Tonight my “Learn from the fight/fight history lesson” threw the spotlight onto Willie Pep. Pep has even scarcer footage over the 1940s than Ray Robinson. However, what was available revealed Pep at his prime with his signature artistry.
Born Guglielmo Papaleo on 19th September 1922, Willie Pep began boxing as amateur in Connecticut along with Johnny Duke. Both boys were working as shoe shiners and decided to join a local gym as sparring partners. This was during the Great Depression and Connecticut amateur boxers were given pay for their matches. They would both go on to be professionals and Duke would become a much respected trainer. When Pep’s parents discovered their son was boxing his mother was initially worried, but his father said that he was earning so much on Fridays he should see about fighting on Tuesdays as well. He developed a highly refined defensive style that he said came from a piece of advice offered him at his gym: “When you’re in the ring, make believe a cop is chasing you; don’t let him catch you.”
In 1938 he fought Sugar Ray Robinson in an attic feed store in Connecticut. At the time Robinson was using another pseudonym as he was an amateur outside of Connecticut and not allowed to accept pay. Pep says he completely underestimated Robinson who he had been told was not very good.
Pep turned professional in 1940 and by 1942 he had racked up a record of 40-0. He began his career mainly fighting between Connecticut and Massachusetts but eventually started heading west taking victories in Michigan and California. This was the year he faced former two-time undisputed World Featherweight Champion Joey Archibald. Archibald had only lost the title a year previously and had a record of 60-35-5. Pep beat him by decision and then challenged the current New England-area Featherweight Champion, Abe Denner. Pep won again gaining the title and now boxing amongst the top fighters of his sport in 1942. He established his prominence over his division on 20th November when he beat Chalky Wright for NYAC and Ring version of the World Featherweight Championship by unanimous decision.
Next year, having won 18 fights since gaining the title and defending it once, Pep lost his first fight on 19th March. This was to Pittsburgh’s Salvatore Engotti better known as Sammy “The Clutch” Angott. We watched Angott in his third fight against Ray Robinson last week. He was a wily fighter that used a Jack Johnson style of offensive punching and then clinching. Although Angott only outweighed Pep by 4lbs at the time, he had been and would again become the World Lightweight Champion and held his own against the top welterweights of his day. The fight was a back and forth affair with Angott winning rounds 1-3 and then 5. Pep won the fourth and then they drew in sixth before Pep started to take charge, winning the seventh and eighth as Angott showed he was tiring. Suddenly in the ninth, Angott caught Pep with a damaging body shot that put him back on top. Pep was weakened after that point and Angott won the non-title match by the end of round 10, claiming five of the rounds, Pep had three and two were scored draws. Associated Press speculated that the fight might have gone to Pep if the match had gone to 15 rounds given Angott’s condition in the latter rounds. Pep won the rest of his fights that year; including matches against future world champions Jackie Wilson and Sal Bortolo who he beat twice, second one being a title defence. This defence ensured that Pep was recognised by all boxing governing authorities as the undisputed World Featherweight Champion.
He enlisted the navy in 1943 and yet was still permitted to fight. In the spring of 1944 he was honourably discharged and fought 16 times that year. This time he defended his title against the man he took it from in the first place, Chalky Wright, who he fought again at the end of the year in a non-title fight. Pep’s future greatest opponent, Sandy Saddler, was watching and said:
“Pep was well loved for his ability. He was the cleverest boxer of the last 40, 50 years. He pulled the damndest trick I’ve ever seen in a ring. It happened the night he defended the title against Chalky Wright in ’44, four years before my first fight with him. Chalky could knock you dead with one punch, but he couldn’t lay a glove on Pep, who had taken the title from him. Chalky kept stalking him for one good shot and he finally trapped Pep in a corner. Chalky cocked his right to throw a bomb and Pep ducked through his legs and got away. That’s right. Pep ducked right through Chalky’s legs.”
If Sugar Ray Robinson exemplified the boxer-puncher then Willie Pep the perfect out-boxer. He was the spiritual successor to Benny Leonard, but his style was very much his own. Whereas Leonard was all about the jab, Pep was a genius with his footwork. His elusiveness and defensive skills earned him the nickname of “Will o’ the Wisp”. He fought 241 times, winning 229, losing 11, and drawing once. Despite having 85 KO wins, he was clearly known more for making his opponents miss and fought a total of 1,956 rounds. He also holds the record for being the only boxer to have two unbeaten winning streaks of 60+ fights.
Willie Pep vs Ralph Walton 1945
On 23rd January Willie Pep fought the Canadian Ralph Walton in a non-title fight. At this stage Pep’s record was 84-1. The footage is quite poor but Pep’s superior defensive skills are quite evident. The footage shows some Pep’s characteristic lateral footwork as well as a lot of head movement. Pep stayed on his toes all the time when on the outside and pretty much gave Walton a boxing lesson by hitting and moving off target as well as regularly feinting to draw the attack for a counter. Past the midway point Pep began to become a bit more aggressive. Much like other defensive fighters of the past, such as Jack Johnson, he knew when to bait a fighter who starting to tire or trying to work out his defensive style. Pep also showed an intelligent use of the clinch to tie up Walton’s attempted charges. He was very careful during the break to keep control of his opponent’s arms to prevent any follow up strikes at this crucial moment. Pep won by unanimous decision.
Pep was induced into the army in 1945 and, like his time in the navy, was able to continue fighting. He fought a total of eight times that year winning seven times and drawing in the aforementioned match. He beat former World Featherweight Champion, Phil Terranova, in a title defence. This was also the same year that Pep fought Jackie Graves and the claim was later made that he won the third round without throwing a single punch. Pep had a reputation for preserving his hands so he could rack up more fights. However, it would appear that there is no evidence to back up the “no punch” round and the contemporary report in the Minneapolis Star state that round three was actually a slug-fest with Pep scoring a damaging body shot. The story appears to stem from Pep telling a ringside reporter that he would win the third round by not throwing a “punch of anger”.
On 13th December Jimmy McAllister gave Pep his first and only draw, which might be the reason why Wil o’ the Wisp decided to take a different approach in their rematch.
Willie Pep versus Jimmy McAllister 1946
The match saw Pep fighting more in the pocket than usual, even going somewhat toe-to-toe. However, he still demonstrates remarkable defensive skills especially with his head movement. The knockout occurs amidst what looks like a fiery exchange with McAllistair going to the head and Pep dropping to the body with a left-right-left combination. McAllistair fought Pep one more time in 1948 where he lost once again, but this time to a unanimous decision. McAllistair ended his career with 62 wins and 36 losses.
1946 saw Pep win all 18 of his fights, including a title defence where he knocked out Sal Bartolo in round 12 of a title defence, Jackie Graves in 8 (definitely punches thrown in that fight!) and Chalky Wright in round three.
In January 1947 he was in a plane crash that broke his back and leg. Five months later he resumed boxing and continued his winning streak, closing the year with 11 victories. This included what was beginning to be an annual title defence, this time knocking out Jock Leslie in round 12. Leslie didn’t win a world championship but he finished his career with 63 wins (34 Kos), 22 losses and five draws. Testament to how highly boxing commentators thought of Pep’s abilities they actually questioned that he might have lost his edge due to struggling against Archie Wilmer and Pedro Biesca. Biesca knocked Pep down in round four before losing by unanimous decision.
Then, on 29th October 1948 Pep met his nemesis in the form of the terrifying slugger, Sandy Saddler. So far ’48 had been another good year for Wil o’ the Wisp. He had already won his annual title defence, this time against the Cuban Humberto Sierra, which was just one of his 15 straight victories that year. With his record now at 134-1-1, he decided to put his title on the line for a second time (overall his seventh defence).
Saddler was a 3-1 underdog, receiving 10 per cent of the gate whereas Pep was on 50 per cent. Saddler’s record going into the fight was 85-6-2. He had four less fights than Pep and had lost more. However, what might have not been taken into account was the fact that he had knocked out far more fighters than Pep. Saddler would finish his comparatively short career having knocked out 104 of the 145 opponents he defeated. In 2005 Ring magazine ranked him as the fifth greatest puncher of all time. Although lighter by 1lb he was 2 ½” taller with a 2” reach advantage. Furthermore, his style was Pep’s polar opposite. Although he was essentially a slugger who was comparable to the heavyweight monster, George Foreman, Saddler had definite attributes of the swarmer. He cut the ring off from his opponents using a long guard, similar to that used in Muay Thai, coupled with a cross-arm guard as he closed in on his prey. He had a peculiar set up of putting his rear hand forward to steer opponents into his powerful shovel hook. This trick would catch out Willie Pep it would seem. Saddler dropped his opponent twice for nine counts in round three. In round four his shovel hook knocked him out for the full count and Saddler became the new undisputed Featherweight Champion of the World.
Pep’s rematch with Saddler came on 11th February the next year. The former champion had won two fights by unanimous decision against Hermie Freeman and Teddy Davis prior to this match. This time the fight was very different. The Associated press said that “Pep boxed brilliantly all the way against his heavier punching opponent, bouncing in and out with his dazzling array of jabs, hooks and right crosses… the artful dodger from Hartford was too much for him with his counterpunching. Time after time in the thrill-packed brawl, Pep jabbed five or six times to Sandy’s face.” Pep won back the title on a unanimous decision.
Pep then fought six more times before 1949 was through, defending his title once against fellow Connecticut resident, Eddie Compo. Compo came in with an impressive 57-1-3, but lost the match on a technical knockout in round seven. Willie Pep finished the decade as the undisputed World Featherweight Champion.
Prior to discussing the above it is important to note that my client raised a discussion regarding Jack Dempsey’s commentary on Bob Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons, as you might recall from the earlier lesson reports of this series of fight history lessons, was the man who knocked out the great Gentleman Jim Corbett. The famous punch he used was to the solar plexus as established in the photograph shown to me by my client and apparently in Fitzsimmons own words. It was achieved by shifting to the mirror side (into southpaw) creating a torqueing action. This was interesting because Saddler would use a similar torqueing acting created by pawing or threatening with his rear hand that set up his lead shovel hook.