Boxing Across the Nation: Connecticut-Boxing’s Win Leader Willie Pep
Boxing has been apart of the American sports scene since the 1700s by way of England. It started by infiltrating the larger port towns before eventually working its way into the lexicon of America. Boxing started as an illegal sport which saw it’s athletes arrested. Now it showcases some of the most talented combat sports athletes in the world. We will embark on a 50 part saga exploring the best boxers representing the United States. Some states will have more athletes to choose from than others but the journey will be quite the ride. Let’s embark on the journey looking at an interesting fighter from each state.
Check out the six states we have covered by clicking below:
We have made it to the seventh state in our 50 part series (covering in alphabetical order), Connecticut. The nation’s 29th most populated state and 48th ranked as far as land size, the state has a rich history in the sport of boxing. Kid Kaplan moved to the state when he was five years old. The Ring’s Hall of Famer Maxie Rosenbloom also calls Connecticut home. The name that has to stand above the rest is boxing’s all-time wins leader, the “Will o’ the Wisp” Willie Pep. Pep, the pride of Middletown, Connecticut, is also home to MLB Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The rate at which modern boxers compete, Pep’s 229 wins is a record that will stand the hands of time, regardless of sport.
Early Life and Finding Boxing
Willie Pep was actually born Guglielmo Papaleo in Middletown, Connecticut on September 19, 1922. Pep was the son of Sicilian immigrants and originally took on boxing, as did many others who took up the sport, as a way to protect himself from the bigger bullies. Eventually dropping out of school at the age of 16, Pep had to find a way to make money. In order to do so, Pep sold newspapers and shined shoes.
Amazing Amateur Career
At the age of 14, Pep began training with childhood friend Johnny Duke. Duke went on to have a brief professional career and a top-rated cornerman in Connecticut. Back in those days, amateurs could actually get paid for their bouts. Pep would earn more in one bout than his father would in a whole week supporting the family while working at the Works Progress Administration, making $15 a week. Pep boxed mostly out of Du-Well Athletic Club in Norwich, Connecticut. In 1937 at only 15 years old, Pep took on his first amateur bout. In a span of about two and a half years, Pep boxed 62 times with 59 of those wins. During his span as an amateur Pep won both the Connecticut amateur flyweight and bantamweight championships. Arguably a bigger story than winning championships was his bout with “Ray Roberts.”
The Greatest Fight Never Seen
Without a doubt, two of the biggest names in boxing during the 1940s were Willie Pep and Sugar Ray Robinson. Several weight classes apart, the idea of these two Hall of Famers meeting in the ring was never considered. Little did most fans know, these two met in a ring in Norwich on North Main Street above the Checkboard Feedstore inside of a railcar barn in 1938. The boxing historian Bert Sugar had Ray Robinson listed as his greatest boxer of all time. Pep was not too far behind ranked as the third best boxer of all time, behind Henry Armstrong.
In an interview with the Norwich Bulletin, Pep spoke on the long-rumored truth about this bout. “That’s true. I fought him for the Du-Well A.C. It was 1938, and that fight was upstairs in a downtown building. Sugar Ray fought under the name of Ray Roberts. Ray always used that name when he fought in the amateurs. Ray’s real name was Walker Smith. He wiped me out that night, and it was my only amateur loss. I was a flyweight at 105 pounds, and Sugar Ray, a welterweight.”
Ready to Turn Pro
On July 25, 1940, Willie Pep took on his first professional bout, defeating Joey Marcus via unanimous decision. Over the next 23 months, Pep would improve his stellar inaugural winning streak to 43-0. He has some impressive victories along the way, defeating the likes of Aaron Seltzer and Joey Archibald. Pep got his first taste of gold on July 21, 1941, when he defeated Abe Denner to win the United States New England Featherweight Championship. Continuing his reign of dominance over the featherweight division in the early 1940s, Pep would run his impressive record to 62-0 before meeting his first loss. His loss came to Sammy Angott, who was better known for his work at welterweight and lightweight. Angott is considered BoxRec’s sixth-best lightweight of all time. He is also known for his 10-round absolute war with Henry Armstrong, where Armstrong took the decision.
Starting Another Streak and Setting a Record
Not one to sit back and wait, Pep returned to the ring 10 days later after his first defeat and got back into the win column, starting another winning streak. Pep continued to show his dominating status climbing to the unbelievable record of 108-1-1 to close out 1946. During this first part of his second winning streak, Pep defeated big names like Sal Bartolo three times and as well as Chalky Wright three times. In the last bout with Bartolo, Pep earned the NBA featherweight championship. Wright would go on to become a Boxing International Hall of Fame inductee. 1946 ended on a high note for Pep, but 1947 started out looking like it would be his last year.
Horrific 1947 Plane Crash
On January 05, 1947, Pep took a flight from Miami, Florida bound for Norwich, Connecticut. Once hitting New Jersey, the plane flew into a blizzard, resulting in a horrific crash. Three people died and 18 were seriously injured. Pep himself was seriously injured, two broken vertebrae, a compound fracture in his left leg, and severe chest injuries. Pep ended up spending five months in a full-body cast. Doctors told Pep he would never fight again. Not only would Pep defy the odds, he would fight another 19 years and earn an impressive 73 fight winning streak. On June 17, 1947, just 163 after a plane crash that took lives, Pep made his miraculous return defeating Victor Flores. Pep knocked down Flores twice in the Harford Auditorium for the decision victory.
The New Streak
After the March 1943 defeat to Angott, Pep would create another unbeaten streak, this one spanning nearly five years and encompassing 73 victories. With this streak, Pep because the only boxer in history to earn two unbeaten streaks of at least 62 wins. It’s regarded as one of boxing’s record that will stand the test of time. It can’t be considered a “winning” streak because on December 13, 1945, Pep had a draw with Jimmy McCallister in Maryland. Most boxers now days will never even reach 62 bouts, much less compile an unbeaten streak that long. Along with his career 229 wins, Pep holds two records which will stand the hands of time.
Pep Finds His Career Nemesis
Ali had Frazier, Sugar Ray Robinson had Jake LaMotta, and Willie Pep had Sandy Saddler. Saddler, a future hall of famer and The Ring’s number five greatest puncher on their top 100 list, entered the contest for his first title opportunity with a record of 86-6-2 at the time. The two met for the first time on October 29, 1948, in Madison Square Garden in front of 14,685 fans. In the third round, the challenger Saddler dropped Pep twice and finally finished the job for the KO victory in the fourth round, winning the title on Pep’s seventh defense of the gold.
Second Time the Charm?
Pep would go on to win two decisions before he scored his rematch with Saddler about four months later. This time the two met on February 11, 1949, again in Madison Square Garden, to a bigger crowd than the first bout, of 19,097 this time. The bout won The Ring’s 1949 Fight of the Year award. The Lewiston Daily Sun reported that night, “Willie Pep, his face a gory mess from cuts around both eyes, recaptured his world featherweight title from Sandy Saddler, spindly Harlem slasher, on a unanimous 15-round decision tonight at Madison Square Garden. It was a sensational form reversal of his four-round knockout loss last October.”
Bouts Three and Four in their Epic Quad Series
After regaining the featherweight crown, Pep went on to reel off 15 more straight victories. It was time again to battle Saddler, who was riding a 23 fight winning streak, was now the betting favorite, favored eight to five. This bout set the featherweight record for attendance with 38,781 packing the Yankee Stadium on September 08, 1950. Down on all the scorecards, Pep retired on the stool before the eighth round siting a dislocated shoulder. Pep claims it was from Saddler’s wrestling.
One year later almost to the day on September 26, 1951, Pep and Saddler would meet for the fourth and final time at the New York Polo Grounds in front of 13,836. Heading into the finale, Pep was the betting favorite, favored nine to five. Many have considered the bout one of the dirtiest in the sport’s history. Al Abrams of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recalled of the fight, “nine rounds of the worst exhibition of unsportsmanlike conduct ever seen in a bout anywhere. Pep and Saddler wrestled each other to the canvas several times and through the ropes three different times. Hitting on the break was nothing by comparison with the heeling, open-glove rubbing, holding-and-hitting, and even hitting when a fighter’s back was turned.”
Nat Fleischer, editor and publisher of The Ring, said of the bout it was an extremely dirty bout that contained every tricker in the book known to old-timers. The bout ranked as number six in The Ring’s dirtiest fights of all time in the December 1997 issue.
Punishment for Finale
The October 05, 1950 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette gave details of the punishments issued to each fighter for their performance. The New York State Athletic Commission revoked Pep’s boxing license and suspended Saddler for their actions the previous week. It would be nearly two years, on June 05, 1953, before Pep would compete again in the state of New York. In the time between New York bouts, Pep went on an 18-1 run. Saddler was back in New York for his very next bout just three months later, where he dropped a split decision to future lightweight champion, Paddy Demarco.
Finishing Out Career
Willie Pep would go on to win 69 more bouts pushing his record upon retirement to 229-11-1. His last bout took place on March 16, 1966, where he suffered a decision loss to Calvin Woodland. After retiring from competition, Pep stayed in the sport serving as a referee and inspector. He refereed nearly 40 bouts up until 1982.
In 1990 the International Boxing Hall of Fame was established and Pep was one of the inaugural members along with names such as Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, and his nemesis Sandy Saddler. ESPN placed Pep fifth on their ESPN 50 Greatest Boxers of All Time list. Along with his records of most career wins and the two unbeaten streaks, Pep has competed in 1,956 rounds of action. Not only is Pep Connecticut’s greatest boxing asset, but he’s also one of boxing’s greatest ever.