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
"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
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
"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.
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