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Enigma Series- The Great Willie Pep

Enigma Series- The Great Willie Pep

Boxing has had more than its fair share of colourful characters, from the weird to the wonderful we haven't had to look far for a good story. Willie Pep is certainly no exception to the rule.

We live in an age where promoters some times look more for the story of a fighter rather than their skills. Willie Pep's skills, determination and charisma created a story like no other.

Pep was the epitome of the sweet science, hit and not get hit. A unique style of true instinctive fighting, combined with lightning speed often left his opponents punching fresh air.

A sterling amateur career saw Pep win 62 from 65 fights. One of those amateur defeats came at the hands of an unknown fighter from New York by the name of Ray Roberts, later to be known as the great Sugar Ray Robinson. Although Pep was significantly the smaller and lighter man the fight went the distance. The fans in attendance where the true winners witnessing two future greats plying their trade.

July 1940 saw Pep turning pro at the age of 17, fighting 10 times in the remainder of the year. Like many pros at the time, fighting was a necessity not only to learn their craft but feed their families.

Just two years into his professional career Pep fought for his first title after 43 fights and 43 wins, astounding by modern standards. Winning the USA New England Feather title beating Abe Denner on points over 12 rounds.

Pep's stock was on the rise, his unrivalled skill, ring generalship and sheer quantity of fights was fast tracking him towards a crack at the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) World Title. On the 20th November 1942 Pep faced featherweight champion Chalky Wright at Madison Square Garden. Wright was by now a veteran of the game amassing 143 wins in 183 fights. 

The near 20,000 in attendance at the Garden saw Pep take an early lead by continually peppering Wright with the jab. In the second half of the fight with the lead intact Pep continued with the jab then danced out of range before Wright had a chance to hit the target.

At the age of 20, Pep became NYSAC Featherweight World Champion beating Wright by unanimous decision over 15 rounds. In those days there where two versions of the world title, the other being the National Boxing Association (NBA). The NBA later became the World Boxing Association (WBA) in 1962 and the NYSAC later supported the formation of the World Boxing Council (WBC) in 1963.

 After a remarkable 62 wins from 62 fights Pep tasted defeat for the first time in a non title fight against former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Angott who relinquished the belt in November 1942 due to a hand injury and regained the title 7 months after his bout with Pep.

To put into perspective how truly great this era of boxing was, when weight was only a number and the best fought the best. Willie Pep lost to Sammy Angott giving away 5lbs in a lightweight contest. Sammy Angott lost to Sugar Ray Robinson giving away 5lbs in a welterweight contest. Sugar Ray beat Jake La Motta twice at middleweight giving away an unbelievable 15lbs in the second fight. All these fights took place within 7 months.

 Pep bounced back in the only fashion he knew how, fighting ten days after his first defeat. He went an incredible 5 ½ years before tasting defeat again, going 73 fights on the spin with a solitary draw being the only blemish.

This period of his career reads like a script to a Hollywood blockbuster. Drafted into the army and then the navy to help with the ongoing war. Pep was able to continue his career by being based in America, and finally honourably discharged in 1945 with a perforated ear drum.

In June 1946 Pep faced NBA champion Sal Bartolo for a chance to become the Unified Champion. He had previously beaten Bartolo over 15 rounds in defence of his NYSAC title 3 years prior. Pep's superior skill saw him dispatch of Bartolo in round 12 of the scheduled 15. His record after the fight read 100-1-1, Featherweight Champion of the World. Many fighters may have taken their foot off the gas but not Pep, he fought another 8 times that year winning 7 by knockout.

Pep was on top of the world but like many Hollywood scripts life was about to throw a curve ball. On January 5th 1947 while flying from Miami to Connecticut the plane he was on crashed down in New Jersey. Pep survived the crash but sustained two broken vertebrae, a fractured leg and severe chest trauma. He spent 5 months in a body cast to heal his injuries and told he would never box again. One month after having the body cast removed in true Pep fashion he was back in the ring.

Amazingly he fought 11 times in the remainder of the year including a defence of his World Title against Jock Leslie beating him by knockout in round 12 in a one sided bout. Pep wasn't showing any signs of physical or mental scars following what should have been a life changing event, but the roller-coaster was still moving.

Pep started 1948 with vigour fighting 3 times in January before defending his World Title once again in February against Humberto Sierra again winning in round 10 by knockout. Pep fought 11 more times before defending his title against Sandy Saddler who would become his arch nemesis.

Pep was a heavy favourite going into the fight on account of him beating 3 opponents who had beat Saddler previously. A packed Madison Square Garden was left stunned when Saddler floored Pep twice in the 3rd round then stopped him in the 4th. The fight started what would be one of the greatest and dirtiest rivalries in boxing history. Not one to dwell on the negatives, he closed the year with one more fight, fighting an incredible 17 times in 1948 including two World  Title fights.

Pep didn't have to wait long before getting a chance to get his belt back. A sell-out crowd of 19,097 at Madison Square Garden witnessed what would later be awarded fight of the year by Ring Magazine. Pep won the fight over 15 bloody rounds, both men had severe face and eye cuts at the final bell.

The two time Featherweight Champion of the World stayed as active as ever in the next two years defending the belt successfully against Eddie Compo, Charlie Riley and Ray Famechon.

Old foe Sandy Saddler had earned another shot at the title by September 1950. The fight had outgrew The Garden and was staged at the Yankee Stadium in New York in front of a crowd of 38,781, a record attendance for a featherweight bout. 

 The fight started much like the last one finished with Pep jabbing and moving much to the frustration of Saddler. By the third round Saddler's frustrations eased when a left hook dropped Pep, who beat the count and had the best shots of the remainder of the round. Going into the 6th Saddler's temper got the better of him and he started wrestling Pep to immobilise the constant barrage of jabbing and dancing away. The seventh was more of the same with Saddler doing enough to win a close round. The fight was over as Pep didn't answer the bell at the start of the 8th due to a dislocated left shoulder later reset by Dr Vincent Niardello of the New York State Athletic Commission. All three judges had Pep winning the fight after the 7th round.

Just short of 5 months later saw Pep return to action, winning 8 fights in a row before the rematch with Saddler. In what would be their 4th and final encounter, all bouts with the World Title at stake. 

The fight was staged at the Polo Grounds, New York and televised in 17 theatres across 13 cities. Again Saddler was the slight betting favourite. In terms of action, like the second fight followed the first fight with Pep working the jab and dancing away, the fourth fight followed the same pattern as the last two rounds of the third fight with roughhouse tactics from both boxers.

Ring magazine described the fight as extremely dirty saying "wrestling, heeling, eye gouging, tripping, thumbing, in fact every dirty trick known to the old timers". Even the referee was brought down to the canvas as he tried to separate the two men mid wrestle. The fight was fairly even on the cards when Pep withdrew from the fight at the end of the ninth due to a deep cut over his right eye.

After the fight the New York State Athletic Commission revoked Pep's license and suspended Saddler indefinitely for both men's conduct during the fight. In 1997, The Ring magazine voted the fight the 6th dirtiest of all time.

Saddler was Pep's kryptonite, the one man who found a way to tame Pep even if it wasn't pretty to watch. Both men would later be included in the best featherweight of all time list and inducted into the Hall of Fame. Years later they also became friends and appeared together as speakers on the after dinner circuit.

Pep didn't fight for the world title again but fought another 66 bouts in an 8 year span before announcing his retirement the day after losing to Sonny Leon in January 1959. 

Although retired Pep didn't stray too far from the scene, working as a second in the corner, referee and later a boxing inspector. Like his career in the ring his life outside the ring was just as spectacular, once saying " my two biggest mistakes in life were falling in love with slow horses and fast woman". 

In spite of earning a lot of money in boxing it didn't last long and forced a return to the ring in 1965 at the age of 42. The comeback lasted a year totalling 10 fights made up of 9 wins and 1 loss. The loss came in his last fight in 1966 at the hands of Calvin Woodland.

The career was over at the ripe old age of 43, and what a career it was. 241 fights, 229 wins, 11 losses and one draw. Even in an age where fighters fought often Pep's resume was staggering, throw in surviving a plane crash and it becomes even more incredible. His record pre plane crash was 110-1-1 in just over 5 years, post plane crash 131-10-0 winning the world title in both periods.

The word legend is often over used in today's society but not for Willie Pep. Universally regarded by many as the best featherweight of all time, legend is an understatement.

Willie Pep danced his way into the history books with a style of not only defensive mastery but true instinctive fighting. An unconventional style that would not be taught by many coaches these days. Pep rewrote the rule-book with his graceful movement and blistering speed.

Willie Pep was a true enigma, a genius in the ring. His heart matched his skillset which is remarkable given his achievements. Pep passed away in 2006 at the age of 84, the boxing world lost one of the best boxers ever to lace up the gloves. Rest easy champ.