Today in 1942, Connecticut boxer Willie Pep began his meteoric rise to stardom when he when he knocked out featherweight Frankie Franceroni of New Jersey just two minutes into the first round, shocking a crowd of thousands at Madison Square Garden. Just two months and five more wins later, the twenty-year-old Pep became the World Featherweight Champion, having boxed 52 straight rounds without suffering a single defeat.
Born in Middletown in 1922 as Guglielmo Papaleo and raised in the “Little Italy” neighborhood of south Hartford, Willie began fighting as an amateur in his teens to make some extra money for his family during the Great Depression. He fought his first match as a professional in 1940 at the age of 18, and became a household name — and a hero to Italian-Americans across the country — after winning his first world championship in 1942, with many of his bouts aired live over the radio. Willie Pep was one of the most prolific boxers of his time, fighting nearly 2,000 rounds in his 26 year career, and winning 229 out of a total 241 fights (65 of them by knockout).
Willie Pep remains one of the greatest boxers in American history: he was named the greatest featherweight of the century and the fifth greatest boxer of the century by the Associated Press in 1999, and greatest featherweight of all time by The Ring magazine in 1994. Pep was inducted into The Ring’s Boxing Hall of Fame in 1963, and was a member of the 1990 inaugural class of the International Boxing Hall of Fame. After formally retiring from boxing, Pep remained active in the sport as a referee and inspector. He spent his final years living in Wethersfield and Rocky Hill before dying from complications from dementia pugilistica (better known today as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE) in 2006.
Mike Anthony, “Pep Bashed Boxers, Lee Punched Out Copy In Hartford’s Heyday,” Hartford Courant
Tris Dixon, “Willie Pep, Defensive Genius, Born in 1922,” Boxing News
Joe Duffy, “Willie Pep: Willie ‘Pepped Up’ Our Friday Nights,” Wethersfield Historical Society
“In This Corner: Willie Pep,” ESPN Classic highlight reel