inside looking to hit a single leg takedown. Wepner quickly clinched, hooking his right arm tightly over Andre’s head in a very savvy boxing move. Andre then released Wepner’s left leg as his opponent fell into the ropes for yet another break.

In the round’s closing seconds, Andre again moved forward, this time snatching an arm-in front facelock. Wepner attempt to defend by throwing his free right hand to Andre’s body. Eventually, Wepner walked himself backwards and put his right hip against the middle ring rope. This forced—yes, you guessed it—a break, just before the bell to end the round.

Between rounds 1 and 2, Vince McMahon, Jr., who was doing play by play commentary with an almost inaudible Antonio “Argentina” Rocca as his color commentator, gave a live read stating that “The champion of the ‘War of the Worlds’ will be awarded a new Harley Davidson motorcycle,” as the SS 250 was shown parked on the Shea Stadium infield dirt.  I remain unclear if McMahon meant that the winner of Andre vs. Wepner and Ali vs. Inoki would both be given the Harley, or if perhaps some victorious wrestler—maybe Bruno Sammartino, who earlier that evening had defeated Stan Hansen in the co-main event -- might claim the prize. I also remain unclear if anyone at Harley Davidson or the WWWF ever considered how Andre would be able to fit onto that motorcycle.

In a moment of lax officiating by Stanley, Andre was allowed to start round 2 dead center of the ring, rather than in his corner. Wepner visibly protested to no avail, immediately angled to his left, and missed with a jab to the body. Soon after, Andre came inside, and Wepner moved back against the ring ropes for the break.  Rinse and repeat.

After the separation, Andre walked forward with his cross armed defense, and go caught high on the chest by a clean Wepner left jab. Andre then changed levels, and grabbed a high crotch single. Rather than looking for the takedown, Andre seemed intent on dumping Wepner over the top rope. The boxer regained his balance and footing, and began to land big right hands directly to the back of Andre’s head. Andre countered with an overhand right to the back of Wepner’s neck, which drew a hard warning from Stanley.

Taking advantage of the reset, Wepner then moved forward, and landed a right hook to the unprepared Andre’s body, causing the wrestler to immediately tie up. Wepner responded by—wait for it—moving back into the ring ropes for still another break. After another jab and move, clinch, and break from the ropes sequence, Wepner threw a hard jab to the body, stepped back and then landed a left hook flush to Andre’s head. Andre immediately applied another arm-in front facelock, and then connected with a clean knee to Wepner’s stomach, causing McMahon on play by play to blurt out “Oh no!”

Stanley confusingly deemed the knee an illegal blow, and separated the fighters.  On the restart, Andre moved forward and got double underhooks, which he then used to hit a fairly well executed lateral drop, landing in side control.  The position is also one from which Andre could get the 3 count, but Wepner negated the pin by draping his right leg over the bottom rope.

Upon being stood up by Stanley, Wepner started shouting at Gorilla Monsoon, sitting at ringside wearing sunglasses for the night time event, and working as Andre’s chief second in the bout. Andre moved in to take advantage of the seemingly distracted Wepner, who quickly hooked the top rope with his right arm, and clinched the wrestler’s head with his left arm. Seconds after the break was ordered, the bell sounded to end Round 2.

During the one minute rest period, McMahon did a live read for JVC as a still photo of the then state of the art Model 3050 combination TV/radio was shown. It appears to be only slightly smaller than the Harley, and perhaps weighs a bit more.

Wepner came out for Round 3 with an increased urgency and went to work with his left jab. Andre closed distance, and Wepner maneuvered himself back into the ropes. But before Stanley couuld order the break, Andre pulled Wepner center ring with a fully locked bear hug. Wepner’s defense quickly turns to offense as he started throwing jackhammer right hands to the side and back of Andre’s head. The onslaught caused Andre to duck, release, and attempt a head butt from an almost Thai plum.

Wepner immediately moved backward out of range, but Andre followed and again got inside. From there, the wrestler grabbed Wepner’s head, dropped levels, and moved behind his opponent. Andre then lifted Wepner’s full body straight up off the canvas from a belly to back position for an attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful, atomic drop. Wepner landed firmly on both feet, but then turned directly into a straight-on head butt from Andre.

Seeing his opponent fall back into the ropes upon impact, Andre quickly moved in, and scooped Wepner up with his right hand into a body slam position. Moving first towards the ring ropes, Andre then changeed course, and positioned the now aerial and immobile Wepner horizontally in his arms as he walked towards the center. Andre changed direction again, moved back towards the edge of the ring, and threw Wepner over the ropes. On the way out, Wepner overhooked the top rope with his right hand, and got his right leg caught between the middle and top rope. This caused the boxer to fall first onto the ring apron, before finally tumbling onto the Shea Stadium infield.

Rather than give Wepner 20 seconds to get back into the ring—as was then and is still the rule for professional boxing when a fighter falls out of the squared circle—referee John Lewis started the standard pro wrestling 10 count.  A melee ensued around Wepner, which included Monsoon and Wepner’s manager Al Braverman in the quickly formed group. Both Wepner and Braverman later claimed that Monsoon put his foot on Wepner’s chest in an effort to keep the boxer from getting up off the ground.

While Wepner was still down, the bell rang which gave Andre the victory at 1:17 of Round 3 via countout.

The Case for a Shoot

Throughout the bout, Wepner cleanly throws and lands his left jab. Rather than pulling his punches, Wepner consistently turns them over. He feints, sticks, and moves; at times almost toying with Andre in the center of the ring. In round 2, Wepner lands big right hands to the back of Andre’s head, when the wrestler is looking for a takedown. The right handed blows to the side and back of his opponent’s head are even more ferocious when Andre grabs a bear hug in round 3. In this sequence, Andre ducks and eventually releases the hold in an effort to get away from Wepner’s punches. Then, there is the shovel left hook to Andre’s face landed by Wepner in the second round, which lands flush.  

For his part, Andre connects on an overhand right to the back of the neck and a knee to the body on Wepner in round 2. Andre applies a heavy arm-in front facelock in both the first and second round, and hits a lateral drop from double underhooks in round 2. And in the closing sequence of the bout, Andre throws Wepner messily over the top rope, which causes the boxer to become tangled on the way down.  

The flow of the entire match largely revolves around Wepner grabbing or falling into the ropes to force the break when Andre moves inside. This makes for clunky, stop-start pacing which belies proper orchestration and cooperation between the two men.

And not that this means anything really, but the mainstream media definitely seemed to think that the bout was on the level.  The New York Times ran both a preview and a review of the mixed match fight with the day after recap story containing the headline “Wepner Throttled by Andre". The New York Daily News quoted both men in their next day story on the match, with Wepner saying “I figured I'd work on his stomach. He hit me wih an illegal shot. I could beat him." Andre countering, “I could’ve knocked him out in the first round, but he kept holding on the ropes.”

Five years after the bout, in a profile on Andre for Sports Illustrated, Terry Todd wrote, “In the third round…Wepner really clocked the Giant as they broke from the ropes. Whereupon Andre, in a more than usually fell swoop, angrily snatched his smaller opponent into the air and pitched him forthwith over the topmost rope, ending the bout.”

In 1986, HBO included Andre vs. Wepner in their special “Son of the Not So Great Moments in Sports,” in which host Tim McCarver stated, “Without his normal script, Andre the Giant just went after Wepner. Seriously. Serious mistake for Wepner.” And Wepner’s manager Al Braverman said in the program, “Chuck hits this guy a terrific jab—a jolt— right on the schnoz. Full face. I see the Giant, he just went ‘huh!’; and I seen Chuck’s face change a little bit.  This was something wrong.”

For those who cling to the belief that Andre vs. Wepner was a legitimate fight, the brawl which took place in the closing seconds and immediately after the bell sounded—and which moved from the Shea Stadium infield into the ring—is almost always cited.  There are definitely a few random punches, as well as a lot of pushing and shoving in the mass of bodies that includes Monsoon, Braverman, and Wepner’s entire camp—as well as Andre and Wepner themselves. The wrestler and boxer go after each other post-fight and Wepner absolutely nails Andre on his left shoulder with a windmill overhand right when both men are back in the ring following the count out.  

This all has the look and feel of a completely unscripted and chaotic occurrence, with tempers flaring across the board.

The Case for a Work

Let’s start with the third man in the ring for Andre vs. Wepner. At the time of the fight, John Stanley was a regular WWWF referee. Surely Wepner’s corner would have vehemently protested this assignment to the New York State Athletic Commission if the bout was legit. And for all of his clean jabs from the outside, and hard right hands while being held by Andre, Wepner doesn’t throw a single right hand to his opponent’s head from range. Not one.

While Wepner wasn’t seen as one of his era’s big punching heavyweights, he had recorded knockouts in all six of his previous pro boxing wins as he entered the bout vs. Andre. Over the course of the match’s seven minutes, 17 seconds, Wepner lands exactly one hook to Andre’s head from range, and it’s with his left hand. Wepner only throws his right to Andre’s head after being clinched or otherwise tied-up.  His straight right, right cross, right hook, and right upper cut are all entirely absent.

Absent for Andre is much of an offense in the entire bout.  Andre botches the atomic drop on Wepner in the second round, and he stomps the mat with his right foot as he lands the overhand right to the back of Wepner’s neck in Round 2, creating a sound all-too-familiar to pro wrestling fans. While Andre does execute a lateral drop in that round, it’s obvious that he doesn’t put his full body weight down on Wepner, while seeking the pin from side control.

During the third round, in a move highly recognizable to all Andre fans, the wrestler clearly headbutts his own hand, rather than Wepner’s skull.  When Andre lifts Wepner into his arms in the closing stages of the fight, he elects to toss his opponent over the ropes, rather than hit a body slam—a trademark Andre move.

In round 2, after Andre’s pin is negated by Wepner’s foot on the ropes, the boxer stands up, turns his back on Andre, and starts arguing with Monsoon, who is ringside. At the time of this bout, Wepner had been a professional boxer for 12 years. It’s simply not conceivable that in a legitimate fight, Wepner would focus his full attention away from his opponent while a round was in progress, and be so easily distracted. The thought of Wepner turning his back on Muhammad Ali during their world title bout to yell at Angelo Dundee or Bundini Brown is laughable.

And then there are the words of the later-in-life Wepner, which are diametrically opposed to what he said at the time of the mixed match fight. Last year, Wepner stated in an interview with entertainment writer David Onda, “We met at a hotel and we practiced some of the moves, because it is, you know, show business. I talked them into letting him just throw me out of the ring, and then I don't make it back in. And that's what he did."

And Wepner told Josh Gross in an interview for his 2016 book on Ali vs. Inoki, “Of course it was show business, so nobody was going to get seriously hurt.”

Wepner also described to Gross the post-fight fracas which offers further evidence to the choreographed nature of the bout, and the entirely unchoreographed nature of what followed immediately after Wepner was counted out: “It got very heated. Some of the wrestlers were jumping into the ring. Gorilla Monsoon was throwing around guys like rag dolls. We were in there to put on a show and give them a good time. A real fight over this? It was crazy.”

The Verdict

This match is without question a work; it just has a lot of probably unplanned strong style moments. I say unplanned because of the utter lack of Wepner’s pro wrestling training and experience. Andre was notorious for getting rough when opponents worked stiff, and meaning to or not, Wepner worked stiff throughout this bout.  The boxer didn’t know how to pull his punches, his sense of pacing was horrendous, and he didn’t seem to understand how to sell anything that came his way from Andre.

The most potent strike landed by Andre in the entire match—the knee to the body in round 2—occurred directly after Wepner landed his best punch of the fight, a left hook to Andre’s face.  The knee by Andre looked real, because it almost certainly was, and came as a receipt—an immediate payback to Wepner for his previous hard punch.

The ending is completely botched because Wepner doesn’t know how to take a bump out of the ring, and panics at the last second by flailing with his legs, and grabbing the top rope with his right glove.

In all likelihood, Wepner’s corner legitimately became enraged when Monsoon touched their fighter, and the melee that followed was almost certainly a shoot. But this could have immediately evolved into a worked shoot by Monsoon and his WWWF compatriots, as they reflexively sensed a prime opportunity to further enhance the moment.

While neither as famous nor infamous as its counterpart Ali vs. Inoki, Andre vs. Wepner rightfully deserves to hold a very high place in the history of mixed match fighting. Although it lacked flow and any sense of real drama until the very end, the bout was still a great deal of fun. And it had an ending that was awkward and chaotic enough to cast further doubt as to what exactly was going on that night in New York.

That Andre the Giant’s victory over Chuck Wepner absolutely fooled a huge number of people—mainstream media members included—makes me like it that much more.