Willie Pep Was the Biggest of the Little Men in Boxing
By: Ken Hissner
When boxing people talk about P4P the very best names like “Sugar” Ray Robinson, Harry “The Pittsburgh Windmill” Greb and “Hammerin” Henry Armstrong normally come up. But, so often the name Willie “Will o’ the Wisp” Pep comes up and should come up.
Pep had a record of 229-11-1 (per box rec) with 65 knockouts. I’ve seen 230 wins listed elsewhere. Turning professional in July of 1940 he was 11-0 by the years end. In 1941 alone he was 22-0. Can you believe it 22 fights in 12 months? He topped that in 1942 going 23-0 winning the New England Featherweight title in July and the NYSAC World title in November.
In winning the NYSAC title Pep defeated Chalky Wright, 136-32-17, over 15 rounds. In 1943 he was 11-1 defeating Allie Stolz, 49-6-2, but after going 62-0 he was defeated in a non-title bout by Sammy Angott, 69-17-5 in March of 1943 over 10 rounds for his first career loss. In November Angott won the NBA World Lightweight title.
Pep defended his NYSAC title in June of 1943 defeating Sal Bartolo, 46-15-6, over 15 rounds in their second encounter. In their third match Pep knocked out Bartolo, 72-17-6, in his fourth defense and winnIng Bartolo’s NBA World title with a knockout in 12. September of 1944 Pep in a rematch with Wright, 155-34-18, he again won a 15 round decision. Pep was 16-0 in 1944. In a third match with Wright Pep knocked him out in 3 rounds in November of 1946.
Pep’s third NYSAC defense was in February of 1945 defeating Phil Terranova, 36-11-9, over 15 rounds. In December of that year he was held to a draw by Jimmy McAllister, 39-16, over 10 rounds. Pep was honored for the “Ring Fighter of the Year” in 1945. They had a rematch on March 1, 1946 with Pep knocking out McAllister in 2 rounds. Just 25 days later Pep defeated former NBA champion Jackie Wilson, 99-31-8, in a rematch of April 1943 over 10 rounds. In January of 1947 Pep was seriously injured in January of 1947 in a plane crash that took the lives of the co-pilot and 2 passengers. In January of 1948 Pep defeated McAllister over 10 rounds in their third meeting.
In 1948 Pep went 15-0 bringing his record to 134-1-1 before losing for only the second time in his career. It was in October being knocked out by Sandy Saddler in 4 rounds losing his NYSAC title. In a rematch in February of 1949 Pep re-gained his title defeating Sadler over 15 rounds. It was Ring Magazine’s “Fight of the Year!”
NBA Middleweight champion Rocky “The Rock” Graziano once told his friend, Pep, I would have knocked you out! Pep replied “you couldn’t hit me with a fist full of stones!” Pep was quite the defensive boxer.
In September of 1949 in his seventh defense Pep stopped Eddie Compo, 57-1-3, in 7 rounds. In March of 1950 he defeated France’s European champion Ray Famechon, 59-5, over 15 rounds in his ninth defense. In September he lost to Saddler, 115-7-2, in their third encounter being stopped in 8 rounds. He tried regaining the title against Saddler in September of 1951 in their fourth encounter but was stopped in the ninth round.
In June of 1952 Pep lost to Tommy Collins, 53-9, in the 6th round. It was Pep’s only loss that year going 11-1. In 1953 he went 10-0. In February of 1954 Pep was stopped in the second round by Lulu Perez, 28-2, in a suspicious ending. Some felt Pep went down without being hit hard enough to be stopped. He was only 4-1 in 1954.
In 1955 Pep went 12-1 losing to Gil Cadilli, 21-3-3, by split decision. In his very next match they were re-matched with Pep winning. In November of that year Pep defeated Pappy Gault, 63-17-2, who would become an Olympic coach upon retiring from active boxing.
Pep had a 21 winning streak broken in January of 1958 losing to Tommy Tibbs, 45-43-3, by split decision. At this point Pep knew the hand writing was on the wall he wasn’t the boxer he once was going 11-2 in 1958 losing in September to Nigeria’s Hogan “Kid” Bassey, 5-11-2, the British Empire champion being stopped in the 9th round after being dropped for the third time. He would lose his next match to Sonny Leon, 56-9-8, over 10 rounds in Caracas, VZ, in January of 1959 and retire.
A little over 6 years later Pep made a comeback in March of 1965 posting a win. In his next match in April this writer was in attendance when he defeated Philly’s Jackie Lennon, 8-10-3, at the Philadelphia Arena. He would go 9-0 on this comeback before losing in March of 1966 in his final match to Calvin Woodland, 8-4, of D.C. at the age of 43. He became a prominent referee and Deputy Boxing Commissioner in his home state of Connecticut.
Pep was inducted into the Ring Magazine Hall of fame in 1963. He was also inducted into the IBHOF in 1990. He held world titles from November 20, 1942 to October 19, 1948. Then from February 11, 1949 to September 8, 1950. He was named the “Greatest Featherweight of all time by Ring Magazine in 1994 and 2002. Pep would pass away at the age of 84 on November 23, 2006 in Rocky Hill, CT.
Pep was married 6 times and said “all my wives were great housekeepers. After every divorce they kept the house.”