Slack's Greatest Rivalries: Willie Pep versus Sandy Saddler

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive

On the 26th of September, 1951, two featherweights stepped into the ring for an unusual fourth meeting. It would decide the featherweight championship of the world and arguably the best featherweight of all time at that point. Sandy Saddler, the lanky African American power puncher from Boston, Massachusetts, had 126 victories to his name already, and was considered the greatest finisher to ever appear in the lower weight divisions. Willie Pep, the Italian American dancing master from Hartford, Connecticut, was known as Will o' the Wisp for his incredible ring craft and agility, and was undefeated at featherweight by anyone not named Sandy Saddler.

In their first meeting, the larger Saddler had shocked Pep and stopped him in the fourth round to take the belt. In their second meeting, Pep had put on what many ringside spectators considered the finest boxing display of his career, reclaiming the title by decision. In their third meeting, however, Pep had been forced to retire due to a shoulder injury sustained in the clinch—Saddler walked away the champion, but the rivalry was still considered “in play”.

By the time that they stepped into the ring, under the lights of Madison Square Garden—the mecca of boxing's golden age—the grudge between the two had been played out in newspaper interviews for months. Saddler and Pep despised one another, and it was palpable. From the opening moments of the bout to the conclusion, their mutual hatred and desperation not to lose to the other was painted across the ring canvas in perhaps the wildest, dirtiest title fight in boxing history.

The Mummy and the Dancer

The style of Willie Pep was something to behold. Nat Fleischer rated Pep as the finest boxer that he ever saw—which is a tremendous recommendation when you realize that, among other things, Fleischer had been present at almost every heavyweight title fight from Jack Johnson to Muhammad Ali.

Against the average boxer or puncher, Pep would circle the ring, normally to his left, and wait for his opponent to follow. When they did, Pep would step in and land a stiff punch on their snout. It was simple, but he turned it into an art form. A great deal of Pep's best offence actually came from the southpaw stance, in an era when switching stances was seen as almost obscene.

The problem was that Sandy Saddler was perhaps the best ring cutter of his generation. You will remember George Foreman, the heavyweight colossus, was mockingly called “The Mummy” for his smothering, hands out stance. He would walk opponents down, parry their blows, and start swinging when he had them against the ropes. That style was taught to a young George Foreman by Dick Saddler and overseen by Dick's cousin, Sandy.

Saddler didn't have an awful lot of class at range—he had a stiff jab, but didn't combination punch. What Saddler aimed to do was to check his opponent's hands, jump in with a hard punch, then grip behind the head and go to work with one hand. A few fighters have made a career out of holding and hitting—Ernie Terrell springs to mind—but none was ever as good at it as Saddler.

After two rounds of solid boxing from Pep, Saddler was able to trap Pep in a corner, get a grip behind his head, and start uppercutting.

The beauty of Saddler's uppercut was that if an opponent did manage to stand up straight enough to not be pulled down onto it, he would deliberately miss the uppercut and elbow them in the face. The upward elbow is a nasty trick because it is exceptionally good at creating cuts and hard to spot in a boxing match. Here's Lyoto Machida landing a legal one on Chris Weidman last weekend.

They say that the best ones can box their way through most bouts, but when they have to they can fight. Willie Pep was not known for his fight—he had brittle hands, rarely knocked anyone out, and was far more of an artist than a finisher. But in against Saddler, knowing it was his last chance to show that he could beat his rival, Pep showed a kind of venom on his punches which he had never shown up to that point.

Pep stiff arms Saddler's chest to prevent Saddler from stepping in, then lands a crisp 1-2, angles off to his left side and comes in with a southpaw left hook. Just beautiful work.

Pep had a whole bag of tricks which you won't see modern boxers use—such as that southpaw left straight we spoke about earlier. One of the nicer ones against an aggressive fighter was a long right uppercut as his opponent came towards him. Pep routinely found the mark with this against Saddler and it was certainly one of his harder punches.

But Saddler, in addition to having a head like a cinder block, was smart to Pep's game. He'd been in with Pep through three fights already, that's a masters degree in boxing however you look at it. In between taking series of five or six hard punches on the dome and just walking through them, Saddler would make Pep miss, tie him up, and start hitting from the clinch.

Saddler feints, Pep misses his counter right uppercut, and Saddler cracks him in the kidney (an illegal blow) with a left hook. Saddler follows Pep to the ropes and gets in some more good shots.

Saddler's dirty infighting made Pep turn dirty to get away from it. Where the cross face, with the forearm in front of the opponent's neck or face, is permissable in boxing, using the heel of the palm (sometimes known as heeling) is not.

Lennox Lewis famously heeled Frank Bruno as he desperately tried to finish.

Pep repeatedly thrust his palm into Saddler's face as he desperately tried to create room to move and to work.

Pep palm heels Saddler.

The bout rapidly descended into a street fight. Saddler began cranking on the overhook in every clinch—remembering that it was a shoulder separation which took place in one of these clinches which forced Pep to retire from their previous bout.

You will remember this overhook Americana from Jones versus Teixeira and Tyson versus Botha.

In retaliation, Pep began tripping Saddler. Then Saddler got behind Pep and started punching from the back. The two consistently refused to separate at the referee's instructions, and at one point the referee was thrown to the floor. It will come as no surprise that after this bout both Pep and Saddler had their boxing licenses suspended indefinitely (though with both being such fan favourites this didn't last long).

Saddler continued, throughout the bout, to have difficulty cornering Pep. Against a boxer with excellent ring craft, swinging as they circle out just doesn’t work. Every time Pep circled, Saddler tried to greet him with a hook, and Pep ducked clean under it.

Against an elite out fighter, it is almost always best to cut them off with a body hook because, while your head can change levels, there is no removing the body from the line of fire along the ropes. Once Saddler began to use body hooks more liberally, he found himself with Pep against the ropes more and more often.

If some of these body shots happened to go low, Saddler wouldn't complain.

At the end of the ninth round, the fighters returned to their corners and the doctor hurriedly inspected Pep's eye. His right eye had been cut open by Saddler's constant barrage of lefts in the second round, and since then it had only been getting worse. Pep couldn't see out of one side, the only side which Saddler really threw any offence, being a converted southpaw, and was forced to concede defeat.

It is sad that we all remember Willie Pep so fondly but Sandy Saddler is almost unheard of outside of the hardcore boxing fan base. The man was not only able to beat Pep three times in four fights, he gave George Foreman the framework for becoming one of the most terrifying heavyweights in history. His knockout ratio is unparalleled at featherweight and he is ranked number five on Ring magazine's top one hundred punchers of all time.

Of course, the complaint is that Saddler was a dirty fighter, but that alone does not win fights. For every rough house boxer who becomes truly world class like Saddler, Evander Holyfield, Eusebio Pedroza, or Bernard Hopkins, there are a thousand who utterly fail. Dirty tactics will not carry you over the cleanest boxers alone—they just give a nasty edge to those fighters who are already elite talents but have no scruples about doing anything to win.

Pick up Jack Slack's new ebook, Fighting Karate at his blog Fights Gone ByJack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


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