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Sports Articles: Boxing Legends Part 4: Willie Pep

Boxing Legends Part 4: Willie Pep
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Willie Pep 'Will'o The Wisp' 'Connecticut Kid'

 

"Trying to hit Pep is like trying to step on a flame." - Kid Chocolate

Willie Pep was born Guglielmo Papaleo on 19th September 1922, to Sicilian immigrants Mary and Salvatore in Middleton, Connecticut. His mother was a factory worker and his father a construction worker and they lived in the 'Little Italy' neighbourhood of South Hartford, a tough neighbourhood where you had to fight to protect yourself. His father Sal was a big boxing fan and would sometimes take his young son along to watch local boxing matches. The family have childhood pictures of Pep in boxing gloves as young as the age of 5, though it was much later when he actually took up the sport.

It was when he was working as a shoeshine boy in downtown Hartford, alongside fellow future professional boxer Johnny Duke (Giulio Gallucci) that saw him turn to boxing as a way of protecting himself and his patch from bigger boys. Pep later said of the time: "I weighed about 89 pounds soaking wet. I didn't know anything about boxing. I was just a kid, but I knew enough not to get hit." He and Duke joined a local gym together and became sparring partners.

It was also at this time that one of his vices began, gambling. He was only 13 when that began. He would be looking out of his bedroom window, in the families unheated tenement, and see a gang of boys shooting craps (a kind of dice game played for money) under the streetlights. Then he began sneaking out to join in: "It did something to me, I had to be down there watching the action. Pretty soon, I'd chisel a nickel here, a dime there, go down to the game and have someone roll the dice for me."

"Willie Pep has the nonchalance and blinding speed to move within a half inch of danger and stay there all night." - John Lardner

Pep began his amateur career in 1937, at the time amateur boxers in Connecticut were allowed to fight for money which was a big help to the family as Willie's dad Sal suffered an illness which forced Pep to quit school to take a job in a wallpaper stockroom to look after his family in 1938. Pep was soon earning more boxing once a week than he did in his day job, leading to his dad saying he should fight on Tuesdays as well as Fridays when his mother said she was worried about him fighting.

This was the year that two legends of the fight game fought. Two that are often considered as amongst the best pound-for-pound boxers the world has ever seen. Guglielmo Papaleo was now calling himself Willie Pep and was being billed as 'The Connecticut Kid' travelled to Norwich in Connecticut, USA to what was known as 'the old car barn'. Formerly a repair shop for trains now Checkerboard Feed Co downstairs with a big unheated hall over it, which had bleachers on four sides of a boxing ring. Pep fought there a number of times as an amateur but this particular fight was to face a boxer named Ray Roberts.

Roberts, whose real name was Walker Smith, was fighting at welterweight then while Pep was a flyweight and was outweighed by between 25 and 40 pounds+ depending on which estimate you believe. Pep stepped in the ring against a man who he had been told was not that good, but he soon found out different as Roberts was all over him, giving him a lesson on his way to pick up the $20 pay for a win, while Pep took home $9 for losing. It was only afterwards he found out that 'Ray Roberts' was an amateur champion in New York, but amateurs could not fight for money there so he used a pseudonym to fight in Connecticut. Roberts was actually possibly the greatest middleweight (and pound-for-pound )boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson!

"The best advice I ever got was from a kid in the gym, who told me, 'when you are in the ring, make believe a cop is chasing you; don't let him catch you.'" - Willie Pep

The defeat did not hold Pep back as he won the Connecticut Amateur Flyweight Championship that year. The following year he stepped up to win the Connecticut Amateur Bantamweight Championship. He had won 62 of 65 amateur fights and now turned professional, starting his professional career on 10th July 1940 with a 4 round decision over James McGovern in Hartford. He fought regularly over the next few months and came to prominence early the next year with back-to-back wins over Ruby Garcia in Massachusetts. Pep had entered the fights as an underdog.

The first fight saw both boxers knocked down more than once but Pep came through to win. In the rematch he picked up cuts and was hurt by a clean right hook to the chin in the 5th, but his precise counters and technical brilliance took him to the win again. He was racking up fights at an astonishing rate, number 26 came in August 1941, just 6 days after fight number 25, and he won both, the second by a 1st round knockout over Eddie Flores in Michigan. He made his record 32-0 by the end of the year with a 3rd win over Ruby Garcia.

His trainer Bill Gore stepped up the level of his competition in 1942, in April he knocked Spider Armstrong down 4 times in the brand new Hartford Auditorium on his way to a 4th round knockout victory to make his record 39-0 in just his 3rd year of professional boxing. In June, after 3 more fights, he beat world title challenger Joey Archibald over 10 rounds, then took a 12 round decision win over Abe Denner in July to lift the New England Featherweight Title. Pep was now a top 10 ranked featherweight and beat another top 10-ranked fighter in the shape of Pedro Hernandez in August.

In September he was to face his idol Bobby 'Poison' Ivy, who he used to watch work out at the Charter Oak Gymnasium, where he also trained. Despite his respect for Ivy, Pep stopped him in the 10th and then fought and stopped Frankie Franceroni in just 2 minutes of the first round 9 days later at Madison Square Garden. His big following had by now earnt him enough money to buy a big house in a good neighbourhood in Hartford for his family.

"He was so clever, he could come up to an opponent from behind." - Don Dunphy

Around the same time the World Featherweight Champion, at least according to the NY State Athletic Commission, Chalky Wright successfully defended his belt against Lulu Constantine and negotiations began to make Pep his next opponent. A few weeks later, after Pep had dispatched 4 more opponents to make his record 53-0 (according to boxrec.com) promoter Mike Jacobs announced a 20th of November date for Pep to fight Wright at Madison Square Garden.

The fight was huge and generated the biggest gate for an indoor fight in New York in 1942, with a total of $71,868.70 split 40% to the champ and 15% to the challenger. Pep outpointed Wright over 15 rounds in a highly defensive performance that failed to impress the media of the time. Pep was the youngest world champion in 40 years, though the National Boxing Association refused to recognise him as champion until he beat their champ Sal Bartolo.

At this point Pep was to marry the first of what would later be 6 wives, after he kept an impulsive promise he made to a girl a year earlier, when he had promised to marry her if he became world champion. A few months after lifting the belt, he was a 20 year old married world champion. A few years later he was a divorced world champion with custody of 2 children! Pep was never to lose that impulsive streak.

"I've got it made. I've got a wife and a TV, and they're both working." - Willie Pep

To try and impress the fans and media, after 4 more wins he returned to MSG to face lightweight contender Allie Stolz in a non-title fight, with Pep a huge underdog due to the weight disadvantage. By this point only heavyweight champion Joe Louis could challenge him for selling tickets and 19,088 saw him knock Stolz down in the second on his way to a clear decision victory.

There were a number of options for big name opponents for Pep to fight next but Mike Jacobs brought Sammy Angott (born Engotti) forward as he had announced his return to the ring recently. Angott was the world lightweight champions before briefly retiring, claiming to have a bad hand injury, though it was rumoured he had quit because he refused to work for the mob. Angott was seen as a stepping stone to a match up with current lightweight champ Beau Jack.

On the 3rd of March the fight was announced for later that month, it would be Pep's 7th fight of 1943, which he would go into with a record of 63 wins, 0 draws, 0 defeats, which contrasts markedly with Floyd Mayweather's obsession over 50 and 0. And Pep was still just 21! The 10 rounder with Angott was to be a match up between a brilliant, technically superlative and undefeated featherweight world champion and a tough, rough former lightweight champion who was highly experienced and had not lost his belt in the ring.

Angott had been out of the ring for a period but had a not insignificant 4 pound weight advantage. Bookmakers still made Pep the favourite for a fight which caused a huge buzz with nearly 17,000 people turning up to watch a fight which was described by sportswriter Bob Considine as: "A bar-room brawl.....slugging, rassling and administering crushing football blocks." Even without a belt on the line people wanted to see if Pep could step up to lightweight.

"My ex-wives were all good housekeepers. When they left they kept the house." - Willie Pep

Angott took the fight to Pep and was winning the early rounds due to his high workrate and his style which was brawling and mauling, the complete opposite to Pep, who was the consummate technician. Pep's lightning jabs and straight rights began to have an effect and the middle rounds saw him start to take over. In the 8th Pep took charge and Angott went down but the referee ruled it a slip. With just 2 rounds left, it looked like it was turning in favour of Pep, who was quicker and his youthful stamina was beginning to have effect.

Then Angott caught him with a left hook to the body which slowed Pep down, though he gave his all in a wild 10th round it was too late and the judges gave the fight 5-4, 5-4, 6-4 to Angott. It was Pep's first defeat and he always blamed Angott for ruining what would have been a long unbeaten run. It bothered him even after he retired. Without that defeat, one can only imagine how many he would have gone unbeaten. Just 10 days later he was back in the ring and beating Bobby McIntire by decision.

Next up was Sal Bartolo, in an attempt to consolidate the belts, though Pep already held the most widely recognised title. Another decision win over 15 rounds in Boston saw Pep now the undisputed world featherweight champion. After a couple of more fights, Pep gave Bartolo a rematch and beat him again in a title defence. The rest of 1943 he spent in the US Navy before being discharged with honours in spring 1944 after he suffered with a perforated ear drum, though they did put him in what Pep referred to as the "nut ward" first.

Being the war, Pep was immediately accepted by the US Army, where he was able to keep boxing while in the army, where he was employed as an MP, military police. He later revealed what his time in the army was like: "My job is to guard a guy in a cell. Every day at 8 o'clock I report for duty and I open up the cell. 'Come on out and sweep up,' I tell the guy. 'And answer the phone, too. I'm going to sleep in the cell.'"

"The longer he goes, the more astonishing he becomes." - Red Smith

Whatever he was doing in the army it worked as he won all his fights while in the service, including a D-Day, 6th June 1944, win over Julie Kogon in front of a record crowd of 7,751 crowd in Hartford. He beat Kogon so convincingly that one of the judges had him winning all 8 rounds. Pep also had a rematch against Chalky Wright in defence of his title, and future Hall of Famer and nemesis Sandy Saddler was there that night: "Pep was well loved for his ability. He was the cleverest boxer of the last 40, 50 years. He pulled out the damndest trick I've ever seen in a ring. It happened the night he defended the title against Chalky Wright in '44, four years before my first fight with him. Chalky could knock you dead with one punch, but he couldn't lay a glove on Pep, who had taken the title from him. Chalky kept stalking him for one good shot and he finally trapped Pep in a corner. Chalky cocked his right to throw a bomb and Pep ducked right through Chalky's legs. I never forgot that. It was the damndest thing I've ever seen."

All in all Willie Pep fought 16 times in 1944 and, as well as beating former featherweight champ Wright, in fact he beat him twice in 1944, he also beat two world bantamweight champions in Willie Joyce and Manuel Ortiz, yet, oddly, it was 1945 when he was to win Fighter of the Year from The Ring magazine. Though he fought, just 8 times in that year, drawing one against Jimmy McAllister, he did beat a future world champion in Phil Terranova. It still seems odd that a fighter who usually fought a lot more often, won the award in what was, for him anyway, a quiet year. 1944 was also the year of his first bout outside of the USA, as he went to Canada to take on Jackie Leamus in Montreal.

1946 was business as usual for Pep with 18 fights and 18 wins, including another rematch with Wright, who he knocked out in the 3rd, and rematches with Bartolo and McAllister. He also beat another future world champion in Jackie Wilson. Outside the ring was the first sign that all was not so well with his lifestyle as he was arrested in a raid by Hartford police taking part in an illegal craps game and he had to face Judge Abe Ribicoff on crap-shooting charges.

At the beginning of 1947 everything turned completely upside down as Pep was flying home from a training camp in Miami when the plane he was on crashed in woods near Millville, New Jersey. 3 passengers died and 18, including Pep, were injured. He was asleep when the crash happened and remembers: "I woke up on my stomach. People were moaning and groaning. The plane was ripped to shreds. My back is killing me." In fact he had broken his left leg and two vertebrae and would spend the next 5 months in a leg and body cast.

The doctors told him he was through and he replied: "Yeah, I'm through flying at night." He kept his humour even in the lowest of times. As soon as the casts came off Pep was straight back into training and fought 10 times in the year, winning all 10 bouts, but many believed he was not the same fighter afterwards. There were good reasons for thinking he had lost something, as, though he won all 10, he looked to be lacking the lightning fast hand speed and quick footwork that made him so good.

"They call Ray Robinson the best fighter, pound for pound. I'm the best fighter ounce for ounce!" - Willie Pep

Pep struggled to a majority decision over Archie Wilmer and at the beginning of 1948 he was knocked down in the 4th by Pedro Biesca. He had only risked his title once in 1947, against Jock Leslie who he knocked out in the 12th round. He stepped up a bit in 1948, beating former world champion Paddy DeMardo and defended the title against Humberto Sierra. Then, in October 1948 came Sandy Saddler, another future hall of fame fighter.

The two had opposing styles, Pep was a dancer with blinding speed but lacked a big punch, despite that speed. He would out think and frustrate opponents into losing their heads and dance around them. Saddler was the best ring cutter of his generation, and it was he and his cousin Dick Saddler who taught George Foreman how to smother opponents, he was also one of the heaviest punchers in the business. Saddler would back up his opponents and then hit them with a hard punch before holding their head while hitting with the other hand. He had a particularly nasty uppercut while holding as he would pull the opponent's head onto it and, if they managed to stand up away from it, they would often get caught with his follow through elbow. Despite how good Saddler was, and that Pep was not at his superlative best, it was still a huge upset when Pep allowed himself to get drawn into a brawl and lost his world title in a 4th round knockout.

For many, the loss of his title signaled the end of Pep's career as the Milwaukee Journal put it: "Willie Pep is all washed up after losing his featherweight boxing championship to Sandy Saddler. That seems to be the consensus following Friday night's stunning knockout victory for Saddler, a lean Harlem puncher, in 2:38 of the fourth round." Despite that, Pep invoked a rematch clause in his contract with Twentieth Century Sporting Company, with the promoter Harry Markson even expecting it to be a flop, the contract meant Madison Square Garden was to host.

Markson was shocked when tickets went like hot cakes, according to the New York Times: "Markson was agreeably surprised when the box office windows were first opened and a flood of orders for tickets came pouring in. He was even more surprised when these orders continued, and yesterday the fight impresario was downright bewildered as the late rush of applicants augured a certain capacity house. What seemed a white elephant at the start was transformed into a golden calf, one that promised to be worth more than $80,000 at the gate." 19,097 people attended the fight in the end, Pep could still draw the crowds like no one else outside of the heavyweight division.

"Willie Pep was the Harry Houdini of boxing. At his peak it was said you couldn't hit him in the ass with a handful of rice." - boxing commentator Burt Beinstock

This time it was different as Pep avoided being drawn into a brawl, he fought much more intelligently in what was later considered his finest ever performance, and one of the best fights of all time. He went on the attack from the first bell, landing 37 jabs in the first round alone. The blindingly fast hand speed that had looked to have deserted him was back. The New York Times called Pep's start: "A demonstration of blinding speed that had Sandy looking like a novice." Saddler kept on marching forward but this time Pep's counter punching was keeping him at bay.

According to the Chicago Tribune: "Almost always Saddler was moving forward, measuring Willie with unblinking eyes, but Pep was too much for him with his counter punching." Pep was also not afraid to bend the rules and use questionable tactics, he was famed for his ability to use his wrestling skills to maneuver opponents into a position he could hit them and he was warned for wrestling in the first. In the third round Pep was again warned after he 'heeled' (hit with the heel of his hand) Saddler in the face.

The 4th round saw Saddler begin to get through Pep's defence, landing a savage body blow but his head shots merely grazed Pep. In the 5th Pep was cut, when a hard left from Saddler hit his right cheek opening up a wound that continued to bleed throughout the fight. Pep's footwork was supreme, and he was using it to punch from all sorts of angles to keep Saddler at bay. Even Pep's defence was eventually worn down by Saddler and he managed to open another cut, this time over Pep's right eye, in the 13th round before giving Pep a pounding in the 14th.

Pep somehow survived the onslaught to come out for the 15th and final round with an onslaught of his own. According to the New York Times: "He gave his greatest thrill in the fifteenth when, after weathering the jarring fire of the fourteenth, he came back to fight Saddler all over the ring with a strength that few, if any, thought he possessed." The three scorecards gave Pep the win by 5, 6 and 7 points and the Chicago Tribune reported: "Wild turmoil broke out in the Garden, which was loaded with rabid Pep fans, as announcer Johnny Addle gave the unanimous decision." Pep was the first man since George Dixon, way back in 1898, to regain the featherweight title.

He showed the same spirit that helped him to overcome the injuries from the plane crash. Pep was given a state celebration in his honour after this win and while there a woman pushed through the crowd to get to Pep. "I just want to touch you," she said. "I want to go home and tell everyone that this hand touched Willie Pep." The woman was Connecticut's secretary of state!

"I was twenty years old. It was a very big thing for me to win the championship of the world. I didn't realise the strength of it. I didn't know what it was all about. I wasn't mature enough to sense what I had really won until 1948 when Saddler licked me, then when I won it back, I realised the strenght and I realised it was a great thing to be a champion of the world." - Willie Pep

Pep defended the title three more times, as well as fighting some non-title fights, beating Eddie Campo with a 7th round KO, Charlie Riley in the 5th by KO and then getting a decision over European champion Ray Famechon. He also beat former bantamweight champion Harold Dade by decision over 10 rounds in a non-title fight, all before a third fight with Saddler.

The third fight was a bit more of a return to a brawl, though Pep was ahead on all the scorecards at the end of the seventh round (5-2, 5-2, 4-2) when he had to quit as he had suffered a shoulder dislocation at the end of the round. By now the two fighters really disliked each other and a fourth fight to settle it was put into preparation. Pep did not fight again after the third until January 1951 as he took the time to let his shoulder heal, but he and Saddler continued to snipe at each other in the newspapers as it had become personal between them. After Pep had fought, and won, eight non-title fights over the following months, he faced Saddler for the 4th and final time at New York City's Polo Grounds on 26th September 1951.

There was clear needle, Pep later admitting that "he made me lose my head", and Pep, who was not known to be a heavy hitter due to his brittle hands, was throwing his punches with real venom. Saddler was, by now, wise to Pep's tactics and managed to cut him off from the start, tie him up and then he was hitting from the clinch. Pep tried to get space by heeling (hitting with the heel of his hand) to force Saddler back and it just spiralled down from there into a street brawl. Saddler began putting pressure on the overhooks in the clinch looking to hurt Pep's previously injured shoulder and Pep retaliated by tripping him. Then Saddler got behind Pep and punched him from behind.

"It was a great life. The food was good and the hours were short." - Willie Pep

Pep did have a period of success in avoiding being cornered when Saddler was throwing a hook at Pep as he circled out. Pep would simply duck clean under it and then Saddler switched to hooks to the body instead, with no cares about whether the blow was low or not. The pair were so caught up in trying to hurt the other that they refused to separate when the referee Ray Miller instructed them to. The ref even ended up thrown to the floor as the fighters wrestled and he tried to pull them apart. The key to the fight came as early as the second round when Pep's right eye was opened up, allegedly by Saddler's thumb, and got worse throughout the fight. With his vision impeded on that side Saddler targeted it constantly.

Eventually the damage was so much that, at the end of the ninth round, the damage was bad enough to force Pep to concede defeat, though rumours persisted afterwards that he took a dive. Pep described it later as: "one of the roughest, toughest fights of all times, and in some ways the most controversial. Not that there was any doubt over who won.....like the old-time bare-knuckle days, with wrestling, heeling, tripping, thumbing - you name it....A lot of writers thought that we should both have been thrown out."

Nat Fleischer in 'The Ring' described it as ding to Nat Fleischer in 'The Ring' December 1951 issue it was an extremely dirty fight with "wrestling, heeling, eye gouging, tripping, thumbing - in fact every dirty trick known to the old timers." He also had words for the referee, who he felt "let the bout get out of hand....the pattern of the contest never varied. Pep wouldn't make a fight of it and Sandy couldn't. Pep too frequently backed around the wing and Saddler just as often missed as he kept boring in trying to corner his man. Then, when he did, the rowdy tactics got under way and ended only when either both were sprawled on the canvas still wrestling each other, or the referee was outside the ring trying to pull the boys apart or both fighters and official were entangled in a pretzel formation on the ring floor."

The fight was so controversial that both fighters were suspended, Pep for 17 months, and he was unable to box again until April 1952. The pair did later become good friends and, after they both retired, the pair fought a series of exhibition bouts against each other. His return saw him fight 12 times in 1952 alone winning 11 though he did lose one to Tommy Collins by TKO in 6th round.

"I'm a colorful fighter. I bleed a lot." - Willie Pep

June 1953 saw more controversy as Pep fought Pat Marcune. In the early rounds Marcune was getting a lesson in boxing as Pep turned on the old style, in fact Marcune said later: "I pressed him the entire fight but Pep was very shifty and very difficult to hit. He's in front of you, in back of you. He's all over the damn place. But he never stood toe to toe with you." That was until a left hook to the brow opened up a deep gash in the 8th round which the doctor was called to check on at the end of the round. The doctor told the referee that he would have to stop the fight if it continued to bleed as Pep's seconds worked frantically to staunch the flow of blood and allow the fight to continue.

Marcune, knowing he was well behind on points and needing a stoppage to win, came flying out of the blocks at the start of the 9th round but found Pep had stopped dancing and planted his feet for leverage. He was worried that the cut would see him stopped and so he was also looking to end it early, leading to a more competitive round. After another check by the doctor, Pep was cleared to come out for the 10th and Marcune was clearly still suffering from a flurry of punches that had been landed at the end of the 9th. Pep charged into the attack, backing him onto the ropes and hammered Marcune. Just 14 seconds into the round, former featherweight champion Petey Scalzo, who was refereeing the bout, stepped in to stop the fight and awarded Pep the win. Marcune claimed ever afterwards that it was stopped early because Pep had better 'connections' within the mob. Which was a plausible excuse, as it was well known Pep was very friendly with a lot of the East Coast gangsters, who loved him.

Either way, Pep won all his eleven fights in 1953 and started 1954 on the back of a 17 fight winning streak, though he was by now having to fight anywhere other than New York State. The New York State Athletic Commission had taken away his boxing license due to his age of 31. He fought just 5 times in 1954, losing one against Lulu Perez in the 2nd by TKO. In 24 fight during 1955-57 he lost just once more and went into 1958 with a last run at a world title by facing Nigerian boxer Hogan 'The Kid' Bassey in Boston. Pep made Bassey miss so badly that one of his punches actually clipped the referee! Ahead on scorecards, Pep lost it in the 9th round by TKO.

His next fight was against Sonny Leon in Caracas, Venezuela in January 1959. Losing over 10 rounds by decision turned out to be it for Pep and he announced his formal retirement from professional boxing. He was 37 and had fought over 200 bouts, as well as winning the world title twice, at a time when there were just 8 weights and 8 champions.

"Some fighters can adjust when they're through. I've had trouble adjusting." - Willie Pep

While he was retired he was elected to The Ring's Boxing Hall of Fame in 1963, but retirement did not sit well with Pep and a holiday in Miami with Artie Lupo, who was also retired but had decided to make a comeback, led to Pep's return to the ring. Lupo asked him to go down to Miami to work out with him and Pep did so saying: "I got up every morning with him and we got into a routine. He ran, I ran. He worked out, I watched him and I worked out, too. I started to feel good. I'd gone up to a hundred sixty-two pounds. It was the spaghetti and meatballs that did it. Spaghetti and meatballs killed more Italians than all the wars. I'd gone up to sixty-two and I started to lose it. I booked the kid into a fight at the Little River Auditorium. All of a sudden his knees swelled up like balloons. 'What are you doing?' I told him. 'I got a couple invested in all this equipment. 'But the kid couldn't box. I went to the promoter at Little River. 'The kid can't work,' I told him. He said, 'how about you?' It sounded good. 'Okay,' I said and I worked an exhibition, four rounds, with headguard and heavy gloves. I felt good."

"I felt good, so then I fought an eight-rounder. It was supposed to be an exhibition, but it was switched to an eight-round fight. I was in with a guy named Hal McIvors. Eight rounds. I won a decision. I didn't get hit in eight rounds but we were in a clinch and he pulled up his head and butted me. I got cut. The cut came from a butt, but blood was streaming down and I looked all battered up and the writers wrote that poor old Willie Pep got beaten up." Afterwards he is supposed to have said: "Tonight I got cut for $500, the last time I got cut it was for $90,000."

One thing that Pep never lost was his personality, he was always known for his quick quips and charm, which is probably why he went through 6 wives! The charm and quips showed through in 1965 when a magazine reported on him at a weigh-in with a group of fighters already there waiting to be weighed and one said to him, "looking good champ, looking good." Pep replied: "Feelin' good. Got a pain in my back and a twitch in my neck and I'm in great shape." Then he filled in the boxing-license application with the year of his birth as 1925, three years after he was actually born.

"Everyone in my family's a boxer except one. He's a cocker spaniel." - Willie Pep

Just then the reigning middleweight champion Joey Giardello came in and said: ""Willie, hey, I used to listen to this guy fight on the radio when I was eight years old. How's it goin', old man?" Pep fired back: "What do you mean, old man? Look at this license. See, born - 1925. I'm thirty-nine years old." "That's not what the record book says." replied Giardello. "Listen I was born in in 1925. I could prove it, but the courthouse in the town I was born in burned down," Pep said. "Hey," said Giardello. "The courthouse burned down. That's the best I ever heard." Giardello then tapped a grey-haired man on the shoulder. "Listen, you're at least fifty years old and you probably remember listenin' to him when you were a kid." Pep just laughed and headed off to be examined by the boxing-commission's doctor. Giardello told the magazine that he never usually went to fights or weigh-ins and was there purely because of Pep.

He carried on with the banter when he was with his cornerman, who also worked as Rocky Marciano's trainer, Charley Goldman. "Hiya Charley," said Pep, "it's good to see someone older than me. When Charley was fightin', they were all killers." "I had to quit because of my hands," said Goldman. "Yeah," said Pep. "The referee kept steppin' on them." "They couldn't hurt you, Willie," said Goldman. "No sense, no feelings." The problem was that a lot of people took advantage of his good nature, like the time Pep was walking along the main street of Hartford when a car pulled up, tyres squealing in protest as the brakes slammed on. A jumped out of the car, leaving the motor running, ran over and grabbed Pep's lapels. "Champ, I need fifty dollars real bad. Case of life and death." Pep rolled off a fifty. "Here, don't bother me."

He even said during his short retirement: "If I had back the money owed me, I'd have nothing in the world to worry about." But he was giving away tens the moment he made $500 in a fight in Miami. Even a great like Pep could only go on so long and his final fight was a defeat to Calvin Woodland on 16th March 1966 by decision. Pep admitted he was no longer in good enough shape to go on. Depending on which count you use, Pep won 229 professional fights, lost 11 and had 1 draw over the course of his career. It puts Mayweather's 50-0 career in perspective! In fact it puts just about anyone else's career in perspective.

"The decline of a boxer. First you lose your leg movement. Then you lose your reflexes. Then you lose your friends." - Willie Pep

There is something he is particularly famous for as James B Roberts and Alexander G Skutt wrote in 'The Boxing Register': "Pep developed a ring artistry that veteran boxing observers still admire. His style of boxing has been likened to tap dancing with gloves on. He once even won a round without even throwing a punch because his tactical movements kept his opponent completely off-balance." Willie Pep has become known as the man who won a round without even throwing a punch, he would even carry around newspaper reports referring to it to show people in his later years, as proof he achieved the feat. The problem is that reporting at the time was often innacurate, sometimes the reporters would not have a good view or would be inebriated (drunk to you and me) and so you really have to look closely at everything that was written.

The fight was on the 25th July 1946 against Jackie Graves and it is said that Pep was stung into predicting he would win a round without throwing a punch because the media were suggesting Pep would struggle against the southpaw stance of Graves. Trying to trust reports from the time is impossible, UPI reported Graves knocked Pep down 4 times in the fight, most reports said it was twice and Associated Press did not even mention Pep being knocked down at all! There are some people who believe it was just a story concocted with a reporter called Don Riley, to keep them both relevant in the sixties. There are others who believe it did happen but it is just that Pep fought so many times the name of the boxer who suffered at his hands was mixed up. This is, after all, a man who fought 1956 rounds over 241 bouts in a 26 year career, it would be easy to get confused over who is who.

The story as Riley tells it is that he visited Pep's training camp as a reporter for a radio station and asked Pep: "Hey Willie, what round will you knock Graves out?" Pep laughed. "If he starts hurting me, I'll have to get him out of there. But I never try to knock guys out because it busts up my hands." Pep then began to muse over the chances of a boxer with bust up hands winning a fight, and so he challenged Riley: "Pick a round. I'll throw punches, but I'll never hit him. Check the scorecards after, and see if the judges fall for it." Riley picked the third.

Riley continued: "It was an amazing display of defensive boxing skill so adroit, so cunning, so subtle that the roaring crowd did not notice Pep's tactics were completely without offense. He made Jim Corbett's agility look like a broken down locomotive. He made even Sugar Ray Robinson's fluidity look like cement hardening. Never has boxing seen such perfection." Bert Sugar also claimed it is true: "Pep tipped off a few friendly sportswriters that he would not throw a punch in anger in the third round....Pep moved; Pep switched to southpaw, mocking Graves; Pep danced; Pep weaved; Pep spun Graves around again and again; Pep gave head feints, shoulder feints, foot feints, and feint feints. But Pep never landed a punch."

"If I had my boxing career to live over again, I'd do the same thing. Only I'd try to save a little money. I gave away money. Well, that's the way I was. I had a few old ladies and that made a big dent in my bankroll. And I gambled." - Willie Pep

Another sportswriter from the time, Joe Hennessey said otherwise, writing of the third round: "A clicker couldn't count the blows. Pep punched Jack into the ropes as the most even round of the evening ended." Pep himself said: "I jabbed him a few times, but most of the round, I was bobbing and weaving and making him miss, and he missed a hundred punches, I guess, making him look so bad they gave me the round."

I am not sure we will ever know for sure if he truly succeeded in winning a round without throwing a punch, but he is probably the only boxer who was truly capable of doing so with his speed, superb footwork and elusiveness. I think the final word on the matter though should go to the boxer on the receiving end, who met up with Pep and Riley at a hotel as Riley explained: "We had a reunion breakfast at the Hilton Hotel, Jackie and Willie were there. I reminded Willie of the third round. Jackie didn't know what we were talking about, so we told him. Jackie said, 'Willie, if you could win a round without landing a punch, why didn't you do that for the entire fight? You could've won going away, without beating the hell out of me.!'"

Away from the ring Pep was a generous, good-natured man who spent money freely and gambled and drank heavily, even saying he fought so often for money to bet on the horses. He had 4 children with 6 wives, though he had to agree in writing never to see his son by his 3rd wife, and the wife, ever again as part of the separation settlement. By the time of his 4th wife, the kids were all grown up and moved out and she was ill for a long time in hospital, Pep was left living alone in a 3-room apartment, which had been the top floor of the house he had bought his parents when champion. Despite his agent buying him an annuity to get him a regular income he had little money.

"Sometimes there seemed to be music playing for him alone and he danced to his private orchestra and the ring became a ballroom." - Jimmy Cannon

Pep worked as a second, boxing inspector, referee, wrestling inspector, sports columnist, managed a night club, was a brewery customer services rep, restaurant greeter and deputy sheriff, saying: "All I need is a buck, a buck and a half a week." Though he did turn down $2 a week for working on a construction crew. In the 1970s he took a job in the boxing office of Connecticut's Athletic Division and continued to work there until the late 1980s.

No boxing hall of fame is complete without the man Nat Fleischer rated as the finest boxer he ever saw and he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame as early as 1977 and Associated Press chose him at their #1 featherweight of the 20th century. The International Boxing Research Org went as far as ranking him as the #1 featherweight of all time in 2005. The Houston Boxing Hall of Fame also voted him the Greatest Featherweight Ever in 2014.

However there is one magazine that is not so kind to Pep, Newsweek ran an article in 'Inside Sports' that Pep claimed referred to his fight against Lulu Perez in 1954, when he was knocked out in the second round. The article never actually names Pep, just refers to an ageing boxer they call 'The Champ', who throws a fight for $16,000 in the 1950s. Pep's attempt to sue Newsweek for libel was a failure, with the magazine able to pull a number of articles from New York newspapers at the time that were suspicious of the result. One entitled its story 'The Big Dump'. The jury needed just 15 minutes to deliberate and decide against Pep, despite his claim to love boxing too much to take a dive.

When asked about Pep and Sugar Ray Robinson: "I don't see no difference between 'em. I think Pep and Robinson are the best boxers around anywhere, any time." - Joe Louis

In 1996 Oscar De La Hoya discovered Pep's brilliance when he changed trainer to Jesus 'The Professor' Rivero, who used old footage of Pep to show De La Hoya what real footwork is during his preparation for a fight with Julio Cesar Chavez. De La Hoya was so impressed by the footage that he flew a then 73 year old Pep out for his fight against Miguel Angel Gonzalez six months later. He even tried to emulate the famous non-punch round in an attempt to impress the old champion but failed to win the round.

Pep had long since blown his $1m earnings, and small roles in a couple of movies and his book 'Willie Pep Remembers...Friday's Heroes' helped him make ends meet, but it was his sparkling personality and ready wit that saw him through, as he began making personal appearances to earn money late in life, where he would regale the audience with tales. He would tell them how he had bumped into an old opponent on the street who had asked him, "do you recognise me?" Pep thought it over then replied: "Lie down so I can recognise you!"

His last few years he spent dependent on 6th wife Barbara, as he suffered from Alzheimers disease, though he still kept his wit. When Barbara agreed with doctors who said that his illness was caused by boxing he looked at her and said: "But honey, I never got hit." Pep was almost certainly the greatest defensive fighter of all time and got hit far less than many other boxers per round, but the huge number of fights he took on meant he was always likely to suffer problems. In March 2006 he was taken to a nursing home as Barbara could not cope with his deteriorating condition and he eventually passed away in November at the age of 84.

"Was like fighting a rat who gnaws and runs away." - Ray Famechon

 

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To read the previous Boxing Legends article on Thomas Hearns click HERE

Written by Tris Burke June 19 2019 06:02:08