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Willie Pep, 67, is sitting in the living room of the third-floor walk-up he shares in Hartford with his sixth wife, Barbara, 35, and her three children, ages seven, 11 and 14. It is late morning, and Pep is home fighting a cold. He is wearing a black bathrobe open to the waist. A small boxing-glove charm hangs from a gold chain around his neck. His face leaves no doubt regarding his former line of work: The nose meanders and doglegs left; the eyes, surrounded by layers of scar tissue, reveal past pain.
He speaks in staccato flurries, his voice often rising to a cat-fight whine, his train of thought subject to a bobbing and weaving memory. "It's 1937, the Depression, and I'm fighting amateur," says Pep. "Used to get paid in those days. One night I fought early on this card, and later on they was short a guy, so they asked me if I wanted to fight again. So I make $450, put $10 in my shoe and bring the rest home. My mother sees the money and gets worried. My father comes home—he's making $15 a week working for the WPA—and takes me in the other room.
" 'Where'd you get the money?'
" 'I told you, Papa. I made it fighting.'
"He looks at me hard, wants to see if I'm lying. Then he tosses me a couple of bucks. 'Why don't you see if you can fight two, three times a week from now on.' "
Pep didn't fight as often as his father might have liked, but at times it must have felt that way. During a 26-year pro career, Pep had 242 fights, putting together a record of 230-11-1. At one point Pep, twice the featherweight champion, won 63 straight bouts before losing a nontitle fight, by a controversial decision, to Sammy Angott in 1943. He rebounded from that upset by going 73-0-1 over his next 74 fights, bringing his record to 136-2-1. As remarkable as that is, the record is particularly special because over the eight years it was built, Pep was inducted into the Navy (1943) and the Army (1945), and spent five months in a body cast after having his back and a leg broken in a plane crash while returning home from training camp before a bout.
As with most fighters, boxing was Pep's vehicle out of unpromising surroundings. Born Guglielmo Papaleo, he shined shoes and hawked newspapers as a kid on Hartford's tough East Side. Tired of being beaten up by the bigger kids, he went to the local gym, where he pestered people until someone agreed to school him. "The best advice I ever got," says Pep, "was from a kid in the gym who told me, 'When you're in the ring, make believe a cop is chasing you; don't let him catch you.' "
Molding this street philosophy into a fighting style, Pep soon had a 59-3 amateur record, winning the Connecticut flyweight and bantamweight titles. He doesn't remember much about the early days—except for one bout, which he recalls in detail. It occurred at the DU-WELL Athletic Club in Norwich, Conn., against a lanky kid from New York City who called himself Ray Roberts. Roberts was a head taller than Pep and 25 pounds heavier. When Pep brought this disparity to the attention of his manager, he was assured, "Hey, if the guy was any good, he wouldn't be fighting you."
After getting swatted about the ring like a shuttlecock for three rounds, Pep learned that Roberts's real name was Walker Smith and that he was the Golden Gloves featherweight champ. Boxing fans would later know Smith by yet another name—Robinson, as in Sugar Ray.
Pep turned pro in 1940 and was 54-0 when he got a shot at the featherweight title in 1942 against Chalky Wright, a man who had once worked as Mae West's chauffeur. Pep won the 15-round, unanimous decision and earned $6,000 for defeating Wright in the first bout ever televised from Madison Square Garden. His share of the TV take was $400.