The news at the moment is filled with doom and gloom. Between the building of walls to keep people out and the dangerous freedom with which ideas seep in, where do we get off on feeling a little under siege? I mean, like the generation before us, we have a bleak view of life as it faces us because, I think, it suits our mood and makes us yearn for times that have gone past. For some people, they even elect leaders who have a passion for taking us right back into dark and dangerous times.
As a student, not just of the sweet science, but also of history, I am often wondering about times long past and victories that are in the memories of my forefathers rather than my own. I wonder about the needs of our generation who have really, never had it so good. What it must have been like for those who came up out of War to find that the bright lights shone again, but not always for them?
And so, I thought, following the conflict that was World War II, what must have been like for the sports people who had fought a very different conflict outside of a ring to find that now was the time for frivolous fighting as opposed to the serious type that was in a theatre of conflict, the size of which dwarfed everything.
There was a name that was mentioned to me in hushed tones growing up. It was someone my father had occasion to bring up when talking about some of the guys he had admired and who had fought previously. It was, I think, partly due to the name being one that seemed more than a little strange that it stuck in his mind – Willie Pep.
Of course, his full name was a little more exotic, though Guglielmo Papaleo might not have fit so well on the posters or on the lips of the guys who were targeted to buy tickets to see him. With a soft sounding nickname – “Will O’ the Wisp” – he might well have been the first boxer ever to prove that boxing aficionados have an ironic sense of humor.
Pep had a remarkable career which professionally ended, after 26 years of active fighting, with a record of 229-11-1, 65 KO’s. No matter how slowly or quickly you get through that mouthful, it never ceases to amaze you.
Born in 1922 and making his professionally debut in 1937 Pep was not only a world featherweight champion, but considered by many, including my dad, as THE featherweight champion of the twentieth century.
Pep fought, partly through necessity as his family were hardly endowed with wealth. A former shoeshine boy, he made his amateur debut in 1937. In Connecticut, he was able to earn whilst fighting as an amateur and it was in this guise that he fought and lost to none other than Sugar Ray Robinson in 1938; though Robinson was a much bigger fighter than Pep so it was hardly fair!
In 1940, Pep became a professional, managing an astonishing 41 fights undefeated up until 1942! Unbelievably and with a 52-0 record he went on, in October 1942, to fight for a world title; facing Chalky Wright over 15 rounds, he won on points. This must make him both one of the slowest in terms of professional fights to gain a world title and the quickest in terms of months between his debut and winning the world title – all at the same time!
Deep in the darkness of the Second World War, in his 63rd fight, he was beaten for the first time. The opponent – Sammy Agnott. Pep then went on a 73 fights unbeaten run! I juts struggle to work that out…
There are many massively impressive facts about this guy, but one of the myths – that you really want to be true – was that he once won a round without throwing a punch. Of course, it was nonsense, but this fighter who did not have an explosive punch needed to flatten guys so he had to think and work fast. If anyone proves that you can become a massive sporting icon and boxing legend without a knockout punch – Pep is it!
In 1947 his career gave us yet another massive legendary story which was true, this time. Pep was in a plane crash. He came out the wreckage with a broken leg and a broken back to hear the news that he would never fight again.
In 1948, about a year out of the cast he had been in since the crash, he beat Victor Flores over 10 rounds before he went on to retain his world title, a couple of months later. A legend? Surely!
Pep’s style was enticing and popular as he had fancy movement, a quick jab, precision to his feints, movement that spun opponents around whilst he bobbed and weaved; often making them look stupid.
He continued in the sport as both an inspector and as a referee including refereeing one world title fight in 1969 in Australia.
Like many boxers, the final six or so years to him were not so kind and it was to his heyday that people looked. They looked past many of his final fights, but a career spawning booze, gambling and the inevitable women trouble left him needing a few pennies to make ends meet by the end. At one point, he even climbed back into the ring at 43 years of age to earn a wage at the last minute because one of the fighters had failed to show.
Pep was a gregarious sort with some of the best lines out there and he once said, “My ex-wives were all good housekeepers, when they left, they kept the house.”
Pep left the rest of us with many a great memory which is ironic as he suffered in his final years from that dreadful illness of the mind, Alzheimers. In 2006, he lost his final fight and slipped away, 8 miles away or so away from where he was born; a true legend and gentleman of the ring.Contact the Feature Writers