Missing Willie Pep

November 24, 2006

Most Boxers Could Not Touch Him
We Remember His Great Moments And Big Heart

By FRANZ DOUSKEY

Over the years, Willie was really generous. He sent me all
kinds of things. Signed photos. And boxing gloves. His were
the first ones I owned, which led me to get others of my
favorite fighters, especially Kid Gavilan (Kid Hawk), Jake LaMotta,
Floyd Paterson, Carmen Basilio, etc. I’ve got them all
in a big canvas bag in the attic. Even Smokin’ Joe and Ali are
in there.

But Willie. He was our own.

The last time I spent time with Willie Pep was in the
now-doomed New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum. It was
weigh-In media day for Sugar Ray Leonard and a fighter named
Munez. They were going to fight the next day, but Munez took a
dive in the first round. No sense getting hurt.

While the press whirled around Sugar Ray Leonard, I saw a
familiar face in the back of the room. Willie Pep was sitting
on a table by himself. I went over to him, introduced myself,
even though we had met before.

Willie was a boxing legend. 242 fights, 230 wins, 65
knockouts.

He was featherweight champ for six years. He talked about
Connecticut fighters, like Chico Vejar and Eddie Campo, then we
got into talking about some of his greatest fights. Does
anyone remember Sandy Sandler, one of the dirtiest fighters
ever allowed in the ring. Willie Pep and Sandler fought four
times, Sandler beat him three times. But Willie kept on
fighting into his forties.

Some say Suagar Ray Robinson was the best fighter pound for
pound, and that would be a hard argument to beat, but Willie
Pep would have to come in a close second.

Here’s something people have forgotten about. Willie said that
when he fought Jackie Graves, he won a round without throwing a
punch. Well, boxers are no different than anyone else.
Everyone has a story that grows as the years go on.

But what I later learned was that Willie’s story, as
unbelieveable as it was, was the truth.

Willie Pep fought Jackie Graves, in Minneapolis, on July 25,
1945. Before the fight he told several sportswriters that he
was going to win the third round without throwing a punch.
Among the writers Pep talked to were Don Riley and Bert Sugar.
Both have verified that Pep told them that he would win the
third round without throwing one punch. Bert Sugar later said
that it was a display of defensive tactics to rival Gentleman
Jim Corbett and the great Sugar Ray Robinson. And true to his
word, Willie Pep won the round on all three score cards.

For a while Willie Pep served as Connecticut’s Boxing
Commissioner, but failing health put an end to that and began
his long decline in near seclusion.

I called the family and asked if I could see Willie. I was
told that there was no point. Willie didn’t know anyone.

So, at 84, the legend slips away, as quietly and with the same
silent ease he slipped so many punches with head feints and
shoulder feints, inside parries and outside parries. But you
can only use foot feints and out-dance death for so long. Make
that 243 bouts. Twelve loses. Tough, street-wise,
hard-headed, scarred and cauliflowered, beautiful Willie Pep at
long last down for the count. Too late to throw in the towel.

We will miss him. We have missed him for a long time.

Franz Douskey, a poet and writer, served as Interim President
of IMPAC University,Punta Gorda, FL, earlier this year. Douskey
has been published in more than 150 journals and magazines including
the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Yankee. He teaches creative
writing at Yale and communications and English at Gateway Community College.
A featured guest at New Haven’s Festival of Arts & Ideas, Douskey’s books include
“Rowing Across The Dark” and “Indecent Exposure.” He is a founding board member
of the IMPAC-Connecticut State University Young Writers Trust and has served as a judge every year of the competition. Douskey is also the author of the forthcoming biography,”The Unknown Sinatra.”

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