Willie Pep: The Greatest Comeback Story In Sports History

“They call Ray Robinson the best fighter, pound for pound. I’m the best fighter, ounce for ounce.”— Willie Pep

This isn’t a story about how a team or athlete, thrashed in the first quarter of a game or early rounds of a fight, managed to overcome a slow start or seemingly impossible odds. This is a story about something much more rare. The comebacks I’m interested in are about second chances — one of the enduring themes in American culture.

Second acts in sports are rare. Age, money, injury and the fast life often make comebacks impossible. When discussing those few athletes who made successful comebacks, the stories of two legends always seem to stand above the rest: Ben Hogan and George Foreman. But the man who truly deserves the top spot in history is the late, great Willie Pep.

 

Ben Hogan, a golfer, survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus in Texas in February 1949. He was riding alongside his wife that day, and at the moment of impact, he threw himself across his wife’s lap to protect her, saving both their lives. Hogan fractured his pelvis, collarbone, left ankle and experienced near-fatal blood clots. Few thought he’d ever play golf again, much less win a major.

In fact, Hogan went on to win six more majors in addition to the three he’d won before the accident. Three of those wins came in golf’s coveted Triple Crown (winning three majors in a calendar year), a feat that wasn’t repeated until Tiger woods did it almost half a century later.

Foreman-Moorer

George Foreman, the most feared puncher in boxing during his first title reign and maybe the most feared puncher in the history of the sport, experienced a very different type of comeback. He wasn’t in a near-fatal accident like Hogan, unless you consider a knockout loss to Muhammad Ali near-fatal. And maybe it was, if not physically, at least psychologically. Foreman was knocked out in the eighth round by Ali in 1974. Over the next three years, Foreman would fight five times before losing to Jimmy Young, a fight where afterward he announced his retirement.

Ten years later, at the age of 38, Foreman came back. Although long in the tooth, Foreman knocked out his first 17 opponents. He lost his first title shot on the comeback trail against Evander Holyfield and then a second against Tommy Morrison. Foreman made his third title shot a charm though, taking the heavyweight crown from Michael Moorer in 1994. In the process, Foreman became the oldest man in the history of boxing to win a belt (a record that stood until Bernard Hopkins claimed a light heavyweight title in 2013 at the ripe old age of 48).

WilliePep

There’s no doubt that Ben Hogan and George Foreman are legends. But as bright as the stars for these two burn, one burns brighter still for the late, great Willie Pep.

Often called “Will o’ the Wisp” for his elusive style, Pep — along with Pernell Whitaker, Tommy Loughran (“The Phantom of Philly”) and now Floyd Mayweather Jr. — is often considered one of the greatest defensive fighters to ever live. Pep was so crafty in the ring that some old trainers said, “You couldn’t hit him in the ass with a handful of rice.” He was that hard to find in the ring, but that didn’t mean he avoided fights.

Pep was already entering into legendary status by the age of 25. Leading up to the accident, Pep’s record stood at 109-1-1. He was undefeated in his first 62 fights (let that fact, finally and completely, debunk the alleged sanctity of Mayweather’s 49-0). He won the featherweight title at 20, against the man Pep considers the greatest featherweight who ever lived, Albert “Chalky” Wright.

Chalky-Wright

Wright was a character. His approach to ring preparations resemble pieces of Mike Tyson’s anecdotes in “Undisputed Truth.” For example, before his 193rd fight, against Phil Terranova, the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper reported that:

“Chalky was in and out of the Hotel Theresa bar night in and day out for four days. He smoked evil smelling, twisted cigars. He drank freely of whatever his palate called for. He went where he wanted as late as 2 and 3 a.m., and then climbed into the ring at the Garden to put on a master exhibition of boxing and hitting power.”

Wright knocked out Terranova in the fifth round. Like Tyson, the fast life didn’t much affect Wright’s punching power. The 126-pound fighter is 95th on The Ring Magazine’s Top 100 punchers of all time. But all the power in world doesn’t matter if you can’t find the target. And over the course of 15 rounds, Wright couldn’t lay his hands on Pep.

Then, in 1947, the accident happened. Pep had chartered a plane from Miami to Hartford. Pushing its way through a snowstorm, the plane crashed near Carmel, New Jersey. Three people died, and 18 were injured. Pep recalls:

“I woke up on my stomach. People were moaning and groaning. The plane was ripped to shreds. My back was killing me.”

The back pain was undoubtedly the result of his two broken vertebrae. That pain masked the compound fracture in this left leg and his severe chest injuries. The doctors didn’t think he’d walk again, much less fight.

Pep spent five months in a leg and a body cast. Once removed, Pep not only resumed his fighting career, but cemented his place in the pantheon of all-time greats. Most hardcore fight fans know that Pep won his first 26 fights after the plane crash, which meant that his second unbeaten streak lasted 73 fights (his first streak was 62 fights). What few realize is that he won the first seven fights of his comeback in a span of only 66 days!

The man who broke Pep’s winning streak would also become his greatest rival, Sandy Saddler.

 

As only the late and inimitable Bert Sugar could put it:

“To the boxing traditionalist the sight of this [Saddler] physical freak was astounding: a featherweight who measured 4.5 inches short of 6 feet laid end-to-end, possessing the same construction as a baseball bat with a thyroid deficiency. It was almost as if this walking case of malnutrition could be cut in half and two featherweights made of the the equal parts.”

Saddler had freakish power to match his awe-inspiring physique: 103 of his 162 wins came by knockout. And although Saddler knocked out Pep in three of their four meetings, in their second encounter, Pep put on the performance of a lifetime. In the first go-around, a year and half removed from the plane crash, Pep was knocked out in four rounds. Three months later (after Pep had won two fights), he stepped into the ring with Saddler for a rematch.

Boxing historian Mike Silver wrote that the fight was:

“one of the greatest boxing performances of all time. It was two great fighters against each other. But Pep had to be at his absolute best to do that [outbox Saddler for 15 rounds]. Without question it was one of the greatest pure boxing exhibitions that any boxer has staged since fighter’s put on gloves.”

Pep won by unanimous decision. Although he never tasted victory against Saddler again, the tetralogy between the two produced arguably the second best rivalry in boxing history. The combination of skill, power and action these all-time greats delivered stands alongside the immortal rivalries of Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier and Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez.

There is some dispute about his overall wins (Bert Sugar has Pep winning 230 times, boxrec.com only 229, both agree he only suffered 11 loses, 1 draw), but regardless of the exact number, it’s clear that Pep went on to win at least 100 fights after his accident. Then, after initially retiring in 1959, Pep got the itch to fight again at the ripe age of 42. He didn’t win any championships, but he did win nine out of 10. Icing on the cake. By then Pep was already a demigod of pugilism.

 

Pep tops Foreman because as great and miraculous as Foreman’s comeback proved to be, Foreman’s triumph came against lesser opposition than what Pep faced. Foreman defeated Michael Moorer to win the lineal, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles. Moorer, although undefeated at the time (34-0), was not, and never became, anywhere near the legendary fighter that Pep’s rival, Sandy Saddler, became. Moreover, Foreman’s second act also only lasted 33 fights, while Pep fought more than 100 fights after his accident, 10 of them coming after the age of 42.

More importantly, Pep’s injury was a bigger hurdle to overcome than Foreman’s age. Bernard Hopkins has shown the boxing world that the ravages of age are due more to personal habits than the passing of time itself. He’s eaten monastically his entire career and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol since 1991. That type of dedication has made it possible for him to maintain his physique, speed,and stamina. Floyd Mayweather Jr., although much younger, has lived similarly and has surprised many because he moves like he’s 25, not 38.

Moreover, in the heavyweight class, the average age of fighters tends to be older and the big men don’t rely on the speed and foot movement to same extent the lighter weight classes do. Instead, power and stiff whiskers more often are the key elements to victory at the heavyweight level, and those attributes don’t fade as quickly with time. It’s the old boxing adage, “Power is the last thing to go.” Even in his old age, Foreman held on to his power. It was the thunder in a short right hand that won Foreman the title against Moorer. He was behind on all the score cards.

Pep had to come back from an injury that almost left him in a wheelchair. He started fighting months before doctors thought it was even appropriate for him to start strolling peacefully in the park. While some say Pep was never the same after the accident, he nonetheless found a way to maintain his fluid movement and elusiveness in the ring, despite his massive injuries.

Foreman’s hurdle of age never affected the element that made his comeback possible, his thunderous power. Pep’s injury, on the other hand — a broken back, broken leg and injured chest — directly affected the tools that he needed to succeed. In other words, Pep faced more adversity and, given his record, accomplished much more.

Hogan presents a much more difficult point of comparison. Golf and boxing share virtually nothing in common. Comparing greatness across two such dissimilar sports is difficult, but not impossible.

Both men’s injuries are roughly of the same caliber. Hogan broke his pelvis, which is essential to a good golf swing. Pep broke his back, which is essential to everything, especially fluid movement in the thing. Thus, they’re basically tied on the injury front.

After his near fatal injury, Hogan went on to become arguably one of the top five or even top three greatest golfers of all time by winning six majors and closing out his career with 64 wins, behind only Sam Snead, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Pep is consistently ranked in the top three boxers of all time, holds the record for the most wins in boxing and is rightfully considered one of the best defensive fighters of all time. Pep slightly edges Hogan on the accomplishment factor.

When we consider the fundamental differences between golf and boxing, however, it’s clear why Pep tops the great Hogan. Although Hogan’s injury directly affected his ability to play golf, that injury wasn’t exacerbated by other external factors. Hogan didn’t have to execute a golf swing while a fellow competitor came at him screaming bloody murder.

Pep’s great quality in the ring was his movement. Not only did his injuries directly affect his greatest quality, but when he stepped into the ring, he had to contend with his opponents trying to physically re-injure him. Punching the back isn’t legal in boxing, but plenty of wide shots to the kidneys can strain the back, not to mention the constant head pulling and clinging that often happens in boxing, which places incredible strain on the back.

Pep’s great nemesis, Sandy Saddler, often pulled on Pep’s neck to line up powerful uppercuts.

Willie Pep-Sandy Saddler

See how Sandler held Pep’s neck in place as Sandler unleashed brutal uppercuts, often missing on purpose to land with the elbow, cutting up Pep’s face. As bad as Hogan had it, no one kicked him in the hip right before he teed off.

Foreman and Hogan are unquestionable legends. What they accomplished should never be forgotten. But in a battle between titans, Pep, with his unbelievable injuries, his miraculous recovery, and incredible skills and victories during his second act, should be remembered as having the greatest comeback in sports history.

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