Death Cheats Us Once More; Willie Pep dead at 84
26 Nov 2006
They called him "The Will O' The Wisp" for his elusiveness, but at the 84, mortality has caught up to one of the greatest fighters to ever grace the ring. I use the word grace because it is appropriate, because seldom was a fighter more graceful and beautiful to watch. Pep was quick and crafty, the consummate professional who had more moves than a salsa dancer. Prior to Willie Pep's emergence in the early 1940's, the term sweet science seemed almost facetious.
Born Gugliermo Papaleo on September 19, 1922 in Middletown, Connecticut, the arrival of Willie Pep into the featherweight division ushered in a new standard for technical brilliance in the sport. In an ESPN Classic special about the top pound for pound fighters of all time, W.C. Heinz related that Willie Pep "was poetry, in that poetry insinuates as much as it states." Heinz was referring to the feints that Pep brought to the ring, gestures that froze opponents and kept Pep ahead of the game for most of his 26 year ring career.
Pep summed up his fight philosophy pretty simply. "What I want is to do the best I can, make all the money I can, without getting hurt. To me, it's the art of self-defense."
Pep's greatest contribution to boxing's urba legend came on July 25, 1946 in Minneapolis in the third round of his contest with Jackie Graves. Prior to the fight, Pep prophesied that he would win a round without throwing a single punch. What would you know, but Pep went out and did just that. Of course the legend fails to include that the fight would become a life and death struggle with Pep having to get off the canvas twice before winning by 8th round knockout. That's just the character in the ring that Pep had, though.
After a 62-3 amateur record, Pep began his professional career at an amazing 63-0, winning the World Featherweight championship over Albert "Chalky" Wright in 1942 and defending his title successfully twice before running into former World Lightweight champion Sammy Angott in Madison Square Garden. Angott won the decision in 15 rounds, and set off another Pep winning streak that would span five years and 73 fights. Being that the bout was a non-title affair, Pep retained his belt in spite of the verdict.
Pep took a decision in the rematch with Wright and blasted him out in three in the rubber match. Pep's first brush with mortality came in January, 1947 when the small aircraft he was riding in en route to Miami crashed in New Jersey, seriously injuring the fistic maestro. The first instinct for all boxing pundits was to suggest that he'd never fight again, but the irrepressible Pep would have none of it. Still in possession of the title, Pep emerged from 5 months bound in casts to retake command of his championship with several winning bouts, though many theorized that Pep had lost some of his zip from the accident.
Two days before Halloween of 1948, Willie Pep met his match in the form of fearsome slugger Sandy Saddler. In their first encounter, Pep was seen as a heavy favorite to take the relatively crude adversary to school. Instead, it was the stronger, younger Saddler who manhandled Pep, dropping the Wisp three times en route to a 4th round knockout upset.
Reeling from the indignation of such a fate, Pep rebounded three months later to put on a magnificent performance to turn the tables on his tormenter in what Pep openly proclaimed "the greatest night of my life."
Time Magazine captured the great moment in their Feb. 21, 1949 edition:
Willie fought cautiously for three rounds, peppering Champion Sandy Saddler with rapierlike left jabs and occasionally plastering him with solid rights. The champion, a willowy 22-year-old Negro from Manhattan, had a longer reach and harder punch, but he had a hard time hitting shifty Willie. The Hartfordites roared with partisan joy as Willie built up a lead on points. Then the fight became a slugging match as the 126-pounders threw everything they had. Saddler had Pep reeling drunkenly in the tenth round; another good punch would have been the end of Willie. But wily Willie, a shrewd hand and a good boxer, hung on, dodged, shook loose the cobwebs between rounds. Just before the bell ended the 15th, Pep was in trouble again; as he ducked a punch he sagged, momentarily helpless, against the ropes. Saddler swayed toward him—trying to find strength for just one more swing. He couldn't, and the bell ended one of the most rousing scraps in Garden history.
The moment would soon pass, and Pep would be stopped in the next two encounters, retiring under his own accord in ugly, foul filled bouts that would have the commissioner take action against both.
Pep would win some and lose some over the next nine years before retiring, then returning for a brief period in 1965 before finally retiring in 1966 following a 6 round decision loss to Calvin Woodland in Richmond, VA.
A veteran of World War II, Pep served in the United States Army and Navy before beign granted an honorable discharge in 1944. Pep was among the inaugural inductees to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Controversy arose in 1980, when a Sports Illustrated article claimed that he had thrown his February 1954 bout with Lulu Perez, where he was stopped in 2 rounds. The ruling went in favor of Pep, who was awarded an unspecified, substantial sum on the basis of defamation of character.
According to an ESPN.com report, Pep had been living at West Hill nursing home, stationed in an Alzheimer's unit since 2001. Services for perhaps the greatest featherweight who ever lived are currently pending. I believe I speak on behalf of Boxingscene and Philboxing's staff and the establishment in general when I say that Willie Pep will be sorely missed.
In closing, I'd like to quote a very helpful article penned by boxing historian Craig Parrish that I found to be infinitely helpful in the research of this obituary/commemoration article: "They don’t make ‘em like this anymore."
Any questions or comments? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org . My Myspace is http://www.myspace.com/asian_sensation201 . My website is http://www.boxingscene.com/ryansongalia .
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