Guglielmo Papaleo (September 19, 1922 – November 23, 2006) was an American professional boxer, better known as Willie Pep who held the World Featherweight championship nicknamed “WILL o’ the Wisp,” for his elusiveness, Pep is one of boxing’s all-time great artists, indeed before Floyd Mayweather Jnr and before Sweet Pea Pernell Whitaker there was Willie Pep, and he is still regarded by many as being the greatest defensive boxer the sport has ever seen.
Pep began boxing as a youth because he was becoming an easy target for neighbourhood bullies due to his lack of size, a friend suggested he may as well get paid for being beat up and join the boxing club! As an amateur he won 62 of 65 bouts, one of those losses coming against Ray Roberts (later Sugar Ray Robinson). In 1938 Pep fought Sugar Ray Robinson in the attic of a feed store in Norwich, CT. Outweighing Pep by around 25lbs, the bigger Robinson won by decision. According to Pep who would later recall the fight, Robinson was an amateur champion in the state of New York, where amateurs were not paid, so he took a pseudonym to get bouts for money in Connecticut. Because of this, Pep did not know who he was fighting at the time. Before the fight he was told his unknown opponent wasn’t very good, but he recalls quickly learning otherwise once the bout began and Robinson was “all over me”. Robinson for his part knew he was up against a highly rated opponent.
Pep turned pro in 1940 and just two yrs later was world champion at 20, he reigned until 1948 before losing to another hall of famer, Sandy Saddler(he was to avenge the loss and regain his title four months later)and fought professionally 26 years and had 241 fights, losing just 11. He became the World Featherweight Champion by outpointing the defending world champ Chalky Wright over 15 rounds. It was said if you listened close enough during one of Pep’s fight, you might be able to hear the music, such was his artistry and footwork it appeared as if you were watching a virtuoso performance, indeed Chalky Wright angrily growled at Pep to ‘stand still and fight!’ His final record was 229-11-1 with 65 knockouts.
Astonishingly in January 1947 he had survived a plane crash, being carried from the wreckage with a broken leg and back and told he would never fight again. Several passengers died. when the medic who pulled him out of the wreckage saw who he was, he said ‘thats tough luck Willie. I guess you’ll never fight again, you’ve got multiple injuries’ For five months Pep was in a cast, but he made a miraculous return, winning a 10-rounder against Victor Flores but his injuries did steal some of his speed and guile and many thought the slick star was never the same again as he began to toil against lesser fighters
It was a long, hard end for a fine fighter. “The decline of a boxer,” lamented Pep. “First you lose your leg movement. Then you lose your reflexes. Then you lose your friends.” The accolades and compliments for Pep were many…
“Trying to hit Pep is like trying to step on a flame” – Kid Chocolate
“The longer he goes, the more astonishing he becomes” – writer Red Smith
“He was so clever, he could come up to an opponent from behind” – Don Dunphy
Emmanuel Steward, one of the greatest trainers Boxing has ever seen commented “I used to love to see Willie Pep and Sugar Ray Robinson. To me, the epitome of a great athlete is a great boxer. I just love the rhythm of seeing a man dance, slip punches. I loved the dancers and boxers. I would see them and be mesmerized.”
Boxing Historian Mike Silver “at the absolute pinnacle, you can find some fault with even the greatest of the greats and Pep didnt have great punching power and he wasnt as strong as a lot of other featherweights, but he more than made up for that with taking boxing to a level that has not been seen since. It was a very sophisticated way of boxing. The greatest compliment, I think, any boxer could ever get was having Sugar Ray Robinson say, and I remember him saying this, that he admired Pep’s boxing ability more than any other fighter he’d ever seen.”
Pep was voted as the #1 featherweight of the 20th Century by the Associated Press and ranked the no.1 featherweight of all-time by the International Boxing Research Organization in 2005.
Pep was ranked 6th on Ring Magazine’s list of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years in 2002. Pep was also named the 3rd greatest fighter of all time by hall of fame boxing writer and historian Bert Sugar.
Pep was ranked 5th on ESPN’s 50 Greatest Boxers Of All time list in 2007.