Pep vs Saddler. For die-hard fans of fisticuffs, those four syllables conjure up all kinds of recollections and images and important facts from the rich history of pugilism. Their storied feud 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, even in their day, were regarded as two of the greatest to ever step into the ring, mutual respect was conspicuously absent from their compelling rivalry. The simple truth was Pep and Saddler hated each other with a passion.
Their first battle in October of 1948 was a shock for sports fans as it saw Pep, a renowned defensive genius, battered into submission and then knocked 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, a truly brilliant boxer who had racked up over 130 wins against only one loss and one draw prior to this humbling defeat. But there was also the fact that Pep had suffered serious injuries, including a broken back, in a plane crash in January of 1947, and while he recorded an astonishing 26 straight wins in little more than fifteen months when he returned to action, some observers felt the cagey operator from Connecticut had lost a step since that near-brush with death. The defeat to Saddler appeared to confirm this view.
But the following February Pep returned, and gave fans a truly gallant performance, regaining the title from Saddler by unanimous decision in fifteen dramatic rounds; the victory is generally regarded as one of the greatest in the long history of the sport. And like the first Pep vs Saddler confrontation, the bout drew a huge crowd, selling out Madison Square Garden, and so interest from sports fans remained keen for the rubber match, the showdown setting 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 odds-makers tabbed the champion as an eight-to-five underdog, 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 advantage, began to incorporate some less-than-honorable tactics into his performance. In addition to a pesky jab and quick combinations, Pep now incorporated some well-placed thumbs, along with plenty of pushing and shoving, not to mention a few stomps on Saddler’s toes.
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. And at the same time, both fighters 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, some at ringside had scored only the third round for Saddler, the champion just too quick and slippery. But at the same time, Sandy’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 lefts to both body and head, forcing Pep back and manhandling him.
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; when round eight began Pep stayed on his stool. Saddler had regained the world title, though in a manner satisfying for no one; talk of a fourth Pep vs Saddler clash 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 Pep vs Saddler, Part IV, were already in the works.
It was news 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. And once again Pep surrendered on his stool, this time after round nine, due to a badly cut right eye. The conduct of the fighters, who spent much of the bout wrestling and rolling around on the canvas, was deemed so disgraceful that the New York State Athletic Commission suspended the professional boxing licenses of both men. And it seemed the public too had tired of the sordid nature of the rivalry. Unlike the huge crowds that had gathered for the first three battles, some fourteen thousand rattled around in the cavernous Polo Grounds for the final Pep vs Saddler clash. It was an undignified end, but, given their mutual hatred and the shoddy tactics on display, somehow fitting. — Neil Crane