Willie Pep: The Greatest Featherweight of All Time

Tom Sanderson

When asked to reel off the best featherweights of all time, the modern day boxing fan is immediately reminded of the division’s golden era – more specifically the late 90’s to mid-00’s in which there was a wealth of talent on show.

Between them, a predominantly Mexican and Latino bunch of pugilists put on some of the sport’s most memorable battles; the legendary Erik Morales and Antonio Barrera trilogy up there in recognition with the late Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward’s’ three epic battles at light welterweight.

Morales also had himself three fights with Manny Pacquiao, as did Juan Manuel Marquez, two giants of the age without even mentioning Sheffield’s finest Yemeni son Prince Naseem Hamed who looked peerless until finally coming unstuck against the aforementioned Barrera in the most brutal of fashions.

Yet when the Associated Press was asked to name its #1 featherweight of the century, none of these names came close to unsettling that of Willie Pep. Though some may argue that some of the above listed fights and their combatants were operative at superfeatherweight too and from 2000 onwards, Pep came from a time when there was just one division around the weight and just one belt in an era some decades away from the alphabet soup of modern times.

Born Guglielmo Papaleo in Middletown, Connecticut in 1922, Pep supported his family from the age of 15 during the Great Depression whilst also working as a shoeshine boy. Just a year later, so the legend goes, Pep took Sugar Ray Robinson the distance in a feed store attic without the slightest clue who his much larger opponent, most famous as a middleweight, was.

Pep’s professional career finally took off in 1940, starting off with a string of four-round bouts and racing to 41-0 before he finally upped his level of opponent, bearing in mind he was still only 18 years old by this time with echoes of modern day great Saul Canelo Alvarez’s similar trajectory and early start in the sweet science’s paid ranks. In his 52nd fight, an epic 15 round battle with Chalky Wright in 1942, Pep finally became world champion at the ripe age of 20.

By 1943, he remained untouchable at 62-0 before finally tasting his first defeat to Sammy Angott. This wasn’t to deter Pep however, who like all great champions have form for, retained his belt later that year with another gruesome 15 round war against Sal Bartolo.

What was most impressive about Pep, which no fighter these days would be allowed to replicate, was just how often he fought. For example, in the year he became champion, he got in the ring an astounding 23 times, at some points once per week. Even after suffering serious injuries in a plane crash in 1946, he was still only out of action for seven months before continuing a run that saw him accumulate a record of 134-1-1 before falling to common foe Sandy Saddler – the Morales to his Barrera – in late 1948.

Pep required just two tune up fights before snatching his title back from Saddler a year later. There would be further wars between the two and indeed Saddler would be the only featherweight capable of beating Pep until Tommy Collins came along in 1952 and stopped him in the fifth round.

Finally deciding to call it a day in 1966, Pep would retire with an unheralded 229 victories and just 11 defeats over a dazzling career spanning 29 years from the amateurs to the pros. He had a whopping 1,956 rounds under his belt with more put on in exhibition against Saddler on nationwide tours in 1980 for which the public paid willingly to see two greats go at it and attempt to recapture their rivalry in its pomp.

Nicknamed Will O’ the Wisp, Pep was known for his rapid pace and difficulty to be caught. Widely regarded as one of its greatest ever fighters by those within the sport, more widespread recognition finally came for Pep when inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. Aged 84, he passed away at a nursing home in his home state of Connecticut in November 2006 after suffering from a boxing-induced form of dementia and left behind four children in addition to three stepchildren.