THERE’S a myth that Willie Pep, the majestic former world featherweight champ who died on November 23, 2006, once won a round without throwing a punch.
Of course, everyone believed it to be true because, defensively, Pep was a genius and one of the quickest boxers ever.
The said incident reportedly occurred in the third round against Jackie Graves in 1946.
“I guess I made him miss so badly they [the judges] gave me the round,” Pep once said.
Sorry to spoil a great story, but they didn’t.
However, don’t let that diminish this fabulous boxer’s legend. He was one of the greats – without a doubt, a Hall of Famer (inducted 1990).
When we did a summer special eight years ago on the top 10 of all time, Pep came in at No. 6, ahead of his arch-nemesis Sandy Saddler, who defeated Willie in three of their four ugly meetings.
It used to irk Saddler immensely that he was never revered quite as much as Pep, though in spite of their fierce rivalry Sandy and Willie became good friends.
That Pep received the bulk of the recognition is based on his extraordinary achievements, of course, and not how he fared against one man.
As an amateur he won 62 of 65, one of those losses coming against Ray Roberts (later Sugar Ray Robinson).
Pep was world champion at 20, fought professionally 26 years and had 241 fights.
Of those, Pep lost only 11, six by knockout or stoppage. He fought only one draw. But because he wasn’t much of a puncher, Pep had to out-think his opponents.
He went undefeated in his first 62 fights until Sammy Angott – a former undefeated world lightweight champ who would go on to regain his crown – beat him in a non-title affair on points in 1943.
Pep then went another 73 fights unbeaten until Saddler knocked him out in four in 1948. Moreover, in January the previous year he had survived a plane crash, being carried from the wreckage with a broken leg and back and told he would never fight again. Several passengers died.
For five months Pep was in a cast, but two months after having it removed he made a miraculous return, winning a 10-rounder against Victor Flores and then retaining his world title two months later.
Unless you were Saddler, you couldn’t keep this man down. Saddler was tall, strong, hit immensely hard and knew that to beat Pep one had to stay on him the whole time – not give Willy space to punch or move.
“He made me lose my head,” admitted Pep, who after their final fight (which Saddler won in nine in 1951) received a lifetime ban in New York (later shortened to 21 months) for butting, thumbing, gouging, wrestling and kicking – just about anything he could to survive.
Pep twice quit on his stool against Saddler. But those horrible fights give a distorted impression of the skinny man dubbed “Will o’ the Wisp” for his fancy movement, quick jab, the way he feinted, moved, spun opponents around, bobbed and weaved, made them look foolish.
Saddler, though, had the hoodoo over him, but few others could make the master boxer lose his composure. Pep defeated Jock Leslie and Humberto Sierra, who both beat Saddler.
Pep called his solitary, masterful victory over Saddler – on points in a 15-rounder in front of nearly 20,000 fans in 1949 – the greatest fight for both boxers, though I’m not so sure Saddler shared that opinion.
However, Willie also conquered a host of other top fighters: world bantamweight champ Manuel Ortiz in a 1944 non-title fight; Paddy DeMarco (in 1948), who’d go on to become world lightweight champion; Chalky Wright, who became world featherweight king, four times; former featherweight champs Jackie Wilson and Phil Terranova; excellent Frenchman Ray Famechon.
Even at 36, Pep outboxed Nigeria’s world featherweight champ Hogan “Kid” Bassey in a non-title affair (September 1958) until getting knocked out in the ninth.
Although Willie had his last contest, a six- round points defeat by Calvin Woodland in Richmond, some seven-and-a-half years later, Bassey was to be his final display of excellence.
Between 1960-’64 Pep retired. It was by chance, when at a show where an opponent didn’t show, that he stepped back into the ring to fill a gap on the card.
Willie, though, knew his limitations by then, aged 43 and close to welterweight. But he needed the money. He scored nine straight victories against modest opposition until eventually losing. By then Pep had been married several times and, through good living as well, squandered most, if not all, of his fortune.
He was a generous, good-natured man, spending money as though there was a continual supply, perhaps because success came to him early in life. He liked gambling, women and a drink, too.
“My ex-wives were all good housekeepers,” he said. “When they left, they kept the house.”
Yet he lived on with a smile on his face and always in good humour, though went the way of most former champions – fighting to the point where he was a shadow of his great self.
He was even accused of taking a dive, though Pep successfully sued Sports Illustrated in the 1980s for making such a claim.
After finally ending his fighting days, Pep worked as a referee, taking charge of the Johnny Famechon-Fighting Harada world featherweight title fight in Sydney, Australia in 1969 and Eder Jofre-Johnny Caldwell in Brazil in 1962. He also served as an inspector.
For the past five years, though, he had Alzheimers and was confined to a home.
He passed away there, aged 84, in Rocky Hill, some eight miles from Hartford, Connecticut, close to where he was born on September 19, 1922 by the name of Guglielmo Papaleo.