Boxing’s holy trinity of defensive masters include Floyd Mayweather, Pernell Whitaker and the second greatest Featherweight of all-time, Willie Pep. Pep was the first boxer who mesmerized audiences with his defensive acumen. There have always been claims that Pep once won a round without landing a single punch because he made his opponent miss badly. What’s even more amazing than his defensive brilliance was that as an amateur boxer he lost to Sugar Ray Robinson in a competitive three round decision in which the Sugar Man outweighed the Will O’ The Wisp by 25 pounds. That nickname for Pep was apropos as he felt like a ghost when his opponents couldn’t lay a glove on him.
Pep turned pro at the tender age of 17. He fought an incredible 52 times in a little over two and a half years, winning all 52 fights. This led to Pep getting his first world title opportunity at 126 pounds. On November 20, 1942, he fought the defending New York State World Featherweight Champion Chalky Wright in the fabled Madison Square Garden. Wright was a monster puncher with devastating power in both hands. He was also, at 5’7”, two inches taller that the 5’5” Pep. Pep, despite only being 20-years-old at the time, put on a boxing masterpiece years beyond his age in winning an unanimous 15-round decision. In the 1940s, the three greatest fighters on the planet were Joe Louis, Robinson and Pep. Louis and Robinson left boxing for a few years to serve in World War II. Pep was to hold the mantle as the best fighter in the world during the interim.
After successfully defending his title three times, Pep faced National Boxing Association 126-pound champion Sal Bartolo in a Featherweight World Title unification bout. Pep had defeated Bartolo in their two prior fights and was a considerable favorite going into their June 7, 1946 fight at Madison Square Garden. Pep dominated the fight, knocking Bartolo down in the ninth round before knocking Bartolo out and breaking his jaw with a picture perfect right cross in the 12th round to become the undisputed champ. Six months later, Pep almost lost both his title and life in a plane crash.
In 1947, at the height of his career, Pep was flying from Miami to Hartford, Connecticut, when the plane went down in New Jersey. Many of the passengers were killed in the accident, but Pep survived.
While his survival was nothing short of miraculous, the plane crash left him badly injured. Pep spent four months in a full-body cast with two broken vertebrae, a compound fracture in his leg, and severe chest trauma. Doctors told him that he’d likely never walk again let alone step into the ring. Not one to disappoint, Pep proved them all wrong.
It was unreal that five months after his near tragic plane crash, Pep returned to the ring and fought a total of 11 times the remainder of the year despite almost dying in a plane crash! Ten of these fights were non-title affairs. The following year, he would finally meet his greatest and toughest rival, Sandy Saddler.
Joseph “Sandy” Saddler was a prototype for the tall, lanky boxer with a great jab and booming right cross. A 1940s and 50s version of Thomas Hearns, Saddler stood 5’9” and was four inches taller than Pep. Like Hearns did with Sugar Ray Leonard, Saddler gave Pep hell because of his height and power. In their first fight, on October 29, 1948 at The Garden, Saddler shockingly put Pep to sleep in the fourth round. Pep’s record coming into this fight was an out of this world 134 wins against only one loss and draw. It was a one-sided beating as Pep was knocked down twice in the third round before his lights went out in the fourth.
Pep put on one of the greatest performances in boxing history in the rematch less than four months later on February 11, 1949, once again held at Madison Square Garden. Pep used his entire defensive and boxing acumen to win a convincing 15-round unanimous decision to regain the title. Unfortunately, Pep would lose his title back to Saddler 19 months later and the subsequent fourth and final fight between the two iconic 126-pounders.
After his last lost to Saddler on September 26, 1951, Pep fought very regularly for another eight years and never received another world title opportunity. Despite that fact, Pep still showed many examples of his defensive wizardry in the ring. He set the standard for defense that no one came close to matching until Pernell Whitaker in the late 1980s. In his prime, he was as close to unbeatable as any man who ever laced up a pair of gloves. Finally, his mental toughness in coming back from a near fatal plane crash and to still fight at an elite level is one of the greatest comeback stories in boxing history.