Tuesday night’s “Learn from the Fight” returned to the career of Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler. We were unable to unearth footage from their first two fights when Pep was given the spotlight. However, we had access to highlights from their third encounter and the full fourth encounter. Pep and Saddler are often ranked as the greatest featherweights of all time, respectively the greatest pure out-boxer and slugger of all time and in just about anyone’s top 20 greatest pound-for-pound boxers of all time.
When all odds are even, so the idea goes, a great out-boxer should defeat a great slugger. When last we left them, Pep had won the undisputed World Featherweight Championship by thoroughly out-boxing Saddler in 1949. Prior to this both men held different versions of the title and Saddler knocked Pep out in round 4 to unite them. Pep’s victory, which is sadly unavailable, was considered to be one of the greatest comebacks and possibly Pep’s greatest moment. After this bout, it would appear that Pep had his arch-rival’s number, but Saddler still had quite a few tricks left up his sleeve. For that matter, Pep would demonstrate he was just as keen to return these favours resulting in two very controversial bouts. This foul play was backed up by genuine animosity the two felt for one another and audiences loved it. The three first bouts drew heavyweight title numbers to the venues that exhibited them. The third fight was more than double the gate of the previous highest turnout for a featherweight title bout at Yankee Stadium.
Wille Pep versus Sandy Saddler World Featherweight Championship 08.09.1950
After winning back the title Pep had won 15 straight matches, including three title defences, proving that he was far from over the hill yet. However, and despite winning their previous fight, the bookies still made Pep the 8-to-5 underdog against Saddler. The prevailing view was that the younger Saddler was just too strong for even the master of footwork to handle. Saddler had been far from inactive after losing the title. In fact, he had fought eight more times than Pep, never losing once, gaining the NBA version of the World Super-Featherweight title and defending it successfully once. Demonstrating the clear contrasting styles, all but three of Pep’s victories were by unanimous decision – the three were stoppages – whereas only four of Saddler’s 23 victories went the distance.
Pep entered with an overall record of 134-1-1, Saddler was 114-7-2.
Round 1 – Pep controlled the fight by working the outside but Saddler’s mauling attacks already begin to emerge by the round’s end.
Round 3 – The in-between round had seen Pep continue to out-box Saddler, frustrating the challenger. Round 3 saw Saddler step up his offensive. Pep fought on the backfoot, back-peddling and employing his trademark angled movements whilst sporting a cut to his left eye. Saddler kept trying to bridge the gap with jab and sought to corner Pep. Pep did an expert job in avoiding the traps for the most part, but finally Saddler used some swarming tactics to clinch and drive Pep into the ropes. After being separated from a clinch he was back on Pep quickly with what was probably his signature right straight/left hook combination, sending Pep down. The champion made a quick recovering and did a great job of avoiding his opponent’s lead lefts and swings, resuming out-boxing business as usual.
Round 5 – Apparently Pep won the previous round with his defensive style firmly in play, spoiling Saddler’s timing with strong counter-punching tactics. With cuts showing above Pep’s eyes – something that had happened in the previous fight – and clear shows of blatant grappling in the clinch, the champion finally decided to give his opponent a taste of his own medicine. As Saddler closed in for another clinch with a blatant collar tie, Pep tripped the challenger over his right leg. The referee gave Pep a warning. By this point, ringside reports and statements from the fighters confirmed thumbs in the eyes, lacings from the gloves, elbow bumps and plenty of other dirty moves in the clinch from both men. The round ended with Saddler doing something to Pep just before or on the bell, causing the champion to turn away and duck his head in reaction.
Round 7 – By this point the judges had Pep ahead on points. In fact, some only had Saddler winning round 3. Saddler’s main strategy outside of the obvious rough-housing was throwing punches to the body and they were beginning to take their toll, especially when a few of them had clearly strayed below the belt. For the most part, Pep continued to out-box Saddler and did well to avoid his vicious left hook as well as his jab. However, during the closing the seconds the two engaged in brawling clinches. As the bell rang it was clear Pep was badly hurt. The ringside physician declared a dislocated left shoulder and as the bell rang for round 8 Pep stayed on his stool.
After the match Pep told the press “He got me in a double arm lock… He twisted my arm twice. That’s what did it, not his punches. Sure, he hurt me a few times, but I could have beat him.” Saddler shrugged off the accusation with “I thought a punch to the kidney did it… But if they say I twisted his arm, okay, I twisted it.” Saddler also explained that Pep had been no angel in either of the fights having regularly thumbed in the eye and said his complaints against this regular foul had been ignored. Nevertheless, Saddler got the verdict and was now a second-time undisputed World Featherweight Champion.
Willie Pep versus Sandy Saddler 26.09.1951
The very next day the International Boxing Club declared plans were already in the works for a fourth match up between these two heated rivals. However, this time matters really got out of hand. Records vary on this fight with Fight City saying that crowds had tired of the rivalry and the dirty antics yet BoxRec describe:
A crowd of 13,836 produced a gate of $75,311. Movie rights and theater TV contributed another $110,000.
The fight was seen in 17 theaters in 13 cities on closed circuit television
Pep had eight straight victories after losing the title for the second time to Saddler. Three of these were stoppages and he had one rare example of a split decision. Saddler, clearly in his prime, won 15 bouts before facing Pep again. These included one successful defence of his World Super-Featherweight title. This time Saddler had risen to be the 9-5 betting favourite.
Both men apparently did a phenomenal amount of extra and specific conditioning for this fight. Pep even engaged the services of a wrestler so that he could better handle Saddler’s mauling and damaging clinches.
Round 1 – From the off Saddler’s strategy was evident. He pushed Pep into the rope and clinched him. Likewise, Pep got to the outside and kept beating Saddler to the punch. Saddler pressed on with mauling and Pep could not resist, even getting a warning for using a headlock. Pep’s best method was to stick to the outside, but so charged was the exchange that already found it hard to resist Saddler’s aggressive clinches.
Round 2 – Pep even charged in off the front foot at the beginning of this round and going in at an inadvisable pace against the stronger Saddler. Predictably Saddler returned in kind and began to use collar ties to set up powerful punches on the inside. Just as Pep began to get into his strike, winning exchanges from the outside Saddler clinched and began sending in powerful body shots. He caught Pep in a right hand collar-tie and sent in a series of his most damaging punches: shove hooks. Pep went down for an eight count.
Round 3 – Pep entered the next round with a bad cut over his right eye. This time he went in off the back-foot, reverting to what he did best. However, Saddler continued to press with his own tactics and clinched early. Pep countered with “heeling” and “lacing” with his glove to break the hold. Saddler clinched again and got the same anti-grappling replies.
Round 4 – Pep tried to use more angled footwork, but Saddler moved in with his long guard taking advantage with his disproportionately long arms to manhandle Pep early on. Despite some great quick-fire combinations from Pep, Saddler’s power jab began to penetrate his defences as he cut off the ring. Pep moved out and resumed his canny footwork patterns, moving from side to side and beginning to win the long range exchanges again. Saddler moved forward, trapped and threw a kidney punch. He then threw an intentional bolo punch below the belt that referee did not acknowledge. Pep’s response was one of three that typical follow such a shot: he got very angry and invited the clinch.
Round 5 – Pep came in harder than usual but boxed from the outside. However, he couldn’t resist and decided to engage Saddler in a grapple, pulling on his opponent’s arms as they fell into the ropes. They were separated and Pep again began to dictate the fight from the outside until the closing seconds when they clinched and Pep used a headlock takedown on Saddler.
Round 6 – Pep made good use of the step-jab. Saddler’s clinches were repeatedly met with lacings from Pep. However, Pep’s right eye continued to cause him discomfort. The round ended with Saddler and Pep’s last clinch ending with them both on the ground.
Round 7 – The next round started as a straight brawl. Finally, Pep received a warning when the referee noticed this dirty trick. Saddler continued to clinch and the referee continued to break them up. Saddler even shoved the referee out of the way at one point to resume getting back to Pep. Once again they clinched and the referee struggled to part them, ending up on the ground. He eventually succeeding in the parting the two and issuing warnings, especially directed to Pep. However, no sooner where they back into the fight than the clinching resumed and Pep attempted to trip up Saddler. When they were parted he seemed to clear his head and began boxing from the outside again. His tiredness was evident and attempted to post off Saddler who continued to move in trying to land his powerful left. The round ended with clinching as a tired Pep found himself tied up again.
Round 8 – Saddler seemed to smell blood as Pep plodded in uncharacteristically. He even took his back at one point and attempted to rabbit punch. After being separated they grappled again and this time Pep took the back actively going for a takedown, for which he received a warning. Further clinches followed broken up a few exchanges between the two men.
Round 9 – Despite Pep leading on points by round 9 the clash of styles could not have been more frustrating for both men. Saddler wanted to brawl and Pep wanted to fight from the outside. Saddler, a natural southpaw had switched to orthodox in much the same way Razor Ruddock would and his lead shovel hook was pretty much identical to Ruddock’s famous smash punch.
At the conclusion of round 9 Pep was now suffering intense pain from his right eye and refused to leave his stool due to the injury.
Pep had been in a real dilemma with Saddler. Getting a wrestler in seemed like a smart move ahead of the fight in order to mitigate against the damage caused in their previous clash. In this respect, it is interesting to see how the sport had come in the past 20 years and how far Pep had taken the work of Corbett and Gans, to the point where he needed to receive some wrestling training. 20 years previously and all boxers up (and including) Jack Dempsey could hold their own in a pure wrestling match. In fact, the likes of Fitzsimmons and Johnson also found part-time work as grapplers. Of course, the key to use that “new” training experience was to purely use it for defensive reasons in order to get out of Saddler’s destructive clinches. Early in the fight we see Pep almost showing off these new skills by outmanoeuvring Saddler off the ropes and even using a go-behind without engagement. However, not being drawn into the clinch is easier said than done. Whilst Pep might have been the purest of out-boxers, Saddler’s undeniable position as one of the greatest P4P sluggers was definitely complemented by around 30-35% swarming. However, unlike many who have made swarming their primary tool, Saddler used a long guard (not a million miles from ’70s era slugger George Foreman) to herd and pull opponents into close range. Pep had always used anti-grappling methods against Saddler such as heeling/lacing, but this time he seemed to tempted (tiredness? frustration?) to start wrestling back. This highlights issues we get in self-defence when we try to encourage a single-minded plan that allows for adaptations. When the pressure is on it is too easy to want to grapple a grappler and end up playing his game. Pep’s retirement from this match ironically came from an injury to his eye more than likely caused by Saddler’s own anti-grappling!
Al Abrams, sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, described the fight “nine rounds of the worst exhibition of unsportsmanlike conduct ever seen in a bout anywhere.” Saddler retained the title but would be indefinitely suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission. Pep would have his licence revoked. However, when this came into effect and how much it harmed the two fighters’ careers is debatable. Saddler was fighting in Madison Square Gardens in December that year but wouldn’t defend this particular title until 1955. Pep fought 12 times in 1952.