Willie Pep: The Will-o’-the-Wisp

14.11.05 - By Craig Parrish: 241 total fights, 229 Victories (65 KO’s), 11 defeats, 1 draw. In today’s Boxing world, these numbers are hard to comprehend. But this is the career record of Willie Pep, “The Will-o’-the-Wisp”. Pep is considered by many to be the greatest Featherweight to ever step in the ring, as well as one of the greatest pound for pound fighters of all time. He was a 2-time World Champion, reigning from 1942-1948, and then again from 1949 to 1950.

He was born Gugliemo Papeleo in 1922 in Hartford, Connecticut. He fought for 2 ½ years in the Amateurs, amassing a record of 62-3. He turned Professional in 1940, and kicked off his career with an amazing 62 fight win streak. He won a decision over Chalky Wright in 1942 to capture the Featherweight crown at the tender age of 20, in his 56th professional fight.

He lost his 63rd Professional fight to Sammy Angott, but it was a non-title fight so Pep retained his belt.

He briefly served in the military during World War II and then went on another amazing win streak after the loss to Angott, winning his next 73 fights in a row. This is made even more remarkable as Pep was seriously injured when a plane he was flying on from Miami crashed in New Jersey in January, 1947. Most felt that Pep’s career was over, but Willie had other plans. After 5 months in casts, they were removed in May and Pep went immediately back into training. He still held the Title, and defended it with a KO over Jock Leslie later on that year. Pep seemed invincible.

Sporting a record of 134-1-1, Pep stepped into the ring with Sandy Saddler in October, 1948. In a major upset, Saddler KO’d Pep in the fourth round for only the second defeat of his career. Pep later admitted that he had taken Saddler too lightly, and though he was in good shape, got pushed around. However, he would come back to avenge his defeat three months later with a hard fought, 15 round decision over Saddler. Pep later said it was “the greatest night of his life”, and that the second time around he truly appreciated the Championship. He had won the title again, now a 2-time World Champion, and he was still only 26 years old.

Pep and Saddler fought twice more, with Pep losing both fights. Saddler seemed to have his number, and Pep couldn’t reclaim the crown. In the fourth fight, Pep’s eye was so badly swollen and cut that he had to retire from the match. Although game, he simply couldn’t see out of the eye to fight. However, he forged ahead and continued to fight well into the 1950’s. At the age of 36, he landed a non-title fight with Hogan Bassey, the current Featherweight Champ. If Pep won the fight, a title fight would be scheduled. Although he led on the cards, Pep was KO’d in the ninth round. He retired that year.

It seemed as though Pep’s great career was over for the next 6 years as he stayed retired. Living in Florida in 1965, he was approached by a friend to train him to fight. Pep began to train with him, and when his friend fell ill before a match, the Promoter asked Willie to step in for the 4-rounder. Pep accepted, and fought 11 times that year, mainly for fun. But after a run-in with an unsavory Promoter in Richmond in 1966, he retired for good at the age of 44.

Pep admitted after his retirement that he had basically spent his ring winnings as quickly as he earned them, and had some bad luck with several marriages. In 1980, he won a major lawsuit against Sports Illustrated over an article they had published suggesting that he had thrown one of his fights. Pep was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. He was perhaps the ultimate Boxer, and claimed he once won a round of a fight without throwing a punch by just “making the other guy look bad”. At the same time, he is in a rare group of fighters with over 50 knockouts to their credit. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Article posted on 15.11.2005

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