The man who scissored his given name of "Papaleo" into the pallindromic "Pep" was boxing's version of the three-card monte player: Now you see him, now you don't. His movements, which took on the took of tap dancing with gloves on, left his opponents to speculate on their meaning and his fans to listen for accompanying music. Willie Pep fought as if he didn't like to get hit, having developed a great respect for his teeth at a very early age. He fought as a survivor, practicing a form of reverse polarity with the uncanny ability to anticipate an opponent's blows -- and then parry them, pick them off, or just plain beat them with his own form of rat-a-tat punches. Throughout his long career, Pep substituted shiftiness and cunning for a lack of power, most of his knockouts coming not from a malicious blow but from his opponents falling to the ground in utter exhaustion, unable to keep up with the man labeled "Willie the Wisp" soon to be contracted, like his own name, to "Will o' the Wisp."
Many of his opponents likened fighting the "Will o' the Wisp" to battling a man in the Hall of Mirrors, unable to cope with an opponent they couldn't find, let alone hit. Others compared the experience to catching moonbeams in a jar, or chasing a shadow. And yet another, Kid Campeche, said after a fight in which Pep had pitched a no-hitter, "Fighting Willie Pep is like trying to stamp out a grass fire."
Pep's greatest virtuoso performance came the night he gave the fans a run for their money, literally, winning a round without throwing a punch. His opponent on this occasion was Jackie Graves, a TNT-southpaw puncher with more than his share of knockouts. Pep had already tipped off a few friendly sportswriters that he would not throw a punch in anger during the third round. Despite their incredulity, they found that what happened was incredible. For Pep moved; Pep switched to southpaw, mimicking Graves; Pep danced; Pep weaved; Pep spun Graves around and around again; Pep gave head feints, shoulder feints, foot feints, and feint feints. But Pep never landed a punch. In the word of one sportswriter, Don Riley, "It was an amazing display of defensive boxing skill so adroit, so cunning, so subtle that the roaring crowd did not notice Pep's tactics were completely without offense. He made Jim Corbett's agility look like a broken-down locomotive. He made even Sugar Ray Robinson's fluidity look like cement hardening. Never has boxing seen such perfection!" Suffice it to say, all three judges gave Pep the round.
Willie Pep's long 22-year career was, in reality, two careers. During his first, one that spanned seven years, Pep outclassed and outraced 109 of his 111 opponents - losing only to the grabbing, double-clutching ex-lightweight champ Sammy Angott and fighting to one 10-round draw, a hometown "gift" for his opponent -- and won the featherweight crown at the tender age of 20 years and 2 months. Then, on January 8, 1947, Pep suffered near-fatal injuries in an airplane crash. His career, if not his ability to walk, was over. Or so it seemed. Miraculously, six months later, rather than sitting at home and watching his bones mend, Pep came back -- not only to walk, but to fight. And win again.
Pep continued to denude the featherweight division of contenders, winning 26 more times and defending his title twice. With the supply of challengers all but exhausted, Pep accepted the challenge of what he called "a thin, weak-looking guy who looks like you could go 'poof' and knock him over." However, it wasn't Pep who was the knocker but the knockee as the "thin, weak-looking guy," who went by the name of Sandy Saddler, knocked Pep over with a vagrant left in the third and a right in the fourth that left the soon-to-be ex-champion on the floor.
The rematch was the highlight of Willie's career(s). For on the night of February 11, 1949, in that creaky, hallowed hall where dreams are made, Madison Square Garden, Pep made his dream come true by recapturing his featherweight title. Possessing all the nervous courage of a small pup and the speed, guile, and ability to recognize pain immediately, Pep stayed true to his instincts and gave Saddler nothing to hit. Nothing. "But," said Willie, seeing a small straw, but a straw nevertheless, "when I stepped on his toes, he said 'Ouch!' so I stepped on his toes all night." It was more than enough. He had won the fight of his life, the last big fight he was ever to win, his long-running career winding down to its end.
The name Willie Pep will forever be remembered as a name put to melody and symphony, a balletic will to grace that made him truly the "Will o' the Wisp."
From "Boxing's Greatest Fighters,"
copyright 2006, Lyons Press
Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.