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Over the next six years Pep danced in the spotlight, and the world cheered. He had drinks with Frank Sinatra, dined at Toots Shor's, wintered in Florida and beat everyone his handlers put in front of him. Bill Corum of the New York Journal-American called Pep "Will o' the Wisp" because of his elusive style. Red Smith observed in the Chicago Sun-Times, "If Willie had chosen a life of crime, he could have been the most accomplished pick-pocket since the Artful Dodger."
Pep's skillfulness was never more apparent than in a 1946 bout against Jackie Graves in Minneapolis. During the third round Pep moved, faked, spun and held. The one thing he didn't do in the full three minutes was throw a punch. All three judges gave him the round. "It was like DiMaggio going 4 for 4 with a broom handle," wrote one ringside reporter.
Make believe a cop is chasing you; don't let him catch you.
The Willie Pep story almost ended in early January 1947. He was returning to Hartford from Miami when the chartered plane he was on crashed in Carmel, N.J., during a snowstorm. Three people were killed, 18 injured. "I woke up on my stomach," says Pep. "People were moaning and groaning. The plane was ripped to shreds. My back was killing me."
X-rays revealed a broken left leg and two cracked vertebrae. Pep spent the next five months in a body cast. A few days after it was removed, he was running; within a month he had won a unanimous 10-round decision. "That was the biggest fight of my career," says Pep, "because I didn't know if I'd ever box again. I remember that the airline's insurance company had three guys in the front row. I never collected a dime."
Although Pep could do little wrong in the ring, outside the ropes things were different. He threw money at the ponies and chased it at the dice tables. The only investments he made were bad ones. The four wives he failed to go the distance with while he was boxing (he married and divorced his fifth wife after he retired) were a hometown sweetheart, a model, an exotic dancer and a hatcheck girl. "I never went looking for women," says Pep. "They were always around because I was in the limelight."
A lightly regarded kid from Harlem named Sandy Saddler proved to be Pep's Rocky Balboa. In October 1948, Saddler scored a shocking fourth-round TKO to take Pep's featherweight title. A little more than three months later Pep regained his crown, winning a grueling 15-round decision. The two brawled again in 1950 and '51, with Saddler winning by a TKO each time. "I didn't box him the way I should have," says Pep. "He got my goat. He made me forget I was clever."
Pep's career entered a long twilight following his third loss to Saddler. While he won much more often than he lost, he never fought for the title again. He retired in January 1959 but tried a comeback in 1965, at age 42. The second time around he was 11-1 against a host of carefully selected opponents. He retired for good in March 1966. "Why did I come back?" says Pep. "Because I needed the money. Where else could I make $50,000 a year? I didn't have a trade—still don't."
Pep held an assortment of jobs after quitting the ring. In the early 1970s he went to work for the state of Connecticut, in the Athletic Division's boxing office. He retired from the job last September. He lives on a state pension, Social Security and money he earns working as a deputy sheriff two days a week in Hartford's criminal court.
Although his name commands neither the recognition nor the respect it once did, whenever a boxing affair needs dressing up, Pep gets a call. In February he was a guest at the annual WBA dinner in New York City, where he received the association's Legend Award. Pep is always a hit at boxing dinners. He has an arsenal of one-liners and a Dangerfieldesque delivery that never fails to draw laughs.