I don’t know how to tell you how good he was. He was an entirely different order of fighter than anyone fighting today or anyone who’ll ever again fight.
He was a defensive genius, of course, but that’s such a pale description. Even saying he was the greatest defensive fighter ever doesn’t tell you what you’d need to know. Willie Pep was a mover but he wasn’t a runner, and didn't hold his hands in a defensive posture. He was more like a computer programmed to not get hit—to twist and turn, to bend and sway, to deflect and magnetically repel.
But that’s no good either, because Willie Pep wasn’t programmed. There was nothing robotic in how he fought. He was an artist. He was rhythmic and musical. He was a tiny, light-footed wiseguy who had two hundred and forty-two professional fights and only lost eleven of them. And even some of those losses weren’t legit, since Willie, who loved gambling and women, owed money to everybody on the street and so occasionally did business.
I ran into him at a fight card in Springfield, Massachusetts about ten years ago. I happened to be with the New England heavyweight champion Stanley Wright. Stanley was a seven foot, two hundred-seventy pound lummox who would lose his title later that night to Juan Quintana, a fighter with a 6-29-2 record.
I told Wright that he was going to meet the greatest fighter he’d ever see in his life. Stanley said, “That little old white man?”
The New England heavyweight champion. A ten round decision loser to a 6-29-2 fighter--the new England Heavyweight champion. Boxing had come to that.
Stanley shook hands with Willie Pep. He was a full foot and a half taller, one hundred-fifty pounds heavier, and forty-five years younger. Had they fought that night, I would have bet anything I had on Willie to handle him.
Willie Pep was one of the ten greatest fighters who ever lived. Now there’s only one other left—Roberto Duran—and there will be no replacements for either of them. There will never be another top ten pound for pound fighter. In order to have become that great, you needed to have lived in a culture that developed great fighters, you needed to spend a lot of time in the ring, and you needed a variety of superb opponents. So the space that Willie Pep inhabited will remain empty.
There are standard biographical pieces of information that everyone writes when talking about Willie Pep. And they’re all pretty staggering.
You’ll read about his being 63-0 before losing a ten round decision to the more experienced (!) Sammy Angott. Well, you can’t hold that against Willie; Sammy Angott was a great, great fighter. And Willie was only twenty years old at the time.
Of course, he’d already gained a good deal of experience when, as a nineteen year old, he’d beaten Chalky Wright—another great fighter—who’d had one hundred-seventy three fights at that point.
Pep’s biography always includes his 1946 fight with Jackie Graves, in which Willie won a round on all three scorecards without throwing a punch. That’s three minutes without firing back against a guy who was 37-2. Next time you marvel at Roy Jones holding his hands behind his back for two seconds during a fight, think of Willie Pep and Jackie Graves.
In January, 1947, Pep was in a plane crash that killed five people and left him with a crushed vertebrae and a broken leg. There was some concern that he would never walk again. Six months later, Pep was back in the ring.
He fought eleven times in the last half of the year, logging in eighty-eight rounds. Lest you think he was put in with beginners to reacclimatize himself, his opponents for those fights had a combined record of 377-226-48. I probably don’t need to mention that Pep beat them all.
These are mythic facts and figures—names and numbers so far beyond anything we’ll see again that they’re almost impossible to assign meaning to.
If there’s something mysterious in this avalanche of facts, the facts themselves disappear in a blizzard when talking about Willie and Sandy Saddler.
There were four fights. Willie lost three of them, stopped each time. Facts. He won the second fight by clear-cut decision. Fact.
That’s about all you can say for sure about those fights. Sandy Saddler was an apparition of a featherweight, more like a praying mantis than like a prizefighter. To couch things in contemporary terms, Saddler would have knocked out Manny Pacquiao, Marco Antonio Barrera, and Juan Manuel Marquez anytime they fought. (I’m a fan of all three, by the way.) He was a great puncher and he was so dirty that perhaps only Fritzie Zivic and Mysterious Billy Smith can be mentioned as his superiors in that department.
Maybe he was too big and rough for Willie. It’s possible. Pep was counted out in their first fight, but came back only three and a half months later to shut Saddler down and reclaim the featherweight title.
He quit the next two times they fought. He was easily winning their third fight when he, as Sonny Liston was to do years later, claimed a shoulder injury and refused to come out for the eighth round.
The final fight between them was all fouling, with Pep again deciding not to come out of his corner, this time insisting that he couldn’t see out of his right eye.
As I said, it’s possible. The New York State Athletic Commission revoked Pep’s license for seventeen months following this fight though. Make of it what you will.
At that point Willie had fought one hundred-sixty five professional bouts. It had been a long career.
It would continue for another fifteen years.
He wasn’t the same. But with someone as good as Willie Pep, he didn’t have to be Willie Pep to be better than almost anyone else. He managed the fifteen additional years without ever getting hurt.
In the end, nearing forty-four years of age, Willie lost a decision to a beginner named Calvin Woodland. He decided that he’d had enough.
I’d see him at the fights occasionally. He never changed much. In his seventies, he looked like he could still box your ears off for ten rounds if someone paid him to do it.
And now he’s gone. I don’t have much to add except this little story.
About two months ago, I received a small envelope in the mail. It was from an old friend from back in the days that I was in boxing. He’s not a guy who enjoys publicity so I won’t mention his name.
Inside was a single piece of paper signed, “Best wishes, Willie Pep.”
I don't collect autographs. And I don’t want to sound like an asshole here. But that childlike signature with its optimistic-sounding name, arriving unexpectedly, was like molasses from Barbados--a small reminder of something sunny. It made me very happy to get it.
For the record, his name was Guglielmo Papaleo. But he was always called Willie Pep, which fit him just right