It’s a shame that Pep was forgotten
Appeal Sports Writer
Perhaps no book better defined that generation of hard-working Americans who went overseas to fight in World Wa
Serving as a counter-point to this live-in-the-now, it’s-not-good-if-it’s-not new generation, the book helped bridge the gap dividing the old school from the new school.
But after watching HBO’s broadcast of the Juan Manuel Marquez-Jimrex Jaca featherweight fight on Saturday night, I was left with the cold realization that the generation gap is wider than ever.
When the ring announcer informed the crowd at Dodge Arena, in Hidalgo, Texas, that Willie Pep died on Nov. 23, and asked for silence as the ringside timekeeper rang the bell 10 times in Pep’s honor, a smattering of fans hooted and hollered.
But even more shocking to me than that disrespectful noise was the minute smattering of applause at the conclusion of the toll. It was the kind of respectful applause that you’d give in honor of someone you never heard of, say Gugliemo Papaleo.
Willie Pep and Gugliemo Papaleo were one and the same, of course. According to boxing historian Bert Sugar, Papaleo changed his name to the much more speaker-friendly and easy-to-spell Willie Pep early in his career at the request of the boxing media.
And it was as Willie Pep that Papaleo forged a name and reputation as hallowed in the sport of boxing as that of Sugar Ray Robinson.
Maybe someone forgot to tell the crowd at Dodge Arena who Pep was. Maybe they just didn’t know. Or maybe they just didn’t care.
Perhaps this generation thinks that Marquez – who is a class act and top fighter, to be sure – or fellow contemporary icons Marco Antonio Barrera or Erik Morales invented the featherweight division. But older fans know better and hearken back to Eusebio Pedroza, Salvador Sanchez, Danny “Little Red” Lopez, Alexis Arguello, Bobby Chacon, Ruben Olivares, Eder Jofre, Vicente Saldivar, Ultiminio “Sugar” Rojas, Davey Moore and Hogan “Kid” Bassey.
Even before Pep there was George Dixon, “Terrible” Terry McGovern, Abe Attell, Johnny Kilbane, Johnny Dundee, Tony Canzoneri, Battling Battalino, Kid Chocolate, Henry Armstrong and Chalky Wright, the men who brought attention to the 126-pound division in a world enamored with the heavyweights.
And, with the possible exception of Robinson and Armstrong, even though he stood only 5-foot-4, Pep was head and shoulders above them all.
Pep not only had the numbers – he retired with a record of 229-11-1 with 65 knockouts – he had a style that no boxer has come close to matching before or since.
Known as “The Will O’ the Wisp,” Pep, who boxed from 1940-1966 (He retired from 1959-1965), was a pugilistic Houdini.
“You couldn’t hit him in the backside with a handful of buckshot,” Sugar said. “He came by his nickname honestly. Hitting him was like trying to catch moonlight in a bottle. He looked like he took a four-way cold tablet and he still had three ways to run.”
“He was a helluva boxer,” echoed 84-year-old trainer Lou Duva, Pep’s friend and cohort. “If he were around today, guys like Morales and Barrera wouldn’t hit him in the ass with a punch.”
“Think Pernell Whitaker times five,” Sugar added.
Perhaps no other boxer has inspired as many urban legends. Pep, who became the youngest featherweight champion in history when he defeated Wright for the title as a 20-year-old in 1942, once said he was going to win a round without landing a punch.
And in the third round of his July 25, 1946 bout with Jackie Graves, that’s exactly what he did. He dipped, dodged, danced, spun and feinted on his way to sweeping the round on the judges’ scorecards.
And if someone didn’t believe it, he’d pull out his wallet and remove the tattered, yellowed newspaper article and spread it out on a table to prove it.
In one of his four fights against Pep – all losses – Wright, standing spread-eagled for maximum leverage, lined up Pep in his sights and let loose with a punch. Pep dipped to his knees, went through Wright’s legs and was instantly behind Wright and throwing punches.
“He was the greatest practitioner of what used to be called ‘the manly art of self-protection,'” Sugar said. “He was credited with 65 knockouts, but (his victims) probably just fell down from exhaustion.”
In a trip from Miami to Milville, N.J., on Jan. 8, 1947, Pep survived a plane crash that killed several passengers. Ever the escape artist, Pep suffered a broken back and leg. Told he would never walk much less box again, Pep was training by that May and successfully defended his title against Victor Flores on June 17.
Pep wasn’t perfect; it only seemed that way. He was 62-3 as an amateur and, weighing only 105 pounds, Pep dropped a three-round decision to one “Ray Roberts,” a pseudonym for the 125-pound Robinson.
Pep opened his career 62-0 before losing his first fight to comebacking lightweight champion Sammy Angott. Pep wouldn’t lose again until he was 135-1, when he got caught in the fourth round of his bout with the 5-foot-11 Sandy Saddler, whose 103 career knockouts rank third in history.
Saddler would defeat Pep in three of their four meetings, but Pep stayed on his toes – Saddler’s toes, that is – to win their second meeting.
“They say anyone can beat anyone and styles make fights,” Sugar said of Saddler’s edge. “But Willie found a way to win (the rematch). He told me, ‘When I stepped on his toes, he said Ouch. So I figured if I stepped on his toes, I’d win the fight.’ That was Willy.
“In their fourth fight, Willie had his leg wrapped around Saddler’s ass, Sandy Saddler had Willie’s head in a death-lock and when referee Ray Miller tried to break them up, they both swung at the same time and hit Miller, knocking him down.”
Sugar said Pep wasn’t keen on the topic of thumbless gloves.
“He said you couldn’t pull your trunks up, but what he was really saying is that he couldn’t thumb his opponents,” Sugar said.
Other opponents that had Pep’s number were his ex-wives’ divorce attorneys.
“His wives (four or five of them) were good housekeepers,” Duva said. “They kept the house all the time (after the divorce).”
As lucky as he was shooting craps, Pep was unlucky in love and ended up alone and poor when he was stricken by Alzheimers in his late 70s. He died at Westhill Convalescent Home in Rocky Hill, Conn., on Thanksgiving alone and with nobody to take care of him.
Which was ironic, as Pep was always looking out for others. Even as the boxing commissioner, he’d find time to go tell Duva’s fighters what they needed to do better, demonstrating for them the correct way to throw a punch or defend against it.
A joker and a storyteller, Pep could hold the rapt attention of other greats like Jake LaMotta and Rocky Graziano.
“He was such a good guy,” Duva said. “He was a lovable, laughable guy. He had fun with everyone. We’d be eating dinner and he’d be a clown out there.”
It was a simpler time, even in boxing, which had fewer but more recognizable champions than today: Joe Louis was the heavyweight champ; Graziano ruled the middleweights, Robinson the welterweights and the great Manuel Ortiz – another of Pep’s victims – owned the bantamweight division.
And Willie Pep was the king of the featherweights during the greatest generation – the greatest generation for boxing and America in general.
I can’t pity Willie Pep because he doesn’t need it. I pity those poor, clueless boxing “fans” who had no idea what the sport lost when it lost Pep last week.