WILLIE PEP liked to box. Sandy Saddler liked to fight. And when they got together, all manner of hell broke loose.
In their first meeting, in October 1948, the unfancied Saddler snapped Pep’s six-year reign as world featherweight champion. The elegant Pep struggled with Saddler’s confrontational roughness, his nose was bloodied in the opening round, he was decked twice in round three, and he was unable to beat the count of 10 after another trip to the canvas in the fourth.
“I wasn’t ready for a tough fight,” Pep understated afterwards.
Just three months and 13 days elapsed before the rematch (February 11, 1949 at Madison Square garden). Pep wanted his title back, and this time he was ready, as one could be, for Saddler’s astonishing savagery.
It takes a special kind of man to rebound from the kind of defeat Pep experienced in their first encounter. The defensive master was determined to be that man.
And he began their bout at a sold-out Madison Square Garden as though the first had never occurred. His boxing was sublime as he bewildered the new champion like many had expected him to first time around, but few thought he was capable of doing in the sequel. Pep would move inside, dispatch his hands into the target zone before his feet carried him out of danger. After eight rounds, Pep had won all but one. It seemed that normality had been restored to the featherweights.
But, just when it seemed like the fight was slipping away, Saddler ruggedly fought back. Suddenly Pep was in the kind of combat he disliked. The rough and undisciplined kind. Pep was in trouble in the ninth and took a hellacious pounding in the 10th as Saddler threatened score a knockout. Ringsiders waited for Sandy to apply the conclusive strike, waited for Eddie Joseph to rescue the unravelling Pep.
The bedraggled soldier called on his deep reserves and valiantly survived. During the final five sessions, the combatants bitterly slugged it out.
After 15 intense rounds that combined skill and bravery, Pep was declared the deserved victor. The rivalry wasn’t over, but the class disappeared.
Saddler won their final two contests but they were ruined as spectacles by incessant foul play. In fight three, Pep failed to answer the bell for round eight after dislocating his shoulder. The rivalry came to a close in September 1951 with Saddler victorious again. But the bout was littered with thumbing, wrestling, and kneeing. Both were subsequently suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission. Like all memorable couples, they had brought out the best and worst in each other.