3. Sandy Saddler vs. Willie Pep – Oct. 29, 1948 to Sept. 26, 1951
The Pep-Saddler series may be the most famous tetralogy of all, not only because of the combatants’ individual excellence but also for the unexpected savagery that ensued. The word “unexpected” applies because one would have thought that history’s purest boxer and one of its greatest knockout artists would have created wonderfully aesthetic competition. But for whatever reason, it didn’t turn out that way, especially in the final two fights.
Entering their first match Pep was the 5-to-2 betting favorite based on his nearly six-year title reign, his 73-bout unbeaten streak and his incredible 134-1-1 record. But Saddler (85-6-2, 56) was on a three-fight KO streak and, to the world’s shock, he extended that streak to four against the “Will O’ The Wisp.” Two knockdowns in round three was followed by another in the fourth and just like that, the world had a new featherweight champion.
The shocking nature of fight one – and the feebleness of Pep’s effort – was such that some thought the result was fixed. Those who thought the affair was above board believed one of two things; either Pep was still affected by the injuries suffered after his near-fatal plane crash or that he was a waning force.
Saddler entered the rematch a 6-to-5 favorite but came out of it as an ex-champ thanks to perhaps the most brilliant boxing display Pep ever produced. But it wasn’t easy, for Pep had to survive multiple cuts, physical and mental exhaustion, Saddler’s powerful flurries and a final-round thrust that had Pep reeling. In the end Pep had his revenge and the bout was deemed THE RING’s Fight of the Year for 1949.
Pep appeared poised to repeat his brilliance in fight three in September 1950 as his craft, guile and skill enabled him to forge solid leads on all three scorecards after seven rounds (5-2, 5-2 and 4-2-1). Saddler’s only real success was a knockdown in round three but he continued to work hard, especially in the clinches. One such episode in the trenches dislocated Pep’s shoulder and forced him to surrender on his stool before round eight.
All of the frustration and fury caused by the first three bouts bubbled over in fight four. The ugliness was persistent and palpable and, at one point, comical. As referee Ray Miller tried to separate yet another clinch, he was swallowed up by the tangle and all three men fell to the floor. Pep was slightly ahead after eight rounds (5-4 and 8-6 while trailing 5-4 on the third) but a horribly swollen and cut eye persuaded Pep not to come out for round nine, ensuring Saddler a 3-1 series win.
The repercussions of the Pep-Saddler foul-fest were severe: Pep’s license was revoked in New York while Saddler was suspended. Both of their careers continued and Pep eventually returned to Madison Square Garden 18 fights later in June 1953. The memories of their quartet of battles, however, live on forever.