1. Willie Pep: 229-11-1 (65) – .270 knockout percentage
The question must be asked: How can a guy with more knockouts that today’s fighters have fights get on this list, much less top it? The answer: When most people are asked to rate the best light hitters in boxing history, the first name that comes up is Pep’s – and for good reason.
Pep’s knockouts often were the result of a chasm in class rather than a pyrotechnic display. He simply was that much better than most of his opponents and in that circumstance early wins were almost inevitable.
Most of the time Pep was the ultimate hit-and-run artist. Most of his 1,955 rounds followed a similar pattern: Move, duck, slip, set, score, escape, reset and repeat. Pep was a perpetual motion machine and he executed his moves with such dexterity and style that it was almost hypnotic. The secret of Pep’s greatness – and another reason why he tops this list – is because this formula not only worked wonders at home, he piled up an astonishing 81 decision wins outside his native New England. When one has the power of a pea-shooter, that’s quite a feat.
Pep is the only fighter in history to record not one, but two unbeaten streaks of 60 fights or more. He began his career with 62 straight wins, then, after losing a 10-round non-title fight against reigning lightweight champion Sammy Angott, Pep went unbeaten in his next 73, drawing just once. The 17th fight of the latter streak saw the 20-year old Pep become the youngest man ever to win the featherweight championship by out-pointing Chalky Wright and it wasn’t until Pep recorded six defenses in four years and survived a plane crash before he lost again. That loss was a fourth round knockout to Sandy Saddler, a fight that sparked a tetrology for the ages.
Pep’s only win in the series – a title-regaining 15-round decision – was deemed THE RING’s 1949 Fight of the Year and remains among the greatest displays of pure boxing ever seen. His ability to outsmart opponents endured until his 40s, when he launched a nine-fight comeback in 1965 and 1966 just because he felt he could.
Besides Wright (who he defeated four times) and Saddler, Pep’s most notable wins came against Joey Archibald (twice), Sal Bartolo (three times), Manuel Ortiz, Phil Terranova, Teddy Davis (three times), Paddy DeMarco, Harold Dade and Ray Famechon.
For these 10 “singles hitters,” it didn’t matter how they won just as long as they won. They amplified their strengths to the utmost degree while minimizing their most obvious weakness. Because they knew who they were, and were comfortable with it, they made the most of their gifts. And that’s about as much as we can ask from a fighter.
Photos / THE RING, Alexander Hassenstein-Bongarts (Ottke)
Lee Groves is a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including four in the last two years. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics. To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org arrange for autographed copies.