In boxing's annals the amazing Willie Pep holds many records, such as being the only two-time featherweight champion ever brought up before Judge Abe Ribicoff of Hartford, Connecticut 11 times on crap-shooting charges. At Boston Garden last week, the night after his 36th birthday, Willie was fighting his 229th professional bout, which gave him a large edge over the previous distance champion, Freddie Miller, featherweight titleholder of the '30s who had engaged in an even 200 battles. Willie had, furthermore, won 219 of these fights, and that easily made him the winningest featherweight titlist ever.
His opponent was the equally distinguished Hogan (Kid) Bassey of Nigeria, featherweight champion of the world who this year made the Queen's Honours List as an M.B.E., a rank generally reserved for authors, ornithologists and cricketers.
It was an over-the-weight, non-title match, but to Willie it spelled a chance at a real title shot later and a possible $50,000 purse, a sum that for him would represent brief prosperity, something that three wives and a thousand losing horses had hitherto cost him.
For six rounds it looked as if Willie just might make it. He was again the twinkle-toed Willie the Wisp of old, master of subtlety and deviousness, tying up his squat but sleek-muscled opponent whenever Bassey looked dangerous, which was often, and making him, indeed, seem so absurd that the crowd guffawed as Bassey plunged across the ring when Willie sidestepped, or when he missed Willie with a hook and clipped Referee Jimmy McCarron on the chin. It was a wonderful night for Pep lovers, and there were 10,000 of them in the Garden, shrieking in delight at each graceful move of the magnificent Pep legs, marveling at each slip and parry, crowing every time Willie fired a short burst of combination punches. These bursts generally came in the closing 30 seconds of a round as Willie, arms locked about the furiously struggling Bassey, coldly looked up at the clock and calculated how much time and energy he had left. He stole a few rounds by this device and toward the end of the fight was ahead on the scorecards of the two judges.
September 28, 1958
But the end of the fight was conclusively against Willie. At the close of the seventh round he was caught by a long, looping right hand, precursor of more to come. It was the sort of punch he would have avoided easily in earlier rounds and other days.
He got hit by two more at the start of the eighth, and got caught again at the end of the round, which went on for several seconds after the bell as Bassey, by this time a black panther tantalized into rage, completely forgot the good manners expected of a man on the Honours List.
The same big Bassey right hand was the first punch of the ninth round. Willie went down, then squatted thoughtfully for an eight count. He was scarcely up when Bassey was on him again, again threw the right, and again Willie Pep went down. He fell backward through the ropes. The back of his head crashed against the thin padding on the ring apron. One wondered why his skull wasn't fractured.
"God was with us," said Manager Lou Viscusi, portly manager of Lightweight Champion Joe Brown, too, but proudest of his long association with Pep. "He wasn't hurt." Though Willie was up a split second before 10, Referee McCarron stopped the fight at 42 seconds. No one complained.
This may well be the end of the trail for Willie, who collected $7,700 for his share of the night's work, Bassey $11,600.
Starting in October, though, there will be some monthly solace for Willie. Years ago, Manager Viscusi secretly bought a small annuity. It starts paying off next month—a pittance to a man who likes blondes in convertibles and race horses, but the only regular income he has ever had. He will need it. The day of the big purse is over for Willie.