Sandy Saddler: Devilishly Dangerous

By Mike Casey on July 10, 2012
Sandy Saddler: Devilishly Dangerous
A fight to Saddler was a battle of survival in which a man needed every edge he could get.

He was the ugly duckling of the game, the powerful and sometimes ungainly brute who gatecrashed the party and kicked sand in everyone’s face…

It is virtually certain that Joe “Sandy” Saddler was too worldly and intelligent a man to expect the boxing world to come and pay him homage when he concluded his wonderful career.

Saddler had long been aware of the general perception of him. He was the ugly duckling of the game, the powerful and sometimes ungainly brute who gatecrashed the party and kicked sand in everyone’s face. His formidable ring achievements were too graphically emphatic to ever be denied, but they were greeted with that strangely muted reaction that comes from grudging admiration. His face didn’t fit, his style didn’t obligingly slot into any one category.

Saddler, the tall and almost skeletal man from Boston, had won in all parts of the world and defeated the champions of seven different countries. As well as campaigning in his homeland, his tireless pursuit of the featherweight championship took him to Cuba, Panama, the Philippines, Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Venezuela and Argentina. Sandy had beaten the great Willie Pep in three of their four epic meetings and notched 145 wins in 163 fights. Yet charisma and popularity, those two most precious and winning of attributes, had never wrapped their arms around Sandy and carried him to the hearts of the boxing fraternity.

The fans preferred to talk about the phenomenon that was Sugar Ray Robinson or the perpetual punching machine that was Henry Armstrong. Sugar Ray could do it all and had everyone in raptures. Young and old people alike couldn’t say enough about the Harlem Flash, who possessed gifts that were not normally accorded to mere mortals. Old-timers from the era of the great Joe Gans were hailing Robinson as the most complete and sensational fighter who had ever graced the stage.

The fans loved Armstrong because they have always loved a fighter who keeps punching to the end. Homicide Hank was a tornado of a man who could blow everything from his path on his best night. Like Sugar Ray, Armstrong was easy on the eye and a thrilling jolt to the heart. When Henry was through, he had 100 knockouts on his slate and everybody loved to talk about that magical figure. They didn’t talk too much about Sandy Saddler’s 103.

But then Sandy wasn’t easy on the eye and was rarely thrilling. He was just a rock hard man with all the necessary tools who got the job done anyway he had to. If he couldn’t knock out opponents with the fists that carried power in equal abundance, he would outscore and out-hustle them with skill and cunning. He had other weapons in his well stocked armory too, straight from the Harry Greb box of tricks and the Fritzie Zivic school of artful violence. A fight to Saddler was a battle of survival in which a man needed every edge he could get for himself. If that meant a spot of wrestling and thumbing, not to mention the occasional back-hander, so be it.

Everything about Sandy looked tough and hard. Towering and lean, his skin was stretched taut over his frame like latex. He often resembled a bird of prey when he was on the hunt, hovering menacingly as he assessed his target before swooping with the next two-fisted attack. To the hurt and reeling opponent under fire, Saddler must have seemed all arms and gloves, all elbows and sharp bones.

As if to confirm his role as boxing’s villainous misfit, fate decreed that Sandy’s greatest opponent would be the sublime boxer of the age in Willie Pep, the genius who made world-class men look inadequate with his innate and unmatchable skills. Pep breezed past them all until he stumbled into Saddler’s quirky minefield.

Starting blocks

Saddler got out of the starting blocks fast when he turned professional just before his eighteenth birthday in 1944, fighting frequently and quickly establishing himself as a comer. His character was tested in only his second fight, when he suffered the lone knockout of his career to the dangerous Jock Leslie. Sandy was counted out in the third round at the Hartford Auditorium in Connecticut, yet there was no period of recuperation or reassessment. He was plying his trade in what was arguably boxing’s most competitive era, when young prospects looking to get a foothold on the ladder simply couldn’t afford the luxury of long layoffs and self-analysis. It seems incredible to us now that Saddler packed twenty-two fights into his first professional year after starting in March. He went 20-2 with a third round knockout of Midget Mayo on December 26 and was on his way.

In 1946, Saddler dropped a ten rounds decision to former NBA champion Phil Terranova, but then Sandy began to claim some significant scalps as he moved inexorably towards his celebrated quartet of fights with Pep. Travelling down to New Orleans, Saddler stopped future lightweight champ Joe Brown in three rounds. Sandy fought a draw with Jimmy Carter and then decisioned Orlando Zulueta at the Sports Palace in Havana.

Sandy suffered a points reverse to Chico Rosa in Honolulu, but came into his first fight with Pep on the back of three successive knockouts over Kid Zefine, Aquilino Allen and Willie Roache. As he prepared for Pep, Saddler had a shrewd and valuable ally in his training camp in Archie Moore. The Old Mongoose was still awaiting his own shot at world championship glory, but had already amassed a treasure trove of boxing knowledge.

Always frank and fair in his appraisal of other fighters, Archie didn’t kid Saddler about the toughness of his assignment. Moore acknowledged that Pep was one of the fastest and cleverest ring mechanics in the game, but pointed out the oft-forgotten fact of life that the very best are still beatable. Archie reminded Saddler that he was the one who carried the big punch and urged him to jump on Willie early and stay on him with intelligent pressure. Moore sparred with Saddler, handing out tips on the art of slipping and blocking and always looking for any significant chinks in his friend’s armor that the wily Pep might exploit.

Sandy was a willing student, having dedicated his life to the toughest sport of all. He didn’t smoke or drink or place any unnecessary stress on his body. Even in the ring, he was always looking to protect himself as best he could and was grateful for Moore’s extensive lessons in how to tuck up under fire and present the smallest possible target.

Saddler was ready for Pep by the time they climbed into the Madison Square Garden ring on the night of October 29, 1948. Following Archie Moore’s advice to perfection, Sandy stayed tight to Willie, negating the boxing master’s need to move and gain sufficient leverage for his famously accurate punches. The result of that fight stunned the boxing world. Willie Pep, the great untouchable, was knocked out in the fourth round. Genuinely knocked out. As Saddler always liked to put it, “I knocked him stoned.”

Nor was the sensational ending a one-punch fluke. Saddler had served notice of the imminent execution by flooring Pep twice in the third round before putting him down for the count in the fourth. The damage was there for all to see on Pep’s face, his right eye closed and his nose bleeding.

My father has often told me of how the result of that fight shot around the world and induced utter disbelief in many. “It was hard to grasp the reality of it,” he said. “Pep had only lost once in 135 fights before that, a streak that hasn’t been equalled since. It seemed that nobody could even get near him, never mind knock him out. And Willie could punch too. He wasn’t just a fancy Dan.”

Top

Sandy Saddler was at the top of his game and eager to prove that he was a worthy champion. Less than a month later, he gave another brutal exhibition of his power in a non-title match against Tomas Beato at the Bridgeport Armory. Decking Beato three times in the opening round, Sandy stopped his man in the second with a nose-breaking left hook.

When Saddler hooked up with Pep again at the Garden in February 1949, the enthusiastic crowd was witness to the final true masterpiece of Willie’s fabulous career. Sandy’s crowding reaped little reward on that occasion as Pep boxed beautifully to win a unanimous decision by round scores of 10-5, 9-5-1 and 9-6.

Years later in his retirement, Saddler would talk admiringly of Pep’s astonishing skills and how he could turn an opponent in the blink of an eye. Much as he admired Willie, however, Sandy wouldn’t let him go away. Nineteen months would pass before their rubber match at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx in September 1950, but Saddler kept himself firmly in Pep’s sights as he reeled off twenty-four straight wins during that time. Sandy took a points verdict from Harold Dade, stopped Paddy DeMarco in nine rounds and then annexed the vacant junior-lightweight title with a split decision over old foe Orlando Zulueta at the Cleveland Arena.

Saddler made a successful defense by halting Lauro Salas in nine rounds at the same venue and went on to best Jesse Underwood, Miguel Acevedo, Johnny Forte and Leroy Willis before renewing his hostilities with Pep.

The third fight with Willie had an unsatisfactory conclusion and failed to settle the question of who was the better man. Pep retired with a shoulder injury at the end of the seventh round, but had come on strong after taking a nine-count in the third to lead by a good margin on all three scorecards. But Sandy felt good about the fight and had the air of a man who knew that the balance of power was swinging his way. He had learned how to beat Pep and kept digging Willie to the head and body with those meaty shots that never seemed quite as destructive as they actually were.

Being world champion again didn’t quench Saddler’s thirst for action. Right to the end, he loved to keep fighting and keep mixing it. Over the next twelve months, he added another fourteen fights to his swelling record and retained his junior-lightweight crown with a second round knockout of Diego Sosa.

Photos

If you enjoy looking through the archives for old fight photos, then go hunting for the famous picture of Willie Pep after his fourth fight with Saddler at the famous old Polo Grounds. You will see one of the all-time great shiners, an absolute peach of a black eye that would have frightened King Kong. Sandy and Willie did just about everything it was legally possible to do in the foul-filled finale of their memorable series.

It was typical of these tough men that they were never really able to see what all the fuss was about. Pep never called Saddler a dirty fighter. Saddler had nothing but praise for Pep’s God-given talent. It just irked Sandy that he was the target of the critics when the talk turned to dirty tactics.

Here is how Saddler saw the third and fourth fights with Pep in a seventies interview with writer, Peter Heller: “The third fight, Pep knew I could punch. He knew that. When I got on top of Pep, when I started to punch him, he would grab my arm. I’m trying to pull my arms away so I can punch him. Now, what was so dirty about that? The man grabbed my arms and I pulled my arms away so I could punch, and he’s holding the other one and I’m banging with one hand. I just got right on top of him, just beat him, not unmercifully, but I just beat him good. Some people say he quit, but I just banged him something terrible. The fourth fight, he was just in there slipping an ducking until I caught up with him.”

Like many fighters looking back, Sandy was a little loose with the truth about these brawls. With both men going at each other hell for leather, the apportioning of blame was virtually pointless. And Pep was doing a lot more than slipping and ducking in that fourth fight, even though Saddler’s heavier artillery finally won the day. Willie’s shiner began to bloom in the second round, when he sustained a bad cut to the right eye and was floored by a Saddler left. But Pep rallied superbly before the end of the session, rocking Sandy with a big right and then potshotting him with thirteen unanswered blows.

The fight was a bizarre cocktail of the bad and the beautiful, as memorable moments of skillful fighting blended with plain old-fashioned barroom brawling. Twice the men wrestled each other to the canvas, in the sixth and eighth rounds. Never forgetting the priceless advice he received from Archie Moore, Sandy kept hustling and bustling Willie, slowly wearing him down with hurtful shots to the head and body.

By the end of the ninth round, Pep was all in. Slumped forward on his stool, he seemed to be looking for someone or something to pump fresh oxygen into his lungs and fresh ambition into his heart. The Polo Grounds began to rumble with the familiar and knowing sound that precedes a fighter’s imminent surrender. There were all sorts of things going on. Even Pep’s handlers didn’t seem to know if Willie was coming out for the tenth, while ructions at ringside were adding to the general confusion. Saddler’s manager, Jimmy Johnston, was up on his feet, claiming that judge Artie Aidala was being influenced in his thinking by Dr. Vincent Nardiello, the boxing commission physician.

Then the sideshow was over and the bit players were suddenly irrelevant. Willie Pep was through. The fight was over and Sandy Saddler was still the world featherweight champion.

Retirement

Between the last fight with Pep and his retirement from an eye injury in 1957, the great Sandy Saddler still had the hunger to engage in twenty-three more contests. He defended his featherweight championship twice more, unanimously outpointing Teddy “Redtop” Davis at Madison Square Garden and stopping Flash Elorde in thirteen rounds at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. But it was an exciting non-title match against big puncher Tommy Collins that underscored Sandy’s reputation as a danger man who could never be written off. Rough and tough he might well have been, but Saddler was not a bully who ran for shelter when the other man starting shelling back.

The fight with Collins took place at the Boston Garden in 1952 and an upset seemed to be in the air when Tommy decked Sandy in the opening round. Collins shook his man again in the third, but Tommy was one of those fragile bangers who didn’t possess the steel and know-how that Saddler had forged over years of tough campaigning. Sandy rolled with the early thunder and then fired back to floor Collins twice in the fifth to force the referee’s intervention.

With retirement came the long waiting game for Sandy Saddler. The wait for acceptance. For better or for worse, Willie Pep had become his strange partner in marriage. It was Pep who was introduced as one of the great featherweight champions whenever he stepped up into the ring to take a bow in guest appearances. It was Saddler who followed him as a polite afterthought.

Saddler admitted to feeling bitter about this on more than one occasion. He liked Pep a lot. The two men remained good friends. It was the Pep Effect that riled Sandy. It was Saddler’s view that he deserved at least equal ranking with his old adversary. Pep’s supporters always countered with the same argument: the plane crash argument.

In January 1947, Willie had suffered serious injuries in an airplane crash, so much so that his boxing career appeared to be over. That was nineteen months before his first fight with Saddler and many contend that Pep was never quite the same brilliant fighter from that point on.

True? The question is near impossible to answer in his case. With most boxers, we would pose the question, “Was he still as good?” Willie was so outrageously exceptional that we need to ask, “Was he still as brilliant?”

Was Sandy Saddler the better man with his 3-1 advantage in those four fights? Which Willie Pep did he beat? Whose achievements were greater over the span of their long and outstanding careers?

Unfortunately, the questions keep coming when we attempt to rank the titans of the game in an all-time perspective. Fighting Harada twice defeated Eder Jofre at the peak of their respective powers, but was Harada the superior bantamweight? Most would surely refute that suggestion.

It sometimes takes decades for the accomplishments of great fighters to be absorbed and properly judged. Wherever Sandy Saddler stands in the pantheon of great featherweights, the one sure fact is that his star continues to slowly rise with the passage of time. Several years ago, The International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) voted Willie Pep the greatest of all featherweights, but there was Saddler suddenly at number two: sneaking up and still pursuing Willie with all his old, devilish verve.

Maybe these two wonderful giants of the ring aren’t finished with each other yet!

MIKE CASEY’S ALL TIME BOXING RANKINGS CAN BE FOUND AT: https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings

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  1. Ted 06:32pm, 01/14/2016

    Here you go Bikermike:

    http://www.boxing.com/a_legacy_vs._91_seconds.html

  2. bikermike 06:03pm, 01/14/2016

    Mike CASEY CONTINUES TO BE ONE OF THE MOST READ ARTICLE AUTHORS OF SEVERAL BOXING SITES..

    It would mean a lot to the boxing fan base….for you….or Ted…or one or two other reputable PHD’s of boxing…to lay some praise…and throw a cupla dozen rose petals…on the path..leading to..and during..Michael Spinks…a true USA ..rags to riches success story…

    Spinks was good…his brother Leon beat an old and fading Ali…but it was Michael who made it into the big time…by defeating tough guys….Ali ..bless his soul…was everything he was before…..except he was no longer tough…his skills were ravished by time…
    He got his rematch with Leon…but Leon went from twenty five bucks a fight to a millionaire…so Ali knew he’d beat him..cuz Leon had the attention span of a moth
    Michael..beat much more focused and really tough men…to get his due

  3. bikermike 05:46pm, 01/14/2016

    ...btw….real men just kept themselves clean…..after a morning..noon and afternoon workout/sparring…..

    They didn’t need incense and oil,,,,,just be clean and fresh clothes..

    As a real man,,,,,doing Viet Nam duties…..they preferred no scent…and no beef /pork/cheese meals…..nor beer…..it made you stink and easy to find

  4. bikermike 05:37pm, 01/14/2016

    Saddler was a tough man..in a tough sport…in a tough time…

    He made his living by dealing with all of these things…without much more than what the good lord blessed him with..

    He was a dedicated athlete…and fought regularly…many times injured..

    Boxing would be less than it is….were it not for Sandy Saddler ...and guys like him.

    Look at the number of times ..and with the constant ..weekly/monthly bouts he fought in…

    Nobody today ....could match Saddler…for tenacity…toughness..dedication to his profession..and ready to rock’n'roll…..as Saddler…and the guys that were around then

    Thanks Mike Casey…...anotheroneouttathe park

  5. Tex Hassler 10:47am, 01/21/2014

    Both Sandy and Willie are gone but will never be duiplicated. They were great fighters and knew their trade.

  6. Gordon Marino 07:15am, 01/10/2014

    You are the long term memory of boxing Mike! I don’t know how you do it. Proud to work alongside of you my friend.

  7. mikecasey 03:16am, 07/14/2012

    Certainly, Norm - flattery will get you everywhere! Thanks pal.

  8. Norm Marcus 09:06am, 07/13/2012

    Great piece on Sandy Saddler. So well researched and put together that it reads like a dissertation for a PhD.  I know the Klitschko brothers have doctorates in Sports Science—this kind of writing deserves one too. Seriously Mike fine job!

    Would it be all right if I start calling you Doctor Casey?

  9. mikecasey 10:51am, 07/12/2012

    Thank you, my friends - much appreciated!

  10. beau jack 10:33am, 07/12/2012

    Great piece as always Mike…As an old fossil myself, I saw Pep at his best before his plane crash in 1947, beating a top lightweight of that time, Allie Stolz, who outweighed Pep by many pounds…Willie was uncanny that night at MSG…A true “Will of the wisp”. I also saw Saddler several times in NY area and he was an elongated and taut rough and ready puncher…I remember the name you brought up Jock Leslie, a blond featherweight puncher who stopped Saddler in Sandy’s third bout…Pep later on stopped a mature Jock Leslie. And Pep beat several fighters who later beat Sandy Saddler, for what it’s worth…I love reading your articles and look forward to more from you…

  11. jofre 10:09am, 07/12/2012

    Terrific article about one of the most dangerous featherweights of all time. I saw him live as a kid, but it was at the end of his career. He was manhandled by lightweight phenom Larry Boardman. But he still looked like he would break Boardman in half if he landed one of his bombs.

  12. McGrain 02:01am, 07/12/2012

    That’s a cracking write up.  Saddler was the very definition of “beast”.  I can see him ranked at #1 at the weight without kicking.

  13. Gajjers 12:32am, 07/12/2012

    Brilliant article Mike! Wow! You guys got to live through those times? No wonder you’re so disdainful of the current ‘elite’. 22 fights in a calendar year (starting in March, no less)? They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to - blame it on inflation and inflated egos (due to inflated financial rewards). Wanna be the best? Don’t take the test - beat the best! Keep ‘em coming Mike!

  14. MIKE SCHMIDT 05:20pm, 07/11/2012

    GREAT READ—GREAT TIME FOR BOXING

  15. Darrell 05:14pm, 07/11/2012

    Great read & excellent insight into a great fighter.

  16. the thresher 11:30am, 07/11/2012

    This was a brilliant piece

  17. The Thresher 11:11am, 07/11/2012

    As an aside, Mennen Spray Deoderant didn’t work worth a spit! Real men used Old Spice.

  18. The Thresher 11:09am, 07/11/2012

    From “Boxing is my Sanctuary” in the Chapter of my top 100 fighters since 1945:

    9. Sandy Saddler. His final slate was 144-16-3 with 103 KOs. One of the greatest fighters ever, Joseph “Sandy” Saddler was a two-time featherweight champion of the world, and also held the junior lightweight title. Over his twelve-year career, 1944–1956, he scored an astounding 103 knockouts. He was stopped only once in his career, in his second fight. He is best known for his savage series of fights with boxing legend Willie Pep (230-11-1). Saddler first fought Pep in 1948. Pep was the reigning featherweight champion of the world, and had an amazing record of 135-1 at the time. Saddler, who was one of the hardest
    pound-for-pound punchers of all time, captured the title by knocking Pep down four times on his way to a four-round knockout victory in an extremely dirty fight. Had his career not been cut short by a non-boxing accident, there is no telling how far he could have gone.

    Willie Pep said: “He beat me with a double arm lock.”

    Sandy Saddler said: “I thought a punch to the kidney did it. If they say I twisted his arm, O.K., I twisted it.”

  19. Don from Prov 05:29am, 07/11/2012

    Truth be told, I’ve been waiting for this one from Mr. Casey
    And the wait was well worth it. 
    Good stuff, sir, on a truly wonderful and tough fighter.  Thanks.

    P.S. Saddler eventually makes a meal of the early, lighter, Manny P. IMO

  20. FrankinDallas 06:46pm, 07/10/2012

    Great stuff, Mike. Glad that you mentioned Pep was way past his prime when he fought Saddler….survived a plane crash for crying out loud.
    Still, Saddler was one of the ATG’s.

  21. the thresher 05:51pm, 07/10/2012

    Another great piece by Mike Casey. SS was an ATG in every sense of the word.

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