On October 29, 1948, featherweight boxers Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep meet for the first time in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Saddler, a strong puncher, knocked out the diminutive Pep in the fourth round. The two fought four times in all—Saddler won three—and the matchups were increasingly bitter. The last one, in 1951, disintegrated into such a melee that both men were suspended from boxing for months.
Many people say that Willie Pep was the greatest featherweight that ever lived. He seemed to float defensively around the ring as if there was “music playing for him alone,” Jimmy Cannon once wrote, “and the ring became a ballroom.” He once bet a Minnesota sportswriter that he could win a round without throwing a single punch—he’d just steer clear of the other guy’s gloves. He won the bet. He also won his first 63 professional fights—a world record—before losing to Sammy Angott in 1942. Ten days after the Angott bout, he won again, and he went 73 matches without losing—another world record—before he climbed into the ring with Sandy Saddler.
The two men were fighting for the 130-pound featherweight championship. It was the first time the 22-year-old Saddler—a taller, leaner slugger from Harlem with a stunningly powerful punch—had ever fought at Madison Square Garden. But he had a reliable arm, and Pep didn’t have the usual spring in his stride. Saddler dispatched him easily with two knockdowns in the third round and a knockout in the fourth.
Two months later, the rivals met again at the Garden. This time, Pep threw 37 jabs in the first round and won on points in the 15th. Of the his performance, the Globe wrote: “Although cut three times around the eyes, Willie overcame these obstacles with a left hand that cracked Saddler’s jaw like a skeleton clogging on a tin roof.” Pep and Saddler fought twice more, once at Yankee Stadium and once at the Polo Grounds, and both bouts turned ugly fast. In the first, in September 1950, Pep was winning on the officials’ scorecards when a dislocated shoulder—the result, he claimed, of an illegal armlock—forced him to withdraw. A year later, in a brawl so vicious that the boxers knocked the referee to the ground, the fight was running even when Pep quit after the ninth, his eyes so swollen and bloody that he could no longer see. After that, the New York State Athletic Commission revoked Pep’s license for 17 months and Saddler’s for two.
Saddler and Pep both retired at the end of the 50s, but their animosity persisted. Saddler always felt overshadowed by the smaller man, and he blamed racism for the relative lack of attention he received. “They talk about him being one of the greatest fighters that ever lived,” Saddler told a reporter, “but I beat him three times in four meetings.” Both men died from Alzheimer’s disease: Saddler in 2001 and Pep five years later.