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Pep's Name Should Grace Front Street

March 8, 2006
Commentary By Stan Simpson

The gravelly voice on the end of the phone line belonged to Angelo Fuggetta. The 86-year-old Hartford native described himself a few weeks back as a "dear friend" of Guglielmo Papaleo.

Papaleo is better known as Willie Pep. In his prime in the 1940s Pep was considered one of the greatest prizefighters on the planet. To this day, many boxing aficionados rank the colorful featherweight as pound-for-pound the best fighter who ever lived.

Pep was reared in Hartford and was a regular on Front Street, the once bustling Italian enclave where he could be seen shining shoes, playing dice, shooting craps or patronizing the plethora of pushcarts selling Italian wares.

The street is now the unpolished gem of the Adriaen's Landing downtown development. Fuggetta, once a Front Street guy himself, proposes renaming it "Willie Pep Boulevard."

"It would be a tribute," Fuggetta said. "He was one of the greatest boxers that ever lived. And I think it would be wonderful thing for Adriaen's Landing when they get it all done."

Yup. Near the new science center under construction, homage to the man proclaimed king of the Sweet Science. As a former boxing writer, I thought Fuggetta's idea was a knockout.

Pep's name would reclaim the street's Italian heritage and give a new identity to the Front Street development, which is actually seeking a name change to attract new business and conventioneers. Certainly the name Willie Pep would add star and historical appeal to the emerging convention scene.

This weekend's passing of the gregarious and legendary amateur fight trainer Johnny Duke reminded me not to forget about Fuggetta's call. I visited him Tuesday at his Wethersfield condominium, where he showed me pictures of Pep and reminisced about Duke. "I loved Johnny. He was great for the city," Fuggetta said. "He was so good to so many kids."

Duke and Pep ran the streets of Hartford together as kids in the 1930s. One became a mediocre professional fighter, who as an acclaimed amateur fight trainer steered hundreds of city kids from the streets. The other guy became the two-time featherweight champion of the world.

Duke's wake was Tuesday. His funeral is today. Pep, 83, struggles with Alzheimer's at a Rocky Hill nursing home.

As a major sport, boxing is on its back these days. Connecticut has a rich fight history that should not be forgotten - especially as some of the old warriors, like Duke, die off.

The state produced seven world champions - featherweight Louis "Kid" Kaplan and light heavyweight Jack Delaney in the 1920s; featherweight Christopher "Bat" Battalino, middleweight Lou Brouillard and light heavyweight "Slapsie" Maxie Rosenbloom in the 1930s; Pep in the 1940s; and Marlon "Moochie" Starling in the late 1980s.

In December, the fledgling Connecticut Boxing Hall of Fame held its inaugural awards dinner at Mohegan Sun. Several hundred watched some of the past champs, and Duke, get honored as first-time inductees.

The Hall of Fame is looking for a venue. The casinos have interest. Maybe Willie Pep Boulevard could serve as the appetizer for out-of-towners who want to gamble and learn a bit about Connecticut's pugilistic contributions.

The presence of Bristol-based ESPN, in some fashion, has been mentioned as a potential Front Street attraction. With its weekly fight nights, maybe the network could partner with the Hall of Fame to establish a boxing museum on Pep Boulevard. The venue could feature other folks like Duke, Starling and Battalino.

"It could be a real landmark for the city," said Pep attorney Michael A. Georgetti. . "The name Front Street, for a lot of Italian elderly people, it means something to them. But I think Willie Pep means more to them because he was the hero of Front Street."

Manuel Leibert, a past president and co-founder of the defunct Connecticut Boxing Guild, is 93. He is one the state's premier boxing historians and laments the lack of interest in the sport these days.

The passing of Duke and the deterioration of Pep remind us of the significant boxing lore here worth preserving.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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