Operation Bullpen: The Inside Story

Ex-heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner fought a memorable 1975 title fight with Muhammad Ali, a bouth that may have inspired Sylvester Stallone to make "Rocky." But after Wepner left boxing, he and John Olson teamed up to produce counterfeit Ali and Stallone memorabilia. As this excerpt shows, Olson forged the signatures and the man who bills himself as "the real-life Rocky" vouched for their authenticity . . .

Olson estimated that over the years he forged close to 10,000 items, mainly of Muhammad Ali. "It was crazy. We went on for years. People saying, 'I want to buy five hundred Ali photographs. I want to buy a thousand Ali photographs.'"

To meet these demands, John did the forging, Brian [Ginsberg, a Long Island memorabilia dealer] did the selling, and Chuck did the vouching. "Chuck would say we had five hundred photos signed by Ali and we'd show them a photo of Chuck and Ali together. If someone said something about it, Chuck would say, 'Oh no, I was with Ali personally.' He also sometimes gave letters of authenticity. But he didn't like doing that because he knew that'd catch up with him," said Olson.

And if someone questioned their wares, they'd spin a story. "Whether it was me coming up with a story or him, we always had a story."

Wepner told their customers that he sent things to be signed to Ali's home in Berrien Springs, Michigan. That Ali was a close personal friend and that was why he signed for him. That Ali did the signings "off the books," for cash, and behind the back of the unsuspecting Harlan Werner, Ali's agent. That Ali sometimes signed free for him. Once, when questioned by a skeptical customer about some bogus Champions Forever posters Wepner was pushing, Chuck said he'd "swear on a stack of Bibles" that the sigs were authentic.

Olson said he forged mainly Ali, "but we branched out into other guys," mostly other big-name fighters. Their chief stock in trade were photographs, especially 16x20s of Ali paired with celebrities -- Ali and the Beatles, Ali and Elvis Presley and of course, Ali in his famous fight with Wepner, the fifteen-round heavyweight title fight that may have inspired Sylvester Stallone to make "Rocky." Olsen and Wepner charged Ginsberg ten to fifty dollars per forgery, and Ginsberg sold them to the public for whatever the market would bear -- as much as $1,000 apiece or more, depending on the item. They also sold signed boxing posters, boxing gloves, boxing trunks, headgear, ring gongs (the bells used to signal the end of a round), even hand-wraps. Sometimes Olson would pack up a box of photos and stuff for Wepner, who'd sell it out of the trunk of his car while he was making his rounds as a liquor salesman.

Olson's work -- "My stuff was pretty good, really close," he said, assessing himself as a forger -- included Stallone photos and some "Rocky" posters as well. "I used to do a lot of Stallone stuff for Chuck," said Olson. "And I met Stallone with Chuck."

They handled Stallone sigs much the way they did Ali. Wepner and Olson would appear at a card show, bringing some forged photos of Ali with them. "Say we had some shots of Ali that were already signed," he said. "So you're standing there on line waiting to get Chuck's autograph, and Chuck signs his name to the picture and you see him do it. So you're going to say that the Ali sig that's on the photo is fake? I don't think so. We did the same thing with Stallone pictures."

Much of the business he and Wepner did, said Olson, was in cash. "Everything was good. By the term 'good,' I mean we were making illegal money." Though all three of them, Ginsberg included, were aware that things could turn bad for them. And if this ever happened, they had worked out a code for how to handle it. "If one of us called the other and the first thing he said was, 'I hope the stuff you sold me was good,' then that was code that the FBI was onto us," said Olson.

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