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, 2008By Don Stradley | Special to ESPN.com
Getty 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?"
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.
Joseph Scherschel/Getty ImagesYears after retiring from the ring, Pep carried a newspaper article about his 1946 fight with Jackie Graves.
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