Pep, Willie

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PEP, Willie

(b. 19 September 1922 in Middletown, Connecticut), world featherweight boxing champion from 1942 to 1951, who was renowned for his agile fighting style and vibrant personality.

Born Gugliemo (William) Papaleo, Pep grew up on Middletown's tough east side as part of a large Italian family. The son of a construction worker, Pep began boxing before he was five years old. He retained vivid memories of the hard times his family faced during the Great Depression, when his father was chronically out of work. Eventually his father found employment with the Works Progress Administration, but money was still in short supply. When Pep first boxed as an amateur at age fifteen and brought home $50 in prize money, his father took most of the winnings and suggested that his son box more often.

Adopting the name "Willie Pep" as an Americanized version of his name that nicely reflected his boxing style, the amateur boxer won the Connecticut flyweight championship in 1938 and the bantamweight championship the following year. At five feet, five-and-a-half inches, and never more than 139 pounds, Pep astounded his opponents with his rapid and intricate footwork, which some compared to tap dancing while throwing punches. He began to fight as a professional in 1940 and worked his way through dozens of fights, winning his first sixty-four matches on his way to earning a title match against Chalky Wright for the New York featherweight championship on 20 November 1942. In a fifteen-round decision, Pep took the title, which he defended against Sal Bartolo in Boston in another fight that went the distance on 8 June 1943. Pep met Wright for a return match in New York on 29 September 1944, a bout that was the first boxing event televised from Madison Square Garden, and one that Pep won. The televised Friday Night Fights that followed the Pep-Wright match became a sports institution through the 1960s.

On 19 February 1945 Pep met Phil Terranova in New York for another bout that he took in a fifteen-round decision. Pep's victory over the National Boxing Association featherweight champion meant that he was the sole holder of the title. In 1947, however, Pep was injured as a passenger on a chartered plane bound for Hartford; the accident killed three people, and Pep was left with a broken leg and two cracked vertebrae. He spent five months in a body cast, then defied his doctors' orders and began planning his comeback. After just a few weeks of training, he reentered the ring and beat Victor Flores in a ten-round win in Hartford on 17 June 1947. Pep later called the fight the biggest one of his career because it conquered doubts that he could ever fight again. On 27 August of that year he defended his featherweight title with a twelve-round technical knockout against Jock Leslie, a feat he repeated on 24 February 1948 with a ten-round technical knockout against Humberto Sierra.

Pep delighted boxing fans with his antics in the ring. In one legendary performance in Minneapolis on 25 July 1946 against Jackie Graves, Pep bet that he could win a round without throwing a single punch. Putting his fast footwork on display, Pep kept Graves off balance and on the defensive throughout the round. Even though he never threw a punch, Pep indeed won the round. Pep was also a favorite with sports columnists for his ready wit and a lifestyle that favored the nightlife. Although he cleared well over a million dollars during his career, Pep joked that he lost it to "fast women and slow horses." Married six times, Pep had two children from his first marriage, one son from his third marriage, and a daughter from his fifth marriage.

Between 1948 and 1951 Pep fought a series of fights against Sandy Saddler over the featherweight title. In the first match on 29 October 1948, Pep was betrayed by over-confidence and lost the title in a fourth-round knockout. The two had a rematch on 11 February of the following year, and Pep was determined to reclaim the title. Fighting aggressively in the early rounds, he eventually took the title by decision. In their third match, on 8 September 1950, Pep suffered a dislocated shoulder in the eighth round, and Saddler won on a technical knockout. The culmination of the series took place in New York at the Polo Grounds on 26 September 1951, in one of the wildest fights of the era. Both fighters committed numerous fouls, and at one point the referee got tangled up and fell while trying to separate them. Eventually Saddler landed enough blows to Pep's right eye that it closed up completely, and Pep failed to come out for the start of the ninth round. It was his last attempt to recapture the featherweight title. In all, he held the title from 1942 to 1948 and again from 1949 to 1950.

Pep continued to fight until 1959, when he retired from the ring; after a brief comeback in 1965–1966—during which he won another nine of ten matches—he retired for good. He compiled a record of 230 wins, 11 losses, 1 draw, and 65 knockouts over his 26-year career. He later wrote that he was disappointed in the direction that boxing had taken in the 1950s, as the lure of televised matches forced boxers to rush their development instead of training properly in neighborhood clubs. However, with his vast experience and wealth of anecdotes, Pep served as one of the sport's most notable ambassadors to the public at large. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.

After his athletic career drew to a close, Pep secured a job with the boxing office of the State of Connecticut's Athletic Division, a position he held for almost twenty years. Although most of his boxing earnings were long gone, he enjoyed a modestly comfortable retirement with a small state pension that he supplemented with personal appearances as a popular speaker on the history of his sport.

Pep's anecdotal Willie Pep Remembers … Friday ' s Heroes (1973), written with Robert Sacchi, recounts many stories of boxers during the 1940s and 1950s. An interview with Pep was included in Peter Heller, In This Corner!: Forty-Two World Champions Tell Their Stories, 2nd ed. (1994). Profiles of Pep during his retirement appear in Sports Illustrated (16 July 1990), and the Boston Globe (26 Oct. 1999). John T. Kavanaugh published a brief reminiscence about Pep in Yankee (Aug. 1991). A full account of Pep's record as a professional fighter is in The Boxing Register: International Hall of Fame Official Record Book, 2nd ed. (1999).

Timothy Borden