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.
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.' "
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."
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