Willie Pep once stated, “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.”‘
Guglielmo Papaleo clearly didn’t appreciate Connecticut state police officers trying to apprehend him and his opponents found out the hard way—229 of them, in fact.
In a professional career that spanned twenty-six-years, the ethnic Italian displayed an innate foot rhythm that would make veteran dancers blush and a fistic-radar that kept professional punchers fumbling for answers. Pep was steps ahead inside those taut ropes. He was the in-ring Grandmaster of fighting chess and his opponents were temporary pupils.
These students were aplenty in boxing’s glory days and Pep took class regularly, running up an incredible win-streak of sixty-two straight before succumbing to future Hall-of-Fame inductee and former lightweight champion Sammy “The Clutch” Angott in a ten-round non-title bout. Impressive as that run may sound, it should be added that this 62-1 mark took place within a three-year period and saw him defeat numerous highly-rated featherweights en route to also becoming the world’s 126-pound champion.
Ol’ “Will o’ the Wisp” must have been slightly underwhelmed with his own performance, however, as he proceeded to whisk through all but one of the next seventy-three dance partners (he suffered a tie along the way, but set the record straight less than three months later by folding Jimmy McAllister with a nasty body shot in round two). The streak was left unabated even after he was injured in a plane crash in January of 1947, an event that saw three men die, including the co-pilot. Thus, going into a title contest with Pep’s future nemesis, the hard-swinging Sandy Saddler, the great sultan of anti-swat appeared before the world with a peak win-loss record that hasn’t been matched, and likely never will. The total: 134-1-1. Even the announcer must have needed a double-take when reading that off.
During the course of Willie’s historic second run as champion he made six title defenses, one of which was against Chalky Wright, a man he once named as the hardest puncher he ever faced. Saddler, watching the bout live, later made this observation about Pep and the fight:
“Pep was well loved for his ability. He was the cleverest boxer of the last 40, 50 years. He pulled the damndest trick I’ve ever seen in a ring. It happened the night he defended the title against Chalky Wright in ’44, four years before my first fight with him. Chalky could knock you dead with one punch, but he couldn’t lay a glove on Pep, who had taken the title from him. Chalky kept stalking him for one good shot and he finally trapped Pep in a corner. Chalky cocked his right to throw a bomb and Pep ducked through his legs and got away. That’s right. Pep ducked right through Chalky’s legs.”
Reflecting further, Saddler continued: “I never forgot that. It was the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Sandy himself, though bettering Willie in three of their four contests and handing the slickster his second loss, became well-acquainted with the frustration he witnessed that night while jotting down mental notes on how he would game plan for such an experienced and intelligent foe.
Their first fight must have went according to how Saddler had foreseen it because he stopped the Connecticut native in four rounds. A shock to many. The rematch in February of 1949, looked a bit different, however, as the quick-handed magician of the squared-circle pulled maybe his finest trick ever by wrestling control of the featherweight championship once more. The Associate Press observed that “Pep boxed brilliantly all the way against his heavier punching opponent, bouncing in and out with his dazzling array of jabs, hooks and right crosses.” Within the same article it was written that “the artful dodger from Hartford was too much for him with his counterpunching. Time after time in the thrill-packed brawl, Pep jabbed five or six times to Sandy’s face.”
The United Press observed much of the same, saying “Pep’s amazing speed and elusiveness at times bewildered the slender, hard-hitting Harlem Negro.”
The wispy one’s triumphant victory and subsequent defenses of his strap before meeting Sandy for a third time all but solidified his place among the greatest featherweights ever, and certainly garnered chatter as quite probably the most ardent defender of all-time. And though Pep went on to lose fights three and four with the spindly Saddler, he did manage to largely outbox him when the rules weren’t being trampled.
Another one of Pep’s most complete performances was one that can be viewed on film. It was his pairing with European featherweight champion and longtime contender, French boxer Ray Famechon. That particular defense of Willie’s championship proved as breezy as seaside air, performing acts rarely seen at such a level. Pep constantly strafed left and right, balked with hand and foot (a ploy Pep claims to have gotten from Chalky Wright), and baited the Frenchman into uncorking wallops that were met with sharp counterpunches—not only from Pep’s typical orthodox stance, but also from the southpaw position. You would be hard-pressed to find a fighter from any era who can perform such a feat. On top of it all, the curly-haired champion in dark trunks popped a spear-like jab with metronome consistency, wound up behind the spidery-looking challenger numerous times, and parried, pushed, slipped, and simply out-foxed his opponent to a clear unanimous decision. Famechon disliked the outcome and grudgingly accepted defeat and said that fighting Pep “was like fighting a rat who gnaws and runs away.”
What separates Willie’s defense further is not just the way he combined every trick into a nearly unbreachable fistic levee, or the legend surrounding his alleged winning of a round without throwing a punch against Jackie Graves (this was shown to be false, but certainly highlights how good he was if people believe it), or his unmatchable win-streaks, or his numerous title defenses, or his sheer number of victories, or even his recovery and continuation of his career after a frightening plane crash. As genuinely astonishing as they all are, one other piece of date must be factored in, and that is what he did after physically regressing.
Connecticut’s boxing darling had shown signs of decline before his four-fight series with the great Sandy Saddler had come to an end, and some claimed that the wreck of ’47 had rendered him less than his best. But the fall from grace wasn’t that hard. Besides, a hiccup at the hands of big-cracking Bostonian, Tommy Collins (a fight in which he was winning), a probable dive against Lulu Perez, and an avenged split decision loss to Gil Cadilli, Pep accumulated a respectable record of 69-7 post-Saddler. He put on masterclasses in those days, too. A notable example was the exhibition of post-prime savvy the 46-15-4 Fabela Chavez had to endure for ten rounds in 1952. The former featherweight champion feinted his lightweight foe into knots, displayed an educated left hand, and stymied return-fire with old-school class. He also had Chavez hurt on a few occasions and once pleaded with the red to stop it. Gil Cadilli and Joey Cam experienced sound thrashings, as well.
In 1956, Red Smith, a New York Times columnist and boxing fan, saw Willie’s bout with unheralded Mexican, Kid Campeche. Smith wrote that “Willie pitched a 10-round no-hitter, sticking and moving, spinning, ducking, smothering every earnest, floundering attack. The few hundred in the hall reveled in the perfection of the performance. Willie left Campeche unhurt but frustrated almost to the point of tears.”
“It’s like trying to stamp out a grass fire!” Campeche said.
When all was said and done and the bright lights at ringside had barely started to wear from “Will o’ the Wisp’s” memory and his quarter century stay in the “sweet science” was over, observers reflected on his career. Needless to say, they had flattering things to say.
Don Riley, a contemporary boxing scribe, said of Pep: “He carried boxing beyond the coarse, vulgar displays of human carnage. His were classic victories, rarely bloody; more the incredibly skilled surgeon, operating on his foe with the cool dispassionate dispatch of the antiseptic clinic. . . . He is the greatest athlete in his particular specialty I have ever seen.”
Post-World War II debates were ripe with comparisons of three men: Joe Louis, Ray Robinson, and Willie Pep. When “The Brown Bomber” was inquired about both, he stated: “I don’t see no difference between ‘em. I think Pep and Robinson are the best boxers around anywhere, any time.”
Longtime fan Burt Bienstock, one of the few alive lucky enough to see Willie Pep in all his glory, had this to say: “I saw the great Willie Pep in his glorious prime BEFORE his almost fatal plane accident…It was in 1943 at MSG where Pep, undefeated in over 50 bouts, met a terrific, classic lightweight named Allie Stolz of Newark, NJ. Allie Stolz weighed about 7 pounds more than the newcomer Willie Pep, and my dad who saw Stolz several times thought Allie would be too strong for Mr. Papaleo.”
“Well, were we wrong. Pep not only won every round of the fight, but dropped Stolz in the process. We in the crowd were truly in awe of young Willie Pep who put on a show of sheer utter brilliance that I never saw again. It was like he anticipated EVERY move his opponent made prior to Allie Stolz making it. UNCANNY was the one word I would describe Willie Pep. A few fights later Pep took on the rough and tough lightweight Sammy “The Clutch” Angott who won a close controversial decision over Pep ending his unbeaten win streak.”
“After Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, pre-plane crash was the best fighter I ever saw ringside.”
Burt later said that “Willie Pep was the Harry Houdini of boxing. At his peak it was said ‘you couldn’t hit him in the ass with a handful of rice.’”
The aforementioned Red Smith, whose love of Pep was no secret, joyfully remarked: “He is an endless delight and an unfailing surprise, and the longer he goes, the more astonishing he becomes.”
John Lardner said, “he has the nonchalance and blinding speed to move within a half inch of danger and stay there all night.”
And lastly, boxing historian Hank Kaplan opined: “Willie Pep was the greatest boxer I ever saw.”
Pep was to boxing what Einstein was to physics. He was a genius pure boxer to which all other pure boxers are measured, and likely the greatest defensive fighter ever.