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WILLIE "PEPPED UP" OUR FRIDAY NIGHTS
Pound for pound, Willie Pep may have been the best boxer who ever lived
By Joe Duffy, Wethersfield, Connecticut
"Ladies and gentlemen," echoed the nasal voice of announcer Johnnie Addie, "your attention please. In this corner....". I can still smell the peanuts being passed as my father, granddad, uncles and I hunkered down before our sturdy little Philco TV for the Gillette Friday Night Fights, live from Madison Square Garden. I felt as if I were right in the middle of the crowds who'd come to see boxing immortals like Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano.
Each of us had a favorite, but we all agreed that, "pound for pound", featherweight champion Willie Pep was the greatest fighter ever. After all, he came from our town, Hartford, Connecticut.
Pep was so fast that the dean of American sportswriters, Red Smith, dubbed him "the artful dodger". As a boy, I often dreamed of meeting this local hero whose posters were plastered all over the neighborhood. Watching Pep box even inspired me to rig up a makeshift boxer's bag in the cellar.
Finally Met His Hero
Over the years I saw Willie on several occasions, but only at a distance. Then one day in 1993, I spotted him jogging in a local park. I spoke a few words to him, but didn't want to interrupt his run. Willie said he'd tell me more about boxing if we met again. A short time after that, a mutual friend asked me if I'd like to visit Willie, I jumped at the chance! So, more than 4 decades after those fabulous Friday night fights, I found myself in the champ's parlor, sitting with him in his favorite corner of the room.
At 71, Willie still looked as rough and tough as he had in the old posters. "Ask me anything," he growled, a gracious grin breaking over a face with 241 professional bouts (only 11 lost!) etched into it. He put up his famous dukes and took his stance to demonstrate how he "won it all with this jab". His fists clocked in nearly 2,000 pro rounds, one of which was a matchless jewel in sports history. I asked Willie to tell me about that night in Minneapolis in 1946, when he predicted he would win Round 3 from Jackie "The Austin Assassin" Graves without throwing a single punch.
The Babe's Buddy
"I did it with head and shoulder feints," Willie remembered. "Jackie couldn't find me!" Willie won that fight in Round 8. This was a boxer's version of Babe Ruth pointing to where he'd hit his next home run, I told Willie. It was then I learned that the Babe was Willie's hero and that the two had been good friends. Willie took me to his basement den, a private hall of fame. The wall was covered with photos of pals like Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra hugging each other as if they were kids. But Willie's favorite was one of him and Babe Ruth at dinner. When we said good-bye, Willie gave me his autograph. Meeting him and hearing history come alive from the boxing giant who made it was something I'll never forget. It was worth the 40-year wait to finally catch up with the artful dodger!