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Music In The Ring

Connecticut Native Was Considered Greatest Featherweight Of All Time

November 24, 2006
By TERRY PRICE, Courant Staff Writer

Willie Pep, a fighter for the ages, now belongs to the ages.

Regarded by many as the greatest featherweight boxer of all time, Pep died Thursday at Haven Health Center of Rocky Hill, according to his grandson, William P. Papaleo of Farmington. He was 84.

Pep, considered not only a great featherweight but also one of the best fighters pound-for-pound in history, had been in failing health. He had advanced Alzheimer's disease, family members said in September, when Pep was honored during a boxing event at the Connecticut Convention Center.

A child of the Depression, Pep fought his way up from the rough streets of Hartford to the top of the boxing world.

Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, Pep commanded the ring with a mercurial style that often left opponents grasping at air and spectators gasping in disbelief.

"He was a moonbeam," said boxing historian and author Bert Randolph Sugar. "You couldn't catch him. ... Pep was music in the ring. People were rhapsodic over him."

Pep captured the featherweight championship on two occasions. His total of 230 career wins is believed to be the most in the history of boxing. He lost only 11 fights with one draw and scored 65 knockouts.

Pep, nicknamed "Will o' the Wisp," fought from 1940 to 1966. He won his first 63 pro fights. After his first loss, he was unbeaten in his next 73 fights. His record after 137 fights was 135-1-1.

At 20 years and 2 months, Pep became the second-youngest featherweight world champion in 40 years, winning a 15-round decision over Chalky Wright on Nov. 20, 1942, before 19,000 at Madison Square Garden.

"He's got a record that I don't think anybody will ever touch," said lifelong friend Lou Dell. "I don't think there will ever be anyone like him. He was born with it."

Born Guglielmo Papaleo on Sept. 19, 1922, in Middletown, Pep was a hero in Connecticut and attracted busloads of fans to his fights across the country. At the height of his career the affable Pep hobnobbed with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Pep was named the fifth-best fighter of the 20th century and the top featherweight by The Associated Press. He was world champion in an era when there were only eight weight classes and eight world champions. He held the featherweight title from 1942-48 and 1949-50.

"There has never been a man with a better left jab or superior speed and pinpoint punching accuracy with both hands," Bill Lee, former sports editor of The Courant, once wrote of Pep.

Lee, who covered Pep during his heyday, once quoted Mike Gibbons, a boxer from St. Louis, as saying, "I'd pay to watch Willie shadow box."

Longtime friend Art Stamos once said, "You know how fast he was? Faster than anybody pulling a hand away from a hot flame."

Pep fought in Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford, Stanley Arena in New Britain and Valley Arena in Holyoke and in many other cities and towns in New England. He fought across the country in every major venue of the day.

"It was always a sellout," Dell said. "He made history all over the world."

Indeed, he did.

Pep had more than a dozen matches at Madison Square Garden and a half-dozen at Boston Garden. He also fought at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Olympic Auditorium in Detroit, Chicago Stadium and the Orange Bowl in Miami.

"He put Hartford on the map," said Connecticut Boxing Guild president Manny Leibert. "Just like UConn has made Connecticut, Pep made Hartford."

Pep's boxing skills were peerless. Legend has it that he once won a round against Jackie Graves in 1946 without throwing a punch.

Famed New York Times columnist Red Smith dubbed Pep "the artful dodger" for his ability to slip punches. Boxing Illustrated magazine once named Pep "the cleverest fighter" of all-time, ahead of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson.

It was that cleverness that set Pep apart from virtually every fighter who has set foot in the ring.

The one thing Pep lacked was a big punch.

"He was amazing," Sugar said. "He did have 65 knockouts. Most of those people fell down in exhaustion from watching him."

Leibert knew Pep from childhood.

"Nobody gives defensive fighting the credit it deserves," said Leibert, a former promoter, manager and trainer who will join Pep in December in the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame. "Defensively [Pep] was great. ... [Pep] was a master at dodging punches and countering. He had great legs. He was like a dancer."

Pep was raised in Hartford's East Side during the Depression. He shined shoes on street corners and learned how to defend himself against bigger and older kids looking to move in on his territory.

"I was an 11-year-old kid," Pep said in an interview in 2000. "Back then, you had to get there early because it was a good spot. If you got there late, somebody would take your spot.

"I weighed about 89 pounds soaking wet. The big guys would pick on me and so I had to fight them. Once you fight them they will leave you alone.

"I was a scrappy kid that they tried to push around, but I wouldn't let them. I didn't know anything about boxing then. I was just a kid, but I knew enough not to get hit."

Pep took that talent to the Charter Oak Gym where he began to hone his skills. Pep won the Connecticut flyweight championship in 1938 and the state bantamweight title in 1939.

Pep won his first pro fight on July 3, 1940, with a four-round decision over James McGovern in Hartford. Pep won the New England featherweight championship on July 21, 1942 - his 44th pro fight - with a 12-round decision over Abe Denner at Bulkeley Stadium. After winning the world title four months later against Wright, Pep was undefeated at 54-0.

The fight with Wright, considered the biggest puncher in the division at the time, drew 19,521 to Madison Square Garden and generated $71,868.79 in revenue - the richest fight in featherweight history at the time.

Managed by Lou Viscusi and trained by Bill Gore, Pep continued to win and draw big crowds. He beat Allie Stoltz in a non-title fight before 19,088 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 29, 1943.

Pep fought Sal Bartolo on April 9, 1943, at Boston Garden before a crowd of 14,000 and was paid $30,000 for the non-title fight, the biggest guarantee for a featherweight up to then.

In a rematch with Bartolo two months later at Braves Field in Boston, attendance was reported to be 15,945 for the title fight. Pep won a 15-round unanimous decision after scoring a split-decision victory in the first fight.

Pep made six successful title defenses before losing the belt to career nemesis Sandy Saddler on Oct. 29, 1948, on a fourth-round knockout at Madison Square Garden. He regained the title Feb. 11, 1949, at the Garden with a 15-round decision over Saddler in what was considered Pep's finest hour.

James Dawson of The New York Times wrote: "Pep put up the greatest battle of his career. He called every ounce of strength within his compact little body, and all the guile he accumulated through 11 years as an amateur and professional fighter. ... Pep is no believer in theory or tradition. He is a fighter of windmill style, tireless and with resourcefulness and baffling speed. He is champion again because he has all these ring essentials, with unflagging courage as well."

In all, Pep had a memorable four-fight series with Saddler, whose size and punching power enabled him to manhandle the 5-foot-5 Pep. Saddler, who had a 5-inch height advantage, beat Pep three times.

Pep held the title until Sept. 8, 1950, when he again lost to Saddler on an eighth-round TKO before 33,389 at Yankee Stadium. Pep, who separated a shoulder and didn't answer the bell for the ninth, earned $90,000 for the fight. The purse was a featherweight record that stood for 30 years.

Pep failed to regain the title in another TKO loss to Saddler on Sept. 26, 1951, at the Polo Grounds in New York. Pep's left eye was closed in the fight, which marked the end of his world championship days.

Pep was champion in 1943 when he joined the Navy during World War II. He was discharged after eight months but drafted by the Army in 1944. He served less than a year.

In 1947, during his prime, Pep survived a plane crash in a New Jersey snowstorm that killed several fellow passengers. He broke his back and leg. Told he would never fight again, Pep returned to the ring in five months and went on to win 73 straight fights.

Pep retired from boxing in 1959 following back-to-back losses to journeymen. In 1965, at 42, Pep came out of retirement and had 10 more fights, retiring again after a six-round loss to Calvin Woodland on March 3, 1966.

The Courant named Pep the third greatest state athlete of the 20th century.

"I never dreamed I'd pull it off," Pep told The Courant's Matt Eagan in 1999. "I trained very faithfully and I put on some weight and I worked hard and I was the champ. I did pretty good."

Pep was married six times, often joking with friends and strangers: "All my wives were great housekeepers. After every divorce, they kept the house."

Gambling cost Pep much of his earnings, and he doggedly disputed allegations that he had mob ties. Some believe he threw a 1954 fight against Luis Perez, an accusation Pep vehemently denied. Pep sued Newsweek Inc. for $75 million over an article published in Inside Sports that stopped just short of naming him as the fighter who had thrown a fight. He lost the suit in 1984.

After retiring as a fighter, Pep worked as a boxing referee, a state tax marshal and a deputy state commissioner in charge of boxing. He was part of the state's athletic division from 1973 to 1989.

Pep never left the Hartford area, living most of his life in Wethersfield.

In a magazine interview in 1995, Pep summed up Pep best:

"I had one helluva life."

Terry Price, who retired in December 2005, was a sportswriter for The Courant for 35 years, covering boxing for about 20 of those.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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