There is a certain mystique to legendary fights of yesteryear, a nostalgia that speaks of a time when ‘The Sweet Science’ was larger than life and ruled supreme. There are but a few wise old heads left who were lucky enough to witness some of the greatest fights the sport has ever known, but with no film to view many of them, the rest of us are left to ponder just how great they really were.
The second meeting between Hartford’s Willie Pep and Harlem’s Sandy Saddler, a bout awarded Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year award for 1949, is a perfect example of such a match. For most of us, all that is left are the stories of the fight’s immensity, stories told through newspaper men who were on hand to witness it, the words weaving a story of the skill, bravery and guile on display.
When Pep lost his title to Saddler on October 29th, 1948, many believed the career of one of the greatest featherweights of all-time had come to an abrupt end. Pep was knocked out in the fourth round of the contest, and the general consensus, as noted in a report in The Milwaukee Journal, was that he was finished: “Willie Pep is all washed up after losing his featherweight boxing championship to Sandy Saddler. That seems to be the consensus following Friday night’s stunning knockout victory for Saddler, a lean Harlem puncher, in 2:38 of the fourth round.”
While Pep may well have been the best featherweight the world has ever seen, the knockout loss to Saddler, the culmination of some 136 fights, and the plane crash that nearly took his life in 1947, proved enough for many to label him a shot fighter. But, as the old adage goes, ‘beware the wounded warrior.’
Pep came to pre-eminence in 1942 when he outpointed fellow Hall of Fame inductee ‘Chalky’ Wright at Madison Square Garden in New York. He would be 62-0 before his first professional loss, a non-title decision he dropped to world lightweight champion, Sammy Angott. The loss meant little in the featherweight division however, as Pep still ruled supreme and he would go unbeaten in 72 straight fights before running into the heavy hands of Saddler. Superlatives can’t do justice to Pep’s reign over the division but the shocking way in which Saddler had taken his crown resulted in few believing Pep had what it took to get the title back.
Saddler’s run to the title was one that came by way of brute force. The lanky Harlem native owned one of the sport’s biggest punches and he had dispatched many a featherweight and lightweight with his power before finally getting a shot at the featherweight crown.
The second meeting between the two men was scheduled for February 11th, 1949, the rematch only occurring due to a clause in the contract between Pep and the Twentieth Century Sporting Company. Promoter Harry Markson held little hope of the return bout being a success. A New York Times report spoke of his pleasant surprise when tickets became a must-have for boxing fans.
“Markson was agreeably surprised when the box office windows were first opened and a flood of orders for tickets came pouring in. He was even more surprised when these orders continued, and yesterday the fight impresario was downright bewildered as the late rush of applicants augured a certain capacity house. What seemed a white elephant at the start was transformed into a golden calf, one that promised to be worth more than $80,000 at the gate.”
Whether it was hope, respect, or a genuine belief that Willie Pep could in fact win his title back, it seemed as if the people had spoken: this was to be a fight of major importance. 19,097 people crammed into Madison Square Garden on the evening of February 11th, 1949. The young lion from Harlem had devoured his older adversary just over three months prior and the crowd was on hand to see whether or not the once-great Pep was up to the task of gaining his title back from such a ferocious opponent.
The bell rang, and to the astonishment of the crowd, Pep went on the attack. He tattooed the face of Saddler with his quick left, landing some thirty-seven jabs in the opening stanza. The hand speed of the former champion was back, something many observers thought Pep had lost after watching his lacklustre performance in the first clash. The New York Times called Pep’s start to the bout “a demonstration of blinding speed that had Sandy looking like a novice.”
Saddler marched forward relentlessly, in spite of Pep’s jabs, but the Hartford slickster kept his heavy-hitting rival off him by way of his counter-punching prowess, as described by The Chicago Tribune: “Almost always Saddler was moving forward, measuring Willie with unblinking eyes, but Pep was too much for him with his counter-punching.” But counter-punching wasn’t Pep’s only strategy for keeping Saddler at bay. He utilized some ‘questionable tactics’ throughout the fight and was warned by the referee for wrestling in the first round and heeling Saddler in the face in the third round.
But Pep couldn’t hold back forever the waves of destruction that Saddler threw at him and in the fourth the champion began to dent the defenses of the challenger. Sandy landed savage rips to the body and grazed Pep’s face numerous times, always just a few inches away from landing a blow that undoubtedly would have ended the contest, such was the dynamite power of Saddler’s fists.
Sandy landed a hard left in the fifth, opening a cut on Pep’s right cheek but the gash, which bled throughout the rest of the fight, did little to stop Pep from dominating his opponent. He landed all manner of punches over the next six rounds, attacking from every conceivable angle and displaying his supreme footwork, all the while avoiding the aggressive attempts from his adversary to land a knockout blow.
Saddler started to gain more momentum and connected in the late rounds, opening a new cut over Pep’s right eye in the 13th and in round 14 it looked as though he may have finally caught up to Willie as he slammed home numerous teeth-rattling shots, but to everyone’s surprise, Pep weathered the storm and came out guns blazing in the final round. As The New York Times reported: “[Pep] gave his greatest thrill in the fifteenth when, after weathering the jarring fire of the fourteenth, he came back to fight Saddler all over the ring with a strength that few, if any, thought he possessed.”
The crowd erupted when the scores were announced and Pep’s hand was raised. “[W]ild turmoil broke out in the Garden,” reported The Chicago Tribune, “which was loaded with rabid Pep fans as announcer Johnny Addle gave the unanimous decision.”
Willie Pep had won back the featherweight championship of the world, becoming the first man to regain the title at 126 pounds since George Dixon back in 1898. But even more significantly, he had done it in spectacular fashion. All three scorecards were in favour of Pep by margins of five, six and seven points. The victory, and the way in which Pep bucked the odds and schooled such a capable and dangerous fighter, only solidified his place as one of the best boxers, pound-for-pound, of all-time.
Perhaps the words of famed boxing scribe James P. Dawson best illustrated the enormity of what Pep had achieved when he wrote: “Pep put up the greatest battle of his career. He called on every ounce of strength within his compact little body, and all the guile he has accumulated through eleven years as an amateur and professional fighter to gain the triumph. How well he succeeded is reflected in the tabulation of the officials. And in riding to victory he proved to be one of the greatest featherweight champions the ring has known.” — Daniel Attias