Monday, December 04, 2006

"Lazzari's Sports Roundup" ---- 12-09-06

Remembering: Willie Pep

I once wrote in this column that one of my biggest regrets was never having seen Ted Williams hit a baseball. Let me add another one to the list: I never saw Willie Pep throw a punch or, maybe better yet, AVOID one.

Guglielmo Papaleo was Connecticut's own--having grown up on the rough streets of Hartford and learning to fight in order to protect himself from thugs interfering with his shoe-shine undertakings. Those shady characters may have done "Willie Pep" a favor--as he'd become featherweight champion of the world in 1942 at the age of 20. His speed was legendary, as was his fluid movement in the ring; legend has it that he once won a round without throwing a punch in 1946. "Will-o-the-Wisp," they'd call him--a reference to his elusiveness in the ring while frustrating opponents; you see, they'd throw punches at Willie and he simply wouldn't be there. The great Red Smith coined him the "Artful Dodger." A former fighter once said he'd pay to watch Pep shadow box; I might have, also. His "windmill" style thrilled crowds with speed that was nothing less than electrifying. Yes, the canvas was Willie Pep's dance floor. Call him Astaire with a helluva left jab.

Willie Pep put the city of Hartford on the map, and he never forgot his early fans; in turn, busloads would go see the fleet boxer whenever he'd perform on the east coast. He'd rub elbows with Babe Ruth, Bing Crosby, and a guy named Sinatra; yeah, Willie Pep was "nationwide." How soon they'd forget many years later when Connecticut's greatest was laid to rest.

The greatest fighter pound-for-pound in history? Perhaps. Undoubtedly, he was the best featherweight to come down the pike--despite the three losses to the great Sandy Saddler. The bigger, stronger Saddler took the title from Pep in 1948--only to see Pep wrestle it away from Sandy by unanimous decision in 1949 in what was Willie's finest moment; he survived being hurt and willed his way to the victory by simply out-punching his foe--thrilling the sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden. Many still call Pep's effort that evening the greatest boxing exhibition in history. A dislocated shoulder would cause Willie to lose to Saddler in 1950; their 1951 brawl simply saw the bigger man pound at Pep's body until he could survive no more. Ultimately, Willie Pep would never fight for the championship again--admitting later that Saddler simply had the hex on him during his career. The truth is that Pep's testosterone took over during those brawls vs. Saddler--causing Willie to abandon the unparalleled boxing style that had defined him up to those fights. The bottom line is that NO ONE could beat Willie at HIS game; Saddler beat him at SANDY's game.

Willie Pep retired in 1959--already well past his prime--only to make an ill-advised comeback in 1965; he STILL won 9 of his last 10 fights as an old man. The final tally: 230 wins (believed to be the most in history), 11 losses, 1 draw--staggering numbers that attest to the greatness of a former boxer whose ring mastery was unquestionable. And his toughness was never limited to inside the ring ropes; he survived a plane crash in '47 (broken leg and back--temporarily paralyzed from the waist down) only to be back in the ring six months later. THAT was Willie Pep.

I had the opportunity to meet Willie some years ago at a boxing event in southern Connecticut; he was gracious enough to sit down with a friend of mine and yours truly while sharing some great stories--joking like only Willie Pep could (a man who once said, "All my wives were great housekeepers; after every divorce, they kept the house."). When you talked to Willie Pep, he simply became your friend right away--perhaps his greatest gift to all of his many admirers.

His recent death at the age of 84 (advanced Alzheimer's disease) went virtually unnoticed by the people of the Nutmeg State--as keenly pointed out in a column by the Hartford Courant's Jeff Jacobs. The "suits" and "powers that be" didn't flock to his funeral; maybe if it were BEFORE the November elections, they'd have been there. Shame on them--and perhaps it's more symbolic of the type of society we now live in--the "what have you done for me lately" mentality so prevalent along with a non-appreciation of historical greats. It was estimated that there were only 100 people at the funeral of the great Willie Pep--Connecticut's own.

I wish I had been aware of that, Willie; there would have been at least one more mourner there to say good-bye to a champion who once reached the pinnacle of the boxing world. Rest in peace, Mr. Pep, and I'm glad to have met you; some of us will make it a point to NEVER forget you.

Bob Lazzari

Reprinted by permission of the Valley Times.


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