Commentary

Could Pep have won a round without landing a single punch?

In his illustrious career, Willie Pep had 229 career wins, boxed 1,956 rounds and won the featherweight championship twice. Why, then, did Pep want to be remembered more than anything for winning a round -- without landing a punch?

Originally Published: August 6, 2008
By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com

Willie PepGetty ImagesIs it possible that Willie Pep was so defensively adept, he could win a round without landing a punch?
In Willie Pep's later years, he was known to carry a folded newspaper article in his wallet. The article was about his 1946 fight with Jackie Graves, the one in which Pep allegedly won a round without throwing a punch.

When young reporters sought him out, Pep would produce the article and say, "That's all you need to know about me." Then he'd jam the article back in with the family photos, horse tips and credit cards.

Pep had 229 career wins, boxed 1,956 rounds, won the featherweight championship twice and generally is regarded as one of boxing's best fighters. Yet, Pep wanted to be known for something most boxing people considered a myth.

Some skeptics have alleged that the newspaper article was actually typed by Pep himself; others say it was a copy of a story written by the man responsible for creating the myth, St. Paul sports writer Don Riley.

Riley had been assigned to cover the Pep-Graves fight for Minneapolis radio station WMIN. Before the bout, Riley visited Pep's training camp at Nicollet Park, hoping to soak up some prefight atmosphere.

"Hey, Willie," Riley said. "What round will you knock Graves out?"

Willie Pep
Joseph Scherschel/Getty ImagesYears after retiring from the ring, Pep carried a newspaper article about his 1946 fight with Jackie Graves.
Pep laughed. "If he starts hurting me, I'll have to get him out of there. But I never try to knock guys out because it busts up my hands."

Pep fought almost every week in the 1940s. A hand injury meant a missed payday. Pep wondered aloud whether a fighter with "busted-up" hands could fake well enough to fool the judges and the spectators.

"Pick a round," Pep said. "I'll throw punches, but I'll never hit him. Check the scorecards after, and see if the judges fall for it."

Riley picked the third.

The fight itself shook the walls of the Minneapolis Auditorium. Graves sent Pep to the canvas twice; Pep dropped Graves nine times, winning by a TKO in the eighth round.

The third round, though, has been a point of contention for years. Riley insists that Pep swept the scorecards without making any contact.

"It was an amazing display of defensive boxing skill so adroit, so cunning, so subtle that the roaring crowd did not notice Pep's tactics were completely without offense," Riley would write many years later.

Even skeptics agreed that if anyone could pull off such a stunt, it would be Pep.

In 2003, the tale began to split at the seams. CyberBoxingZone.com published a story on Graves by Minnesota writer Jake Wegner that included a reprint of the original ringside report filed by Joe Hennessy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Of special interest was Hennessy's description of the third round.

"A clicker couldn't count the blows," Hennessy wrote. "Pep punched Jack into the ropes as the most even round of the evening ended."

Wegner's find seemed to prove that Riley's story was a fable. Still, not everyone buys Hennessy's report.

Instead of saying Pep won a round without throwing a punch, say he won a round without landing one. There's a difference. Besides, sports writers in those days wrote whatever the hell they wanted.

-- Bert Sugar, on why he puts more credence in Pep's take on the fight

"I give Willie Pep the benefit of the doubt," said Bert Sugar, suggesting that a legend can be as fragile as the language that preserves it.

"Instead of saying Pep won a round without throwing a punch, say he won a round without landing one. There's a difference," Sugar said. "Besides, sports writers in those days wrote whatever the hell they wanted."

Fight coverage could be slipshod in 1946. For instance, the UPI report of the bout had Graves knocking Pep down four times, but other reports have Pep down twice. Meanwhile, The Associated Press' account of the fight does not mention Graves knocking Pep down at all.

With such uneven coverage, can Hennessy's report be accepted as gospel? Riley quickly dismissed Hennessy as a competent witness under the circumstances.

"Joe Hennessy was a beautiful guy, but if you weren't clued in, you wouldn't realize Pep's punches were all feints," Riley said.

Hennessy, who died a few years ago, eventually was fired by the Pioneer Press for being, among other things, unreliable.

"He eventually became an outstanding editor at the Star," Riley said. "But in '46, he was not at his best."

"He was the typical reporter from that era," recalled Ron Schara, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I remember him with his bowtie and a cigar, banging the keys, pressured by deadlines. He came from the old school where the quality of a story varied depending on the number of cocktails he'd had. Joe had his share of those. By the time I knew him his drinking days were long over, but he'd had quite a colorful past."

Not everyone takes Riley's word as gospel either, however.

"Riley gives a different version of the story every time he tells it," Wegner said. "He gets testy if you push him. Sometimes he just cackles and says, 'Who can remember?"

One of the earliest printed references to the third round and what supposedly happened was in May 1970 when Pep was interviewed by author Peter Heller.

"I jabbed him a few times, but most of the round, I was bobbing and weaving and making him miss," Pep said in that interview.

Pep's words -- "I jabbed him a few times" -- are revealing. Could he have been feinting with those jabs?

"He'd [Pep] spin him around, maybe slap his ears, and then he'd be gone," Riley told ESPN.com. "After the fight, Willie said to me, 'Hey, didn't I do a good job in the third round? I didn't hit your buddy.' Of course, I was looking for it, so I knew what I was seeing. I couldn't say anything over the air, but if you heard the broadcast, I think I said, 'Pep did no damage in that round.'"

When asked why he didn't mention Pep's pantomime right away, Riley said, "I was busy writing and doing broadcasts. It just slipped my mind."

A popular theory among St. Paul's fight scene is that Pep and Riley concocted the story together. Because there was no footage of the fight, it would be their word against everyone else's.

"Why would I make up a story?" Riley said in his defense. "What would I have to gain? I covered 36 fights, and Pep left a big impression on me. That's all."

Riley believes the story got out in 1968.

"We had a reunion breakfast at the Hilton hotel," Riley said. "Jackie [Graves] and Willie were there. I reminded Willie of the third round. Jackie didn't know what we were talking about, so we told him. Jackie said, 'Willie, if you could win a round without landing a punch, why didn't you do that for the entire fight? You could've won going away, without beating the hell out of me!'"

The story gathered momentum, culminating when acclaimed boxing writer Red Smith recounted it in a 1975 New York Times column. According to Riley, "Willie promoted it some himself."

Wegner told ESPN.com, "I like Riley, but I don't believe Riley. You don't keep a story like that on the back burner for 25 years." Wegner has discussed Riley's story with more than a dozen eyewitnesses. "They all say it's a crock. Maybe Riley and Pep had a conversation before the fight, but by all accounts, Pep was fighting in the third round, not hiding behind the referee."

Wegner's arguments sound valid. But Riley sounds convincing, too.

Could they both be right?

There is a possibility that Pep did turn the trick but did so against another fighter. Pep fought in Minneapolis three times in 1946. Along with beating Graves, he won easy decisions over journeymen Paulie Jackson and Jimmy Joyce.

"I remember winning a round without throwing a punch. I did do that, I think, to Jackie Graves," Pep said during the 1970 Heller interview in which he sounded unsure that Graves was the opponent.

Perhaps as Riley and Pep reminisced, they mistakenly attached Graves' name to the story. It's not unusual for fighters -- and writers -- to confuse names. Graves always held Pep in high regard, but when he was interviewed in 2003, he remembered very little about the fight.

By the 1970s and '80s, Pep was under fire because of his gambling habit.

A Willie Pep biopic starring teen idol Frankie Avalon was discussed, but it never happened. A book Pep wrote didn't sell. He married a sixth time. For a while, he acted as Connecticut's deputy boxing commissioner, and he eventually did well on the personal appearance circuit, earning money just by being Willie Pep.

But whether he was telling jokes to a gathering of fans, or standing before a judge and jury, the myth of the Graves fight remained in Pep's wallet, never too far out of reach.

Don Stradley is a regular contributor to The Ring.