The Bayonne-based sculptor Zhen Wu has worked diligently and patiently in his Kennedy Boulevard workshop for three months on a 2,500-pound clay sculpture of Wepner with a handlebar mustache he donned at the famed 1975 “Rumble in the Jungle” bout against Muhammad Ali. Wepner wears boxing shorts and gloves. His face is serious, contemplative, calm, and peaceful—unexpected in a man about to take on the greatest fighter of all time.
“He’s not angry. He’s not in a street fight,” said Wu. “Before you can be a hero, you have to be big on the inside. Outside, it doesn’t mean anything. I want to capture that power, his inside. I want kids to see this and know that power comes from trusting yourself first. Chuck Wepner is a good example.”
“Before you can be a hero, you have to be big on the inside. Outside, it doesn’t mean anything.” – Zhen Wu
Zhen Wu emigrated from China to Kansas City in the 1980s, where he adopted the name “Herbert,” which he still goes by. He soon moved to the East Coast and eventually settled in Bayonne, next door to the boisterous president of the Chuck Wepner fan club, Bruce Dillon.
Before approaching his neighbor to create the statue, Dillon consulted the artist who sculpted the Rocky statue in Philadelphia, A. Thomas Schomberg. In 2016, he sent Dillon a rendering of a Wepner statue. Dillon was pleased with the rendering and might have hired Schomberg. The problem? The half-million-dollar price tag.
“I said, ‘Well listen, I kind of like it.’” Dillon said. “‘We’re just going to copy your idea and we’re not going to have you do the statue’ I hear him throwing sh-t. ‘Are you out of your mind? I’m going to sue you.’ “I wish I recorded it. So, I started hounding Herbert.”
“I said [to Wu] ‘let’s copy this guy’s rendering,’” Dillon said.
Wu told Dillon, “You f---ing insult me.”
“I don’t trust him,” Wu said. “He’s my terrible neighbor. He’s a joker.”
Eventually, Wu agreed. “He bothered me every day like an old lady,” Wu said.
Wu wouldn’t copy Schomberg’s rendering. He wanted to make one better, and cheaper. He’s semi-retired and said he doesn’t need the money, so he donated his time and asked only that Dillon provide the funds, which he raised partly from the premiere of “The Bleeder” at Frank’s Theaters. Wu couldn’t resist the challenge to convey the intrinsic strength of a man as physically and outwardly strong as Wepner.
Patience is key
The sculpting process is tedious and iterative. Wu works on the sculpture every day, carefully sculpting while glancing back and forth from vintage photos of Wepner with his handlebar mustache, using hand tools to dig in to the clay and sometimes his thumb to smooth it out.
“I want detail,” Wu said, pointing to the grooves in the clay. Dillon considered the cheaper route: hiring a commercial statue company to create 3D model casts like the ones the city purchased to beautify Broadway. But he decided he wanted to do Wepner justice.
The process started with creating a two-foot-tall steel rough draft of the final product, gaining feedback, then going back to enlarge it into a clay model with much more detail. Wu fixes the clay to an armature, which is wrapped with papier mache so the clay doesn’t slide off. (Wepner’s left leg did slide off at one point, setting Wu back a couple of days.)
Dillon first asked Wu to make Wepner’s face mean, but Wu didn’t want to do that. Conveying Wepner’s strength is the artist’s job; Wu has leverage over Dillon by virtue of his expertise, and he couldn’t get it done cheaper or better anywhere else.
“I said you have to respect me. I make the decision,” Wu said. “I do my work, this is my work. I put my name on it. If you want to say no good, that doesn’t matter. If I don’t do that, everybody will be my boss.”
The tiny Wepner came out looking too mean, which Wu chalks up to Wepner’s swollen boxer eyebrows that practically hang down over his eyes. The larger the statue, the more room for detail.
Wepner’s body was also too chiseled, which may be appropriate for a superhero. But real-life strength often goes along with some body fat.
The large clay version is much more detailed, and slightly chunkier around the waste, much to Wu’s and Dillon’s pleasure. “I want to make him look powerful, but we don’t want to make him look fat,” Wu said.
The next step is to cast the statue in bronze and get county officials to allow them to leave it in the park indefinitely.
“Every day I tell myself be patient. I want to do a good job,” Wu said. “I want professional sculptors to come here and see that it’s good.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.