Willie Pep won a round without landing a punch

By B. R. Bearden

In the annuls of boxing there are many "urban myths", tall tales, and outright lies told about the fighters of the past. Did heavyweight William Harrison Dempsey really call himself "Jack" in honor of the great middleweight Jack "The Nonpareil" Dempsey? Did Dempsey have plaster-of-Paris on his hands the day he beat Jess Willard within an inch of his life? Did Joe Louis once give a shiny new half-dollar to a goggle-eyed young fan named Rocky Marciano? Did Ali once draw the smallest attendance for a world heavyweight title fight in the history of the sport? Was Harry Greb really blind in one eye the last 5 years of his career? And did Willie Pep, the Will o' the wisp, really win a round without landing a single punch?

Pep was likened to a tap dancer in boxing gloves. He was fast, he was agile, he was graceful. A Pep fight resembled a ballroom dance with one partner a masterful Fred Astaire and the other apparently lacking a single dance lesson. He was called the Will o' the Wisp because, like that illusive phenomenon, he was almost impossible to lay hands upon.By the age of 20 he had won 54 fights in a row without a loss before taking the featherweight title from future HOF fighter Chalky Wright in a bout in which he never once hurt Wright, but played him like a violin. More precisely, a Stradivarius.Willie would continue to win, losing only once in his next 49 fights (to future Hall of Famer Sammy Angot), before he would be matched against a Top Ten fighter with a 25-2 record named Jackie Graves on July 25th, 1945 in Minneapolis. Graves was a southpaw, and perhaps a sportswriter had hinted that it might cause Pep a problem. Or perhaps Willie was just in the mood to show them something they'd never seen before. Whatever his motivation,prior to the start of the bout, Pep would make a prediction to rival any later made by Muhammed Ali; he would win a round without throwing a single punch.

Not only that, but he would tell them up-front just which round to watch for it; round number three. Bert Sugar said of the audacious feat: "Pep tipped off a few friendly sportswriters that he would not throw a punch in anger in the third round.... Pep moved; Pep switched to southpaw, mocking Graves; Pep danced; Pep weaved; Pep spun Graves around and around again; Pep gave head feints, shoulder feints, foot feints, and feint feints. But Pep never landed a punch." The crowd at ringside sat in spellbound awe as Pep put on perhaps the greatest three minute demonstration on the art of boxing ever witnessed. In just 180 seconds he joined the ranks of those who had done some legendary act to fulfill a fearless prediction; the called-shot of Babe Ruth, the "We're gonna win, I guarantee it!" bravado of Joe Namath, and "They all will fall, in the round I call" predictions of Ali.Sportswriter Don Riley, who was ringside and forewarned of Pep's plan for the third round, said, "It was an amazing display of defensive boxing skill so adroit, so cunning, so subtle that the roaring crowd did not notice Pep's tactics were completely without offense. He made Jim Corbett's agility look like a broken down locomotive. He made even Sugar Ray Robinson's fluidity look like cement hardening. Never has boxing seen such perfection!" He had fought the round without throwing a punch, but had he won it? Was his display so mesmerizing that even the keen eyed judges were beguiled? Pep knocked Graves down 9 times, ending the fight in the 8th round via TKO, but it wasn't the victory the ringside press were excited about; it was the score cards of the judges. When the cards were presented, there it was in black and white; Willie Pep had won the third round, the punchless round, on all three cards. The Will o' the Wisp had given boxing another legendary moment.

Oh, as to those other "did it happens?", here's the run down: Jack Dempsey did name himself after The Nonpareil Dempsey, he didn't put Plaster-of-Paris on his hands (an impossibility sworn to under oath by the inventor of the product), Louis did give a half-dollar to Marciano and another kid as they followed him around at a boxing show where he was guest announcer, Ali-Listion II drew only 2434 fans (the least ever), and Greb was blinded in one eye by Kid Norfolk in 1921, yet kept it a secret and fought successfully the final 5 years of his career and his life. And, of course, Willie Pep did win a round without landing a single punch



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