Pep vs Saddler. For die-hard fans of “The Sport Of Kings,” those four syllables conjure up all kinds of recollections and images and important facts from the rich history of pugilism. Their rivalry is unlike any other in boxing history and it was their third clash that established that fact, for good or ill. They were featherweights and yet they inspired truly heavyweight interest from American sports fans. And while both are widely regarded as two of the greatest to ever step into the ring, they hated each other with a passion.
Their first battle in October of 1948 was a shock for many sports fans as it saw Pep, a renowned defensive genius, battered into submission and then counted out in just four rounds. The match had been so one-sided that many wondered if the defeat marked the end of the road for the 26-year-old Pep, who had amassed a record of 135-2-1 and been world champion for six years. But the following February he returned with a truly gallant performance, regaining the title from Saddler by unanimous decision in 15 dramatic rounds. In both cases, the matches drew big crowds to Madison Square Garden and the rubber match set an attendance record for the featherweight division with almost forty thousand in the stands at Yankee Stadium.
Despite Pep’s great triumph the year before and three subsequent title defenses, the oddsmakers tabbed the champion as an eight-to-five underdog for the third fight, reinforcing one of the major themes of the Pep vs Saddler rivalry, that being the general impression that Saddler was just too big, strong and powerful for Pep. And in fact in the late going in the second fight, Pep had struggled with Saddler’s aggression and physical advantages. Thus the sharpies saw chapter three of the series as the bigger and younger man’s fight to lose.
So few were shocked when, despite Pep once again being the better boxer and using angles and sublime footwork to outfox the aggressor, Saddler scored a knockdown in round three. Soon after, Pep, no doubt frustrated with the challenger’s roughhouse tactics and his undeniable physical disadvantage, began to incorporate some less-than-honorable tactics into his performance. In addition to a pesky jab and some quick combinations, Pep now incorporated some well-placed thumbs, along with plenty of pushing and shoving, plus a few stomps on Saddler’s feet.
Well, Sandy didn’t need to be asked twice. He responded in kind and soon there was almost as much fouling going on as there was boxing. Pep controlled the match for the most part with his usual brilliant footwork and quick hands, while Saddler concentrated on a ruthless body attack. Meanwhile both demonstrated themselves to be certified experts at the darker arts of ringcraft, freely indulging in plenty of lacing, gouging, tripping, thumbing and elbowing.
When the bell rang for round seven it was obvious that Pep had the edge in terms of points thanks to his superb boxing and plenty of clean right hands to the challenger’s jaw. In fact, many had scored only round three for Saddler, as the champion was just too quick and slippery, but at the same time the challenger’s vicious body punches, many of them straying under the belt line, were taking their toll. And indeed, a tiring Pep found himself in some difficulty in round seven as Saddler was able to close the gap and land more heavy left hands to both body and head, at the same time forcing Pep to the ropes and manhandling him in the clinches.
At round’s end the fighters were locked in a vicious clinch on the ropes and when the bell rang and Pep retreated to his corner, all could see he was in agony. The ringside physician examined the stricken fighter and diagnosed a dislocated left shoulder and when round eight began Pep stayed on his stool. Saddler had regained the world title, though in a manner that was satisfying for no one and in fact talk of a fourth fight was widespread even before the stands in Yankee Stadium had completely emptied. The very next day, Harry Markson, president of the International Boxing Club, declared that arrangements for a fourth Pep vs Saddler battle were already in the works.
It was news that a bitter Pep welcomed. “He got me in a double arm lock,” declared the former champion. “He twisted my arm twice. That’s what did it, not his punches. Sure, he hurt me a few times, but I could have beat him.”
For his part, a cheery Saddler was unperturbed about the controversial conclusion.
“I thought a punch to the kidney did it,” he told reporters. “But if they say I twisted his arm, okay, I twisted it.”
After all, said Saddler, Pep did his share of rough stuff too.
“He thumbed me in the eye,” said Saddler. “He did the same thing in the other fights. I told the referee but that Pep never stopped thumbing.”
A year later they battled again in a match that was, incredibly, even more foul-filled and chaotic than their third meeting. And once again Pep surrendered on his stool, this time after round nine and due to a badly cut right eye. — Neil Crane