North Avenue bar celebrates holidays with real-life ‘Rocky’ boxer Chuck Wepner

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By Rebecca Panico | Published Dec. 25, 2016

Some came to the annual holiday party Tuesday night at Sharkey’s Campus Inn for a few drinks, free catered food, live music or to catch up with old friends.

But just about everyone came to the bar at 498 North Ave. for Chuck Wepner, whom the “Rocky” films are based off of.

“I know most of these people,” Wepner said. “They’re nice people here. They’re good, blue collar, hard-working people here.”

Joe Sharkey has owned the bar, located about a block away from Kean University, for about 25 years. Wepner is his godfather, but the two refer to each other as uncle and nephew since they’re so close.

Photographs of Wepner line an entire wall at one end of the bar, which Sharkey calls the “Wall of Fame.” Wepner’s fights were played on loop Tuesday night on televisions, too.

“I do this every year,” said Sharkey of the annual holiday party. “I put a free buffet out. I have live entertainment. I have a beer special. I do this once a year, I give back to my customers.”

Wepner, a Bayonne native, went into the ring with the late Muhammad Ali for the 1975 world heavyweight title. He lasted fifteen rounds, and even knocked Ali down at one point, before losing.

“I was one of the ushers,” said Wepner, referring to Ali’s funeral. “I was up there with all the champions, we paid our respects for him. He was a great fighter and a great man.”

Several people from Bayonne stopped by the Union Township bar, and patrons both young and old stayed into the early morning hours of Wednesday, enjoying live music by Skyline Showband.

News of the party spread mostly through word-of-mouth. One bartender compared Sharkey’s to “Cheers,” an 80s sitcom about a cozy bar in Boston and its witty employees and patrons.

“It’s like ‘Cheers,’” said Hope Moran, who’s been bartending at Sharkey’s since August. “It’s like a great big family, full of love, familiarity and comfort.”

Those at the event Tuesday night said they’ve been coming to Sharkey’s for several years and are attracted to its homey characteristics, like the friendly bartenders, pool table and dartboard.

“It’s a place where everyone knows your name,” said Bolivar Valdivieso, who goes by Bo, after the event.

The famous boxer — who said he’s been coming to Sharkey’s for the past 27 years — got along with some people at Kean University. He said he was friends with a former athletic director and referred to Kean as “a great college.”

Wepner, who’s known as the Bayonne Bleeder, also has a new film set to be released in the U.S. next year about his life. The movie, titled “The Bleeder,” stars Liev Schreiber as Wepner.

Rebecca Panico may be reached at Follow The Tower on Twitter@KeanTower. Find The Tower on Facebook.

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