75 years ago today, on March 19, 1943, two of the best fighters in boxing faced off in a 10-round non-title bout. Willie Pep was the reigning featherweight titleholder while Sammy Angott was a former lightweight king returning from a very brief retirement. On this day, a Friday, the sun rose on a special fight day in New York. When the day was over, another memorable event had been added to the rich history of boxing.
Sammy Angott was born in 1915 in Washington, Pennsylvania. He was one of eight children raised by Italian parents; the family name was Engotti. Before turning pro at age 20, Sammy had a successful amateur career that saw him winning championships in six tournaments, including the Pittsburgh Golden Gloves. In the paid ranks, Angott was an old-school fighter who learned his craft in tough battles against experienced veterans.
His first notable opponent turned out to be Leonard Del Genio, a top-10 rated lightweight. This was Angott’s eleventh pro bout. Despite his huge disadvantage in experience and size, Sammy went the eight-round distance with Del Genio and, though he got the short end of the stick, sports writers at ringside felt the young fighter should have gotten the nod.
After being the chief sparring partner for Tony Canzoneri leading up to the latter’s title bouts against Lou Ambers in 1936 and 1937, Angott gained more confidence to take on the best in the lightweight division.
On his way to the title, Sammy faced and beat top-5 rated contenders Everett Rightmire and Wesley Ramey, as well as former champions Freddie Miller and Petey Sarron.
On May 3, 1940, the eve of the Kentucky Derby, Angott decisioned Davey Day in Louisville for the vacant National Boxing Association title. The referee and sole judge of the bout was former heavyweight great Jack Dempsey.
With the title around his waist, Angott started to earn some money. He fought the likes of Fritzie Zivic, Bob Montgomery and Sugar Ray Robinson in non-title bouts before the Pennsylvania-born pugilist took on New York State Athletic Commission champ Lew Jenkins for lightweight supremacy.
Angott had an intelligent performance against Jenkins, winning a lopsided 15-round decision; Jenkins won only one round decisively. Truth is, while Sammy was getting closer to his absolute peak form that night, Lew, who had a destructive lifestyle, was on the complete opposite side of the ledger. In September 1941 a motorcycle accident while riding intoxicated resulted in a serious neck injury. Jenkins lost nine consecutive fights after the accident and never regained his position at the top of the 135-pound division.
The new champion, however, enjoyed his heydays with a close decision win in a world title defense over Allie Stolz sandwiched in a pair of victories in non-title 12-rounders over future champ Montgomery.
In late July 1942, Angott took on Robinson for the second time. After a clean points loss a year earlier, this time the Pennsylvanian started way better and won the first three rounds with an even fourth according to Associated Press. At that point, it seemed that Angott’s good performance in rematches would continue — no opponent had defeated him more than once — but Robinson turned the tide in round five and won the decision before 12,078 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Although Sugar Ray was a clear-cut winner, it was one of the best wars in the Garden’s rich history. They traded knockdowns in a sensational round eight and both participants finished the slaughter with deep gashes around their eyes.
On November 13, 1942, however, after not responding to the six months deadline time regarding his second title defense, Sammy unexpectedly announced his retirement. He cited a chronic right hand injury but there were rumors he turned his back to the sport because he refused to work for the mob. Angott denied these stories and said he was offered a job at a fine salary in a defense plant, and decided to accept the offer.
Seven days after Angott’s announcement, a freshly-turned 20-year-old from Hartford, Connecticut, won the New York version of the featherweight title, taking the strap from Chalky Wright with a 15-round unanimous decision.
Born with the name Guglielmo Papaleo, Pep, like Angott, had Italian roots. His father loved boxing and brought young Willie to local cards. The boy loved to watch his idol Bobby ‘Poison’ Ivy during workouts at the Charter Oak Gymnasium in Hartford, his adopted home.
Because of his youth and his pillow weight of 89 pounds, Pep had to wait until he was fifteen to have his first amateur fight. His talent quickly showed as he won the state amateur championship in his very first year as a boxer.
Despite his successes in the ring, Willie did not intend to quit school but his father’s severe illness ultimately forced him to forsake his studies. He took a job in a wallpaper stockroom to help out his parents and younger sister and brother.
Pep followed two Connecticut boxing greats, Louis Kaplan and Bat Battalino, when he joined the pro ranks in the summer of 1940, two months shy of his 18th birthday.
Young Pep made his first headlines in local papers with his back-to-back upset wins over Puerto Rico’s Ruby Garcia at Holyoke, Massachusetts in early 1941. After a knockdown-filled first encounter, the rematch saw Pep suffer multiple cuts and get rocked by a clean right hook on the chin in round five, but ultimately prevail thanks to his precise counter attacks and basic one-twos. Pep not only proved his technical brilliance but also showed he had the guts and determination to get to the top.
A new arena in Hartford opened about this time, the 4000-seat Hartford Auditorium, and Pep regularly filled it up with roaring fans on fight nights.
It was the same arena where Willie had one of his finest performances against experienced Spider Armstrong in the spring of 1942, whom he dropped four times in less than four rounds to get a spectacular knockout win in front of his hometown fans.
By August, just over two years after his pro debut, Pep, who was already in the top 10 at featherweight, took on and beat fellow highly rated contenders Pedro Hernandez and Abe Denner.
Shortly after that, an inevitable grudge match was scheduled to take place in Hartford between Pep and his childhood idol, Bobby Ivy. Over 10,000 fans paid a total of $24,000 to see the carnage, making it to the fourth biggest gate in Hartford’s history. Willie easily controlled the bout and stopped his helpless foe in the tenth and closing session.
Being a fighter followed by thousands of fans made Pep able to purchase a big family house in a good neighborhood in Hartford for his family. More so, the big fight for featherweight supremacy was just around the corner for the unbeaten contender.
After NYSAC champ Chalky Wright defended his belt by a close, split decision over Lulu Constantino in late September, negotiations started to make Wright-Pep next. Weeks later, promoter Mike Jacobs announced the date of November 20 and venue the Garden for the highly anticipated affair.
The bout generated $71,868.70, the largest gate for an indoor fight in New York that year. Forty percent went to the champ with 15 percent going to the challenger. The bout ended with the coronation of a new featherweight king.
At age 20, Pep became the youngest boxing champion since Terry McGovern, but the Hartford native wasn’t fully appreciated by the fans and media as he failed to impress. Willie was too defensive and hardly engaged in exchanges on his way to pocket most of the rounds and walk away with the belt.
To get the love of the fans back, he needed another significant performance. It came against credible lightweight contender Allie Stolz in a non-title 10-rounder where the Hartford native, an 11-5 underdog thanks to his massive weight disadvantage, dropped his foe in the second and went on to grab a clean-cut decision after 10 fast frames.
The 19,088 fans at Madison Square Garden also proved that in ticket-selling, Pep could only be challenged by heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
As March 1943 neared, several big-name opponents got mentioned as possible foes for Pep. Lightweight titleholder Beau Jack could was an obvious choice as he was also a hot attraction at the Garden, while a rematch with Wright was also mentioned.
Mike Jacobs, however, decided to put Angott into the picture, who a couple weeks prior to Pep-Stolz stated he was once again an active fighter. On March 3, the bout between Pep and Angott got officially announced for later that month. For Pep, the match was designed as a stepping stone to a title defense against Beau Jack.
Willie’s featherweight title was not on the line. Still, it was a bout between a reigning champ and a former belt holder who did not lose his belt in the ring, thus there was a great deal of buzz.
Even the fact it was a 10-rounder did not belittle the anticipation of the carnage This was a bout between a technically well-schooled featherweight, who was undefeated but with a somewhat short list of top opponents faced, and a tough and sometimes rough lightweight brawler who had all the experience in the world but came into the bout having been inactive for six months following a bad injury. Pep was favored with odds of 14 to 5 available.
Angott outweighed Pep by over four pounds as he tipped the scale at 134 ½ to the Hartford fighter’s 130 ¼. The former lightweight champion started well and grabbed round after round using his high work rate and mauling style over his smaller opponent.
Willie became more effective with his jabs and straight rights during the middle portion of the bout. They both went down in round seven from slipping. Pep had a strong eighth session where he was able to drop Angott after a defensive spin by Sammy that followed a punch, but referee Billy Cavanaugh scored it a slip.
Going into the last two frames it seemed that Pep was turning things around thanks to his youth, speed, and stamina, but in the ninth a tremendous left hook to the body by Angott slowed him down.
Pep desperately tried to save his unblemished record in a wild final heat but the bullying style of the Pennsylvanian had taken a toll on him.
16,834 spectators were present that night at the Garden, bringing a massive live gate of $70,860. For their money, they witnessed a piece of history unfold as the judges scored the fight 5-4, 5-4, 6-4 for Sammy Angott. Associated Press had it 5-3-2, United Press inked it 6-3-1, all for the former lightweight champ.
Angott won back the NBA title in late 1943 with a 15-round unanimous decision over Slugger White in Los Angeles, only to lose it in his first defense to Mexican craftsman Juan Zurita.
After having suffered his first defeat in the pro ranks, Pep returned to his ultimate division at featherweight where he defended his belt half a dozen times before he met his nemesis in Sandy Saddler and got stopped in four frames. Before that bout, Pep’s record stood at an incredible 134-1-1! Willie recaptured the 126-pound crown in a rematch with Saddler in early 1949 but was stopped two more times by his hard-hitting counterpart in championship bouts and never won a title again.
Both Angott and Pep are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Willie was part of the inaugural class in 1990; Sammy got inducted in 1998. Their war, that has its 75th anniversary today, has linked them forever in fistic heaven.
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel