Sports

Willie Pep Survived a Plane Crash and Went on to Cement His Boxing Legacy

Comebacks are nothing new in boxing. Some of the sport’s greatest moments are built on a dramatic, flashy return to the ring. Ali, Foreman, Hopkins, and Tyson all had polarizing late-career comebacks. There’s one name, however, that doesn’t get put on that list as often as it should: Willie Pep. 

Willie Pep’s early boxing career

Boxer Willie Pep wins a fight in 1900
Boxer Willie Pep wins a fight in 1900 | Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

When you think of incredible records and unsung heroes, Pep’s name comes to the mind of most boxing aficionados. With the real name Guglielmo Papaleo, the two-time featherweight champion got his start as an amateur near the end of the Great Depression. He fought in gyms, basements, and attics in his home state of Connecticut. There, it was legal to make money fighting at the time. 

Pep made his professional debut in 1940 and continued actively fighting until 1964. At the end of his prolific career, his record stood at 241 wins, 11 losses, and one draw. 

Pep’s style was fast and defensive, an early precursor to the mobile style of famous fighters like Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Because the small fighter was so hard to hit, he was nicknamed “Will-o-the-wisp.” One of Pep’s most impressive stats, aside from his amount of wins relative to his sheer volume of fights, was his win record. In fact, leading up to 1947, the most pivotal year in his career, Pep’s record stood at 109-1-1. Then came the crash. 

A temporary setback

In 1947, at the height of his career, the indomitable featherweight was flying from Miami to Hartford, Connecticut, when the plane went down in New Jersey. Many of the passengers were killed in the accident, but Pep somehow lived.

While his survival was nothing short of miraculous, the plane crash left him badly injured. Pep spent five months in a full-body cast with two broken vertebrae, a compound fracture in his leg, and severe chest trauma. Doctors told him that he’d likely never walk again let alone step into the ring. Not one to disappoint, Pep proved them all wrong. 

The greatest comeback in sports history

Five months after the plane crash, Pep returned to the ring with a vengeance. He went on a monstrous 73-win streak before finally losing. That loss, however, set up the biggest rivalry of his career — against Sandy Saddler.

The years between 1947 and 1960 were busier than ever for the slippery fighter. Although the pain from his injuries continued to plague him, he never let it affect his performance in the ring. Pep and his arch-rival met meet three more times before Pep retired. This filled his comeback with drama and tension. 

Each fight got progressively nastier and nastier. Pep only won one of he and Saddler’s four contests. But their last meeting was filled with controversy and poor sportsmanship. Referee Ray Miller took a hands-off approach to the fight. By the end of the bout, both men were wrestling each other on the mat and gouging at each other’s eye. Finally, a cut above Pep’s eye ended the fight. 

Even though Pep couldn’t overcome Saddler, he is still remembered as one of the greatest boxers if not the greatest featherweight ever. In 1990, Pep entered the boxing hall of fame. In 2005, the Associated Press named him the No. 1 featherweight fighter of all time. It was a fitting end to one of the most amazing careers in boxing history.