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Coffin: Boxing Story

When boxing was supreme, no athletic event, even the World Series, was bigger than a championship fight.

My father was a boxing fan, and he taught me how to lead with my left and keep my guard up. We listened to the big fights, like Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, Sugar Ray Robinson and Carmen Basilio. Ears pressed to the radio, the thud of the heavy blows could almost be felt across the airwaves.

When an uncle gave me and my twin brother boxing gloves, I thought my mother might knock HIM out.

They called boxing the sweet science, and Poppa admired its great practitioners. He’d seen fights in his Boston days and came to appreciate not the sluggers, but the bob-and-weave, duck-and-jab artists who often won fights not on knockouts, but judges’ points.

He always said the greatest of all, pound for pound, was Sugar Ray Robinson. Lightning fast, graceful and ever elusive, with a dynamite punch that came out of nowhere, Sugar Ray could win on points, or with a sudden bolt-of-lightning lights-out punch.

But my father’s favorite was a little tough guy born Guglielmo Papaleo, with the boxing name of Willie Pep. A featherweight at about 125 pounds, Pep was blazing fast of foot and fists, with a shivering punch. They called him Will of the Wisp, and he went into the ring 240 times, winning all but 11. One of his last fights happened in Bennington.

One night in the eighties, I bellied up to a bar near the Hartford, Connecticut Civic Center and found myself facing a display of signed boxers’ photos. The bartender told me a lot of fights used to take place in Hartford, and this bar was where the fans, and the fighters, hung out.

He asked me I if had a favorite fighter.

“Willie Pep,” I said.

“You’re sitting right beside him,” said the bartender.

I looked left and down at a little man with thinning hair, a pug nose, and ears beat into cauliflowers.

“You’re Willie Pepp?” I asked, in wonder.

“That’s me,” he said.

I told him my father was a great fan of his, thought him one of the best ever.

“I was pretty good,” he said.

I asked for an autograph, the bartender produced a card, and Willie obligingly signed. I still have it.

I thanked him profusely, then inquired, “So Mr. Pepp, how are you doing?”

“Well, I lost my punch years ago,” he said, “but I can’t complain. You know, pal, I got a wife and a color TV, and they’re both workin’.”

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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