“Will o’ the Wisp” boxer known for his elusiveness – tough to catch, tougher to defeat.
Boxer Willie Pep was born Gugliermo Papaleo on September 9, 1922 in Middletown, Connecticut. Dropping out of high school at age 16 to box, Pep was quick in the ring and hard to pin down, earning him the nickname “Will o’ the Wisp.”
As an amateur, Pep won two Connecticut state championships – as a flyweight in 1938 and a bantamweight in 1939 – before turning professional.
From the start, Pep enjoyed the lengthy and admirable continuous winning streaks that would mark his entire career. He had won 53 consecutive fights before trumping Chalky Wright in 1942 for the World Featherweight Championship. With the 15-round decision, Pep was the youngest boxer to earn the title in four decades.
The following year brought 63 undefeated bouts for Pep before he lost a non-title fight to Sammy Angott. Undeterred, Pep went on to win another 73 successive fights.
During World War II, Pep served in the Army and the Navy and was honorably discharged in 1944.
Four years later, Pep went up against Sandy Saddler for the first of four memorable bouts. Pep was knocked out in the fourth round but regained his title the following year.
In 1950, in their third match, Saddler triumphed after Pep suffered a shoulder injury that forced him out in the eighth round. The pair’s final confrontation came in 1951 and, after a memorable brawl, Pep suffered a serious enough cut to his eye to end the fight in the 10th round.
Pep retired in 1959, although he was back in the ring six years later. His nine-fight winning streak was interrupted by a knockout by Calvin Woodward in 1966, and Pep hung up his gloves for good.
Over the course of his illustrious career, Pep won 229 matches – 65 of them by knockouts. He lost only 11 matches (six knockouts) and fought only one match that resulted in a draw.
Upon retirement, Pep worked in boxing as a referee and inspector as well as a sports columnist. He was elected to the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in 1977 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.