Willie Pep

'Greatest defensive fighter of all time'


Guglielmo Papaleo (Willie Pep), boxer: born Middletown, Connecticut 19 September 1922; world featherweight boxing champion 1942-48, 1949-50; six times married (two sons, two daughters); died Rocky Hill, Connecticut 23 November 2006.

Once hailed by The Ring magazine as "the greatest defensive fighter of all time", Willie Pep reigned as world featherweight champion from 1942 to 1948 and again from 1949 to 1950. In a career that spanned almost three decades, Pep amassed a record of 242 bouts - an astonishing figure by today's standards, given that most modern champions retire after an average of perhaps 50 fights - of which he won 230, the vast majority by decision. He was beaten on only 11 occasions and drew once.

Known as the "Will-O'-The-Wisp" for his uncanny elusiveness - he once won a round by defensive brilliance alone, electing not to throw a single meaningful punch at his bemused opponent - he liked to advise young fighters, with rather more common sense than poetical instinct, that "he who hits and runs away, lives to fight for 29 years".

He was born Gugliemo Papaleo in Middletown, Connecticut in 1922, the son of a Sicilian construction worker, Salvatore Papaleo. Willie Pep (as his name was anglicised) was drawn to boxing from an early age after being taken to watch the Italian-American world featherweight champion, "Battling" Battalino, at his training quarters in nearby Hartford.

As a boy, Pep helped to supplement the family income by selling newspapers and shining shoes, before realising that he could make more money as an amateur boxer (in those days, winning amateurs were often presented with a gold watch, which they later quietly returned to the promoter for a few dollars in hand). In 1937, he began his amateur career, and within two years had won the Connecticut state championships at both flyweight and bantamweight.

In July 1940, Pep turned professional, winning a four-round decision over James McGovern, and thus embarking on a 63-fight winning streak that included two victories over the former world bantamweight champion Joey Archibald. In August 1942, Pep beat the number-one-ranked featherweight contender Pedro Hernandez, thereby earning himself the opportunity to challenge the champion, Al "Chalky" Wright, for the New York State version of the world title (even in the "golden days" of boxing, titles were not always undisputed). In November that year, at Madison Square Garden, Pep duly seized his opportunity, out-boxing the veteran to win by unanimous decision.

Within a few weeks of his victory, Pep was back in the ring, fighting several times every month in non-title bouts, and it was this hectic activity - unimaginable today when a champion might make only one ring appearance a year - that allowed him to hone his defensive skills to perfection. None the less, in March 1943, Pep's unbeaten run came to an end when he lost a 10-round decision to the former lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Pep quickly shrugged off the loss, ending the year with a successful title defence against Sal Bartolo in Boston. Pep then went into the armed forces, serving for brief spells in both the navy and the army.

Following defences against "Chalky" Wright in 1944 and Phil Terranova in 1945, Pep was matched once more with Bartolo, who at this point held the NBA world title. A knockout in the 12th round at Madison Square Garden on 7 June 1946 gave Pep universal recognition as world featherweight champion.

The fight was almost Pep's last as champion; in January 1947, the plane on which he was returning from Miami crashed in New Jersey. Several passengers died, but Pep survived with a broken back and a broken leg. Amazingly, within six months, he had not only recovered but was fighting again, and in August stopped the challenger Jock Leslie in 12 rounds at Flint, Michigan.

Following a defence against Humberto Sierra in February 1948, Pep was matched against the hard-punching but lightly regarded Sandy Saddler. Pep's record now stood at 135 wins, with one loss and one draw. The Saddler fight, held at Madison Square Garden on 29 October 1948, proved a disaster for Pep when he was knocked out in the fourth round.

A return bout at the same venue was set for February 1949, and this time Pep was better prepared, regaining the title by unanimous decision with what many regard as his greatest performance. While a third bout with Saddler was inevitable, it proved difficult to arrange, and so Pep kept busy with successful defences against Eddie Compo, Charley Riley and Ray Famechon.

On 8 September 1950 in the Yankee Stadium, Pep faced Saddler again, but after seven rounds was unable to continue due to a damaged shoulder. The pair met for a fourth time on 26 September 1951 at the Polo Grounds in New York. It was, by common consent, one of the dirtiest championship bouts ever fought, with both fighters later earning suspensions for their complete disregard for the rules. Pep suffered damage to both eyes and, after nine rounds, he was again forced to retire. Pep later recalled that Saddler "was the only fellow I ever fought rough and tough with because he made me lose my head . . . This was my mistake. I never should have boxed that way."

Pep fought on, putting up a good display against then featherweight champion Hogan "Kid" Bassey in a non-title bout in 1958 before being knocked out in the ninth round. Shortly afterwards he retired, but in 1965 financial pressures forced him to return to the ring. Pep scored nine wins against modest opposition, then retired permanently following a loss in 1966. Thereafter, he occasionally worked as a referee and as a tax marshal, while also making personal appearances.

Pep was married six times, and bemoaned the cost of his five divorces. "All my wives were great housekeepers," he once said. "After every divorce, they kept the house."

John Exshaw

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