Tomorrow marks the anniversary of one of the most extraordinary performances in the entire history of pugilism, that being Willie Pep’s remarkable rematch win over the great Sandy Saddler in 1949. Tragically, no film exists of that fight, though the reports that have been passed down over the decades are definitive: the consummate artist of the ring who so many had written off after he went down for the count in his first tango with Saddler, put on the performance of a lifetime, his incredible ring artistry once again inspiring awe from a sell-out crowd, and reminding them why Pep had already been hailed as possibly the greatest featherweight of all-time.
Pep passed on to the big squared circle in the sky back in 2006, but he will never be forgotten and we are happy to take advantage of any excuse to pay tribute to his remarkable skills and ring record. When Guglielmo Papaleo finally retired in 1960, he had amassed an amazing 229 victories against only eleven defeats and one draw. It remains one of the most impressive records in all of pugilism, testifying to Pep’s astonishing skill.
And while in recent years the term “greatest defensive fighter of all-time” has been thrown around a fair bit and, for many, has become attached to the name of Floyd Mayweather Jr., those with some knowledge about that history know that if one man is to be deemed the best ever at the art of hitting without being hit, the name of that man is Willie Pep. Floyd is certainly worthy of consideration when it comes to discussing the most elusive pugilists to ever lace up the gloves, but there are great boxers and then there are true ring artists and boxing legends. Pep, needless to say, resides in the latter category.
While being incredibly prolific, Pep in fact suffered defeat only once during his prime, that being by decision to the naturally bigger Sammy Angott in a non-title match in 1943. He had won the world featherweight title in 1942 and would hold it for six years before losing to all-time great Sandy Saddler. When he answered the bell for that match, his record stood at an amazing 134 wins against one draw and a single defeat. And in one of the greatest performances in boxing history, he regained the title from Saddler by decision the following year, before losing twice more to his legendary rival. He went on to compete for another decade and when he finally retired, he was universally hailed as one of the most talented and creative artists the ring had ever seen.
No doubt Pep’s success and astonishing longevity had much to do with his ring intelligence, his skill at controlling the action and avoiding punishment. Here, analyst Lee Wylie, in another of his superb videos, details how Pep’s mastery of timing, movement, footwork and in-fighting, allowed him to neutralize his opponents’ efforts, rendering them offensively ineffectual. It was such technique and ring sophistication which earned Pep the nickname, “The Will o’the Wisp,” and made him a true boxing legend. And allowed him to score a momentous victory over fellow great Sandy Saddler, seventy-two years ago. Check it out: