HARTFORD, Conn. – Former featherweight champion Willie Pep, whose simple fight philosophy was "Hit the other guy as often as you can but don't let him hurt you," died Thursday, his grandson said. He was 84.
Pep, who became a champion at age 20, died in a convalescent home in Rocky Hill, eight miles south of Hartford, grandson William P. Papaleo said. Pep had been confined to an Alzheimer unit since 2001.
The wiry, right-handed two-time world featherweight champion held the title from 1942-48 and from 1949-50. He turned pro in 1940 and amassed a record of 230-11-1 with 65 KOs when he retired in 1966 at age 43.
"He was among the greatest fighters who stepped into the ring," said Ed Brophy, executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Hame. "His clever style in the ring earned him tremendous respect and allowed him to mount up such an enormous record of victories."
In 1999, Pep was listed fifth among the best fighters of the 20th century as chosen by a five-member panel for The Associated Press.
"He was a very special fighter in a great era of boxing," said Glenn Feldman, president of the Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame, which had made Pep its first inductee. "You just don't see fighters today with a 26-year career."
Born Guglielmo Papaleo on Sept. 19, 1922, in Middletown, Pep became one of boxing's all-time greats. Nicknamed "Will o' the Wisp" for his elusiveness, the 5-foot-6-inch Pep held the featherweight title for six years.
Ring historians recall Pep's alley-fighting style. He wasn't a fancy boxer, but could punch equally hard with both hands. And he was most dangerous when he was hurt.
He is best remembered for his physical, four-fight series against fellow Hall-of-Famer Sandy Saddler.
Pep won the first 63 fights of his career. He was barely 20 when he beat Chalky Wright in a decision in 1942 to win the featherweight title, becoming the youngest champion in 40 years.
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.
He lost the title in October 1948 to Saddler on a fourth-round knockout, setting up a rivalry for the ages.
Four months later Pep and Saddler squared off in Madison Square Garden. Intent on revenge, Pep relied on his quickness to outrun Saddler for 15 rounds. Bloodied, but not beaten, Pep scored a unanimous decision to became the first boxer in the history of the 126-pound class to regain a lost championship.
Saddler regained the title in 1950 with an eighth-round knockout. They met once more in 1951 and Saddler won again, this time with a knockout in the ninth 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.
When he retired, 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.
Brophy called Pep a "live wire" who would often visit the hall in Canastota, N.Y. and loved to talk about one round he fought — and won — without throwing a punch.
"His defense was so good, Brophy said. "He was very proud of that round in history," Brophy said.