In the 1950s a Mexican featherweight boxer named Kid Campeche won only seven of his 31 pro fights, but nevertheless achieved a certain immortality for what he said after losing a 10-round decision in '-56 to Willie Pep. Asked what it was like to fight the legendary featherweight champion the frustrated Campeche said it was akin to “trying to stamp out a grass fire.”
The great writer W.C. Heinz called Pep, who died on Thanksgiving Day at age 84, “the artist supreme.” In his book Once They Heard The Cheers, Heinz wrote: “When I watched him box, it used to occur to me that, if I could just listen carefully enough, I would hear the music. He turned boxing contests into ballets, performances by a virtuoso in which the opponent, trying to punch him out, became an unwilling partner in a dance, the details of which were so exquisite that they evoked joy, and sometimes even laughter.”
But not in the opponent, of course. “Stand still and fight!” growled Chalky Wright during their 15-round bout for Wright’s featherweight championship on November 20, 1942. “Do you think I want to get killed?” answered Pep, who won New York State recognition as ruler of the 126-pound division by winning a unanimous decision over Wright, and then unified the title by beating National Boxing Association champion Sal Bartolo on June 8, 1943.
To Pep, whose professional record was an astonishing 230-11-1, with 63 KOs, it all boiled down to a simple proposition. “The main idea,” he said once, “is to learn how to win without getting hurt.” It helped that he had the reflexes, as Heinz wrote, of “a housefly.”
An easy target for neighborhood bullies in his native Middletown, Connecticut, the diminutive Pep started his boxing career after being told by a friend, “Why don’t you go to the gym? You’re getting beat up, and you can get paid for it.”
He became the state flyweight and bantamweight amateur champion. One of his amateur losses was to a New Yorker called Ray Roberts, whose real name was Walker Smith and who later became Sugar Ray Robinson, another boxing legend.
Pep turned pro on July 3, 1940, and won 62 fights in a row before former lightweight champion Sammy Angott won a decision in their March 19, 1943 bout at Madison Square Garden. Pep disputed the duke. “He wasn’t tough at all,” he said of Angott years later. “I was sure I’d licked him.”
He was only 20 when he won the featherweight title, and after losing to Angott in their non-title fight, The Ring magazine’s 1945 “Fighter of the Year” won 72 more fights in a row (including one draw, which he avenged with a KO) before Sandy Saddler took the belt from him in 1948 by KO in four.
Those are flabbergasting figures because in those days fighters fought so much oftener than today, and against top-flight competition.
Here’s another stunner: In January, 1947, it was widely believed that Pep’s career was over after the plane in which he was a passenger went down. He lived, but when the medic who pulled him out of the wreckage saw who he was, he said, “That’s tough luck, Willie. I guess you’ll never fight again. You’ve got multiple injuries.” His back was broken, and so was his left leg. But six months later Pep was back in action. His injuries had robbed him of some of his speed, but not the guile which once moved columnist Red Smith to say that if Pep “had chosen a life of crime he could have been the most successful pickpocket since the Artful Dodger.”
He picked right up where he left off, and fought for another decade, gilding his legend by outboxing Saddler to take back the featherweight title. He lost to Saddler in two subsequent title bouts, but continued to fight regularly up to 1959. In December of ‘-58, the 36-year-old Pep was stopped by then-featherweight champ Hogan “Kid” Bassey, whose 10-year age advantage wasn’t obvious until Pep wore himself out making Bassey look silly in the first half of the non-title fight. Pep was stopped in round nine.
By then, Pep’s days as a headliner in the Garden were long past. So he gave a thrill to customers on boxing’s tank-town circuit, fighting for a few hundred dollars a bout against local kids who didn’t have a clue. “I move around these kids,” he said in a 1958 interview, “jab ‘em and keep ‘em off balance. I spurt about 30 seconds of every round. The crowd loves it when I bang away with both hands to the body. It looks real good, so I give them a show. Most of the kids I fight these days you probably never heard of. To tell you the truth, I never heard of them myself till I heard the announcer say their names.”
Being in the ring with the great Willie Pep made some of them forget their own names. Pep told Bill Heinz about a fight he had in the South against a kid who approached him at the weigh-in and said, “Mr. Pep, can I have your autograph?”
“I said, ‘Get away from me, kid. There’s people watchin’ here. We’re boxin’ tonight, and what are they gonna think?’”
When the referee called them to the middle of the ring pitched in a ballpark, Pep recalled, “I look at the kid, and he’s white. He’s scared stiff. I’m thinking, ‘Oh boy, what kind of a fight can this be?’ So the bell rings and we move around, and a lot of guys turn white, but this guy is startin’ to turn purple. I figure I have to do something, so I threw a right hand over his shoulder, and that would look good to the crowd but that would miss, and I stepped inside and grabbed him under the arms, and I said, ‘Look, kid, just relax. These people here paid their money, and we’ll give them a show. We’ll just box, and you won’t get hurt. We’ll have a nice evening, and everybody will like it.’
“So I take my arms out from under his and let him go, and he falls right on his face and the referee counts him out.”
Multiple marriages, bad investments and a cavalier attitude in general about money kept Pep hustling for a buck for most of his life. He even made a comeback in the mid-1960s, when he was in his 40s. “I’m a relic that people will come and and see, like something in a museum,” he said when he started fighting again. Plus, “I want to show the fans a few things they don’t see no more.”
He did. “Even looking at Willie’s performance in the cold light of the next morning, he showed us more skill, faster and sharper hitting, better footwork and swifter combinations than a majority of our current crop of ‘stars,’” wrote Boxing Illustrated editor Lew Eskin after Pep won a six-round decision over Jackie Lennon on April 26, 1965.
A charter inductee of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Pep was a regular at the Hall’s annual Induction Weekends until ill-heath intervened. Boxing historian Bill Schutte of Wisconsin, whose favorite fighter was Pep when Schutte first became interested in boxing over a half-century ago (“I think it was the name that got me”), says that no one was more accessible and accommodating than the great featherweight.
“What I really remember best about Pep over the years was how willing he was to autograph things,” said Schutte. “One year I had a whole stack of boxing photos, and a picture of him that I asked him to sign. He signed it most pleasantly, and then asked if I wanted him to sign any of the other photos in my stack. Unlike some other guys, Pep was always more than happy to sign for people during all the years I saw him in Canastota, and he always seemed to have great fun during those weekends.”
It all came down to what Pep told boxing writer Lester Bromberg in 1962: “I’m crazy over boxing, always have been, always will be. I think it’s the fairest of all sports, man against man, no two-one or three-one situations as develop in, say, football or basketball. And it’s best to watch when done reasonably well. In other words, when two men stand up there and fight with their brains as well as their brawn.
Few in the whole history of the Sweet Science did it as well as Willie Pep, the man who rebuked once and for all old-time lightweight champion Ad Wolgast, Pep's antithesis in the ring, who once sneered, anent Wolgast's great rival Willie Richie, “Who ever heard of anybody named 'Willie' ever becoming a great fighter?”