Known as "Will o' the Wisp" and "Willie the Wisp,"Willie Pep was a dominant featherweight boxer in the 1940s.
Pep was born William Guiglermo Papaleo on September 9, 1922, in Middletown, Connecticut, near the city of Hartford. He was the son of Sicilian immigrants, Salvatore and Mary (nee Marchese) Papaleo. Pep grew up in a tough neighborhood. He took up boxing, in part, because he was tired of getting beat up by older kids and wanted to defend himself. After dropping out of Hartford High School at the age of 16, Pep made money by selling newspapers and shining shoes.
Began Amateur Boxing Career
Pep spent much of his time boxing as an amateur based at the Du-Well Athletic Club in Norwich, Connecticut. He boxed in 65 amateur bouts over a two-and-a-half year period, posting a record of 59 wins and three loses. In 1938, he won the Connecticut amateur flyweight championship. The following year, he won the Connecticut amateur bantamweight championship. Pep told Jim Shea of Sports Illustrated that "The best advice I ever got was from a kid in the gym who told me, 'When you're in the ring, make believe a cop is chasing you; don't let him catch you."'
Entered Professional Ranks
When Pep was only 19 years old, he turned professional. He won his first bout on July 3, 1940, fighting Jim McGovern in Hartford, Connecticut. Pep went on to go undefeated in his first three years as a professional boxer. Pep became the youngest boxer in 40 years to win a world title. He won his first world title as a featherweight when he defeated Albert "Chalky" Wright in a 15-round bout in New York City on November 20, 1942.
Because this world title was awarded by the New York State Athletic Commission, the National Boxing Association would not recognize Pep as featherweight champion until he defeated their reigning champ, Sal Bartolo. Pep became the consolidated world featherweight champion when he defeated Bartolo by decision in a ten-round bout in Boston, on April 9, 1943. Pep would retain his world champion crown until 1948.
Of his early success, Pep told Peter Heller in In This Corner, "I was twenty years old. It was a very big thing for me to win the championship of the world. I didn't realize the strength of it. I didn't know what it was all about. I wasn't mature enough to sense what I had really won until 1948 when Saddler licked me, then when I won it back, I realized the strength and I realized it was a great thing to be a champion of the world."
There were several reasons why the featherweight Pep, who stood 5′5 1/2″ and weighing about 125 lbs., was such a dominant fighter in his time. He was a fast, speedy boxer, with dominating footwork and solid boxing skills. He used the whole ring to his advantage. Instead of eluding his opponents, Pep could knock them out after frustrating them. He had a great trainer in Bill Gore who helped Pep use his assets to the best of his ability. James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt wrote in The Boxing Register that "Pep developed a ring artistry that veteran boxing observers still admire. His style of boxing has been likened to tap dancing with gloves on. He once even won a round without even throwing a punch because his tactical movements kept his opponent completely off-balance." The fight Roberts and Skutt refer to took place in 1946 against Jackie Graves in Minneapolis. Pep went on to win the bout by TKO (technical knock out) in the eighth round.
Lost First Fight
Pep's first defeat as a professional came in a non-title fight with Sammy Angott on March 19, 1943, in New York City. Angott had been a lightweight champion. Until that time, Pep had gone 42 fights without a defeat. After this loss, Pep went on to win 73 consecutive fights. This was a record few if any boxers had matched in the past and would be able to match in the future. By this time, Pep was world famous, a status that continued when he successfully defended his title against Sal Bartolo in 15 rounds on June 8, 1943, in Boston.
During the on-going American war effort in World War II, Pep served in the Navy in 1943 and was discharged with honors in the spring of 1944. He also served in the United States Army in 1945. During his service years, Pep continued his undefeated streak. He successfully defended his title by defeating Wright once again in 15 rounds on September 29, 1944, in New York City. Pep went on to defend it successfully several more times by defeating Phil Terranova in 15 rounds on February 19, 1945, in New York City, and Bartolo on June 7, 1946, in New York City by knock out (KO) in the twelfth round.
Career Nearly Ended
On January 8, 1947, Pep was flying from a training camp in Miami, Florida, to his home in Hartford, Connecticut, for final preparations for a fight. The plane crashed in woods near Millville, New Jersey, tearing it apart. Three passengers were killed and 18 injured. Pep was among the injured. He broke his left leg and two vertebrae in his back. Many believed Pep's boxing career was over, though Pep did not. As soon as his casts were removed in May, Pep resumed training. Just over six months after his accident, Pep was back in the ring and winning. He defeated Victor Flores by decision in ten rounds on June 17, 1947, in Hartford. Pep continued his defense of the world title. He retained the crown by TKO in the twelfth round in a fight with Jock Leslie on August 22, 1947, in Flint, Michigan. Pep's final successful defense also came by technical knockout, this time in the tenth round, against Humberto Sierra, on February 24, 1948, in Miami.
Temporaily Lost World Title
Pep lost his world title when he fought in atypical fashion. His opponent was Sandy Saddler, with whom Pep would have several more intense bouts. The fight took place on October 29, 1948, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Instead of fighting a smart fight, Pep decided to brawl. Scoring a huge upset, Saddler knocked Pep out in the fourth round. But Pep's tenure without the title was short. Saddler and Pep had a rematch on February 11, 1949. The fight was later regarded as one of the best boxing matches of all time. Though Pep was the underdog, he boxed a more intelligent fight this time. Pep regained his title when he won by decision in 15 rounds, though Saddler had landed many of his punches.
Pep successfully defended his re-gained featherweight crown three times. He defeated Eddie Compo by knockout in the seventh round on September 20, 1949, in a fight staged at Waterbury, Connecticut. The next title defense came against Charley Riley on January 16, 1950, in St. Louis, Missouri. Pep won by knockout in the fifth round. Pep's final defense came against Ray Famechon, the European champion. Pep won in 15 rounds on March 17, 1950, in New York City.
Kept from Title by Old Foe
Pep's fourth title defense came against Saddler. Because of the fighters' history together, the event was a spectacle, taking place in New York City's Yankee Stadium on September 8, 1950. Saddler won by TKO after mauling Pep. Pep had to leave the match because he was injured with a dislocated shoulder. He did not box again until January 1951, then won his next eight, non-title bouts.
Pep tried to regain his world featherweight crown from Saddler in another major title fight. The event took place in New York City's Polo Grounds (the one-time home of the New York Giants baseball team) on September 26, 1951. Pep again lost because he brawled instead of fighting a smart match. Saddler was also out of control. Each fighter fouled the other repeatedly. Twice one fighter wrestled the other to the floor; during one of these incidents, they took the referee with them to the canvas. Pushing, shoving, tripping, gouging, and heeling marred the match. Pep lost by TKO after the ninth round when he could not come out for the tenth because he had a serious gash under one of his eyes. This injury was allegedly caused by Saddler's thumb. For their behavior, the commission suspended both Saddler and Pep. Pep did not fight again until April 1952.
Though Pep was not in contention for the featherweight crown, he continued to box successfully, winning almost all of his matches. He lost only once in 12 fights in 1952, and defeated all of his 11 opponents in 1953. Pep only fought five times in 1954, losing only once to Lulu Perez in the second round by TKO on February 26. After this loss, the New York State Athletic Commission took away Pep's boxing license because of his age (31). Pep's career continued in other states. He won all but one of his 24 fights between 1955 and 1957.
Career at Its End
Though Pep won 11 of his first 12 fights in 1958, he lost his final chance at a world title on September 20, 1958. Fighting Nigerian boxer Hogan "The Kid" Bassey in Boston, Pep lost by TKO in the ninth round, though he had been leading on the judges' scorecards. Pep formally retired the day after losing to Sonny Leon by decision in ten rounds on January 26, 1959, in Caracas, Venezuela. He was elected to The Ring 's Boxing Hall of Fame four years later.
Pep staged a comeback in 1965, winning nine fights that year. The last four were by TKO or KO. Pep's final professional fight came on March 16, 1966, against Calvin Woodward in Richmond, Virginia. Pep lost in six rounds, and admitted that he did not feel he was in shape enough to fight. Over the course of Pep's professional boxing career, he had fought in 241 bouts, winning 164 by decision and 65 by knockout; losing 11, five by decision and six by knockout; and one draw.
One reason Pep had staged his short-lived comeback was his need for money. Though he had made a lot over his career, he spent it wildly, losing much by gambling, and investing poorly. But he also still loved the sport. After his fighting days ended, Pep worked as a second with boxers, boxing inspectors, and a boxing referee. Among his matches as referee was the featherweight championship match between Harada and Famechon. Pep's other sports-related occupations included wrestling inspector and sports columnist. He also managed a nightclub, worked as a brewery customer service representative, restaurant greeter, and a deputy sheriff in criminal court in Hartford, Connecticut. In the 1970s, Pep was employed in Connecticut's Athletic Division in the boxing office, a position he held until the late 1980s. Pep was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
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San Francisco Chronicle, August 7, 1990.
Sports Illustrated, July 16, 1990. □