HE always felt under-valued, but Sandy Saddler should be remembered as one of the greatest featherweights in history. After all, he beat Willie Pep three times out of four in world title fights, and dominated the division for the best part of nine years.
Saddler was born to West Indian parents in Boston, Massachusetts, raised in Harlem and turned pro as a spidery 17-year-old in Connecticut in 1944. His given name was Joseph, but his Jamaican father’s was Alexander – and so he called himself Sandy after him.
Saddler learned as an amateur in New York City, and although he was knocked out in his second pro contest by the much more experienced Jock Leslie in Hartford, nobody else ever stopped him in a professional journey that took him through a dozen years and more than 160 fights. Saddler was a vicious puncher, too: he became one of the exclusive band of champions who knocked out more than 100 opponents.
Saddler was world class by the time he was 20. He knocked out the future world lightweight champion Joe Brown in three rounds in New Orleans in 1947 and the same year drew with another man who would go on to become champion at 135lbs, Jimmy Carter. Later he was to beat other champions from higher or lower divisions: Harold Dade, Lauro Salas and Paddy DeMarco.
At one point he claimed Scottish ancestry and wore a kilt… even when he was champion he sometimes wore a tartan robe. He was also very superstitious. He once visited a faith healer for a damaged hand.
Saddler won the featherweight crown at the age of 22 with the first of his victories over Willie Pep in New York in October 1948. He defeated him in four rounds at Madison Square Garden. Pep had not been stopped before in 136 fights, but Saddler dropped him four times.
Pep produced a brilliant performance to outbox him over 15 rounds at the Garden in February 1949 – Willie’s finest hour – to regain the championship.
It took time to put a third fight together and in the gap Saddler won recognition for the lightly-regarded 130lbs championship with a 10-round decision over Cuba’s Orlando Zulueta in Cleveland, Ohio, in December 1949.
The Pep rivalry overshadowed everything else. In September 1950 it was so popular that 38,781 paid to watch a third fight between the pair in Yankee Stadium. Saddler knocked Pep down with a long left hook in round three, and won after seven rounds when Pep stayed on his stool, his shoulder dislocated. Pep, who had boxed beautifully to move ahead on all three cards, complained the injury was a result of fouls by Saddler, who sniffed: “Dislocated shoulder? Nuts. It was my kidney punches.”
The fourth, most brutal battle between them saw Pep quit again, this time after nine rounds at the Polo Grounds in September 1951. Pep won the first but from the second Saddler was belting him around the body. He cut him over an eye and floored him in a corner, kept the pressure coming, and by the seventh Pep had been drawn into an ugly close-range brawl. He was warned for using the thumb and heel of the glove, even for deliberately tripping Saddler and after the ninth he stayed in his corner. Both fighters had their licences suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission.
Saddler hit a bad patch and was out of the ring for almost two years when he was in the US Army. He had served two months in the Navy as a seaman – venturing no further than Great Lakes, Illinois – in the summer of 1944, and had somehow been granted a medical discharge, but was called to the Army in the spring of 1952. His title was frozen for the duration of his service.
He returned in 1954 and went on stopping almost everyone he fought. He retained his featherweight title, which had been in abeyance, with a 15-round decision over Teddy “Red Top” Davis, and also stopped Gabriel “Flash” Elorde from the Philippines in 13 rounds, before eye injuries suffered in a road crash forced him to announce his retirement in January 1957.
Saddler trained fighters at the National Maritime Union in New York, was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and was a regular at the annual convention up to his death in 2001.
THE BITTER FEUD WITH PEP
Saddler won three out of four with all- time great Willie Pep but the boxing public never forgave him for beating a legend. And Saddler really resented that.
“Sandy was a very dangerous fellow. I’ll remember him as long as I live,” said Pep.
Born June 23, 1926 in Boston, Massachusetts Died September 18, 2001 Wins 144 Knockouts 103 Losses 16 Draws 2 Best win Willie Pep (I) w ko 4 Worst loss Jock Leslie l rsf 3 Pros Reach and height, used both to great effect Cons Spiteful streak gave him the reputation as a foul fighter