Interview with Jackie Graves

By Jake Wegner

You’ve heard the stories. You’ve wondered who the opponent was. And finally, you had to ask yourself, “Is it possible in the good ol’ days of the ‘sweet science’ when a pugilist really had to earn a round to win it, that someone could actually win a round without throwing a punch?” Boxing folklore has it, that the great “Willow the Wisp”, Willie Pep, won the third round of one of his fights without throwing a single punch. According to Willie Pep Jr. (Billy Papaleo), it is true. And his father has for years, handed out signed flyers that tell the story of how his feints, facial expressions, and defensive maneuvers pulled off this now-famous feat. But is it true? The real answer may surprise you! But let’s start with the facts. Who was the opponent in the first place? The opponent was a slick and powerful killer-a southpaw who was a former National Golden Glove Champion who drew crowds of 5,000 while still an amateur, and since turning pro was drawing average crowds of 8,000-10,000 people because of his fearsome KO power. Did I forget to mention that he had swept every round against former two-time champion Harry Jeffra in just his 20th professional fight and disposed of highly ranked and widely-feared Charley Riley in two brutal rounds, and was going into the Pep fight ranked # 2 in the world at Featherweight? Who is this man, so long tarnished and overlooked by fistic historians by becoming the main event of the traveling Willie Pep show? None other than the lethal 1940’s Featherweight, Jackie Graves.

“The Austin Atom”, “The Austin Assassin”, or “The Hormel Hammer”, as he was called in his amateur days; no matter what the alias, the name Jackie Graves has always carried with it the aura of excitement. Not since the Gibbons brothers, Mike and Tommy, in the early days of boxing in St. Paul, has anyone captured the level of media coverage that this southpaw from Austin, Minnesota did in the 1940’s and 50’s. And perhaps it can be said that no one has since. As an amateur, Graves drew national attention by winning the 1942 National Bantamweight Golden Gloves title, and came oh-so-close to winning a second National Golden Gloves title at Featherweight in 43’, but lost in the finals to future middleweight star Tony Janiro. Graves would later beat Janiro in a rematch at the Austin fairgrounds that drew a crowd of 5,000 spectators just before launching his professional career. He left the amateurs with an astounding record of 284 wins and just 6 losses. To put this in perspective, reference below the amateur records of other big-name fighters of the past and present and their winning percentages; keeping in mind of course, that De La Hoya, Mosely, Whitaker, Holyfield, and Trinidad all got to wear headgear.

Jackie Graves 284-6 97.6%
Oscar De La Hoya 223-5 97.8
Sugar Ray Leonard 145-5 96.6%
Muhammad Ali 134-7 94.8%
Shane Mosley 230-12 94.8%
Willie Pep 62-3 95.2%
Pernell Whitaker 201-14 93.1%
Evander Holyfield 160-14 91.3%
Felix Trinidad 51-6 88.3%

Jackie Graves went on to have a stellar professional career, competing in the most talent-rich Featherweight era of all time, compiling a respectable 82-11-2 (48) record. He met the great Willie Pep in a non-title bout in 1946, twice knocking down the Featherweight King before succumbing to the Wisp’s assault, via TKO in the 8th. This was the legendary fight in which Pep allegedly won the third round without throwing a single punch. And until now, 99% of the boxing community has believed it. Including yours truly. But right after doing the Graves interview, I did something no one else has done up to this point…I read the newspaper’s round-by-round fight description by Joe Hennessy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press from the day after the fight (7-26-46). And guess what? Not only is there no mention at all in the entire sports section about the famous feat in the third round, but the exact opposite seems to have occurred. According to Hennessy, who sat ringside to report on the fight, this is what happened in the third round. “Graves pounded a left to the stomach that made Pep wince in the third. They mixed wildly. A clicker couldn’t count the blows. Pep punched Jack into the ropes as the most even round of the evening ended”. Not only is there no mention that Pep didn’t throw a punch, there is also no mention of defensive wizardry, no feints, no slips, no hiding behind the referee, no nothing!
In fact, Hennessy says that this was one of most fiercely fought rounds of the fight. “A clicker could not count the blows”, he said. And he specifically makes mention that it was Pep who, “punched Jack into the ropes as the most even round of the evening ended.” Still don’t believe it? I thought some may not. So I have provided below a scanned microfilm of the round by round by Hennessy. What makes this more interesting though, is the fact that the Pioneer Press is the newspaper that the well-known sports writer, Don Riley wrote for. Don Riley is the one most commonly credited for saying that Pep told him before the fight that he would not throw a punch in the third. But yet, no mention of a punchless Pep in the third round even by Riley himself. Pep himself after the fight says in Riley’s small piece on the fight that it took in four rounds to figure out Graves’ style.

Either way, one thing is for sure; had the southpaw with knockout power in both hands, fought in today’s world of alphabet titles and just above-average talent pool, he’d certainly be a millionaire several times over and own more than a few titles. He’d make Prince Hamed look like the court jester, and do bad things to Johnny Tapia. He’d meet Paulie Ayala and finish the job Eric Morales could not, or jump up to 130 and have Acelino Frietas doing the Trevor Berbick break dance within 4. He was that good.

I recently sat down with the now 80 year-old former pugilist and spoke with him about his career, the state of the game today, and oh yeah…that legendary third round with Willie Pep. Here’s what he had to say…


Jake Wegner: Jackie, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Let’s start things off with a little background information and we’ll go from there. How did you get started in boxing?

Jackie Graves: First of all, I really loved them days. I loved the days that I was fighting. I really enjoyed it. I wish I could do it all over again, I really do. I’ll never forget those days. But ah, my dad. My dad was a painter and a decorator, but he was also a great boxer. He never fought professionally, but he used to take me out back or sometimes in the house and put the gloves on and start boxing with me. He was really good, and I really believe that he could have had a great career in boxing had he chose to go that way, but he didn’t, and as it turned out, he ended up giving me a lot of his knowledge about the sport and began practicing with me every day. What began as something fun to do, became something that I was really good at, and then I just began competing at the amateur level.

JW: You won the 1942 National Golden Gloves in the Bantamweight division. You were on your way to winning the 1943 Featherweight Golden Gloves title until a kid by the name of Tony Janiro, who would later go on to be a great middleweight fighter in the professional ranks, beat you in the finals. How did that feel?

JG: Well, I felt bad. I wasn’t used to losing. That was only my 6th loss in the amateurs and it was hard to take. I was still just 21 or so then and working at the Hormel plant in Austin. I had left school when I was 16 in large part because I was married by then and had to support my own family. I’d worked a lot of hours there, and when I wasn’t working, I was training, doing my roadwork, and hitting the bags and all that. And it was then that I got the nickname, “The Hormel Hammer”, and I began getting pretty well known. Everywhere I went people would say, “There goes Jackie Graves. That’s Jackie Graves, he’s gonna be champ someday you know,” and that felt good to hear of course. Not long after that loss to Janiro, I think I beat him in a rematch didn’t I?”

JW: You decisioned him at the Austin Fairgrounds later that year I believe.

JG: Yeah, I thought I might have.

JW: What do you consider to have been your best punch? What was “The Austin Atom’s” signature punch?

JG: The double hook. The hook to the body, hook to the head combination. I threw that with pinpoint accuracy and power boy. It was like an explosion of power and speed all at once. That or else I like to double up on my jab and then follow it up with a hook off the last jab.

JW: Did you prefer to try for a quick knockout when you fought, or did you prefer to try and wear your opponents out?

JG: Well, I would try for the knockout early because in this sport you don’t take chances. Lucky punch stories are more common than you may think. I’d look for openings or mistakes and then shoot the works on them. But if they were crafty and smart like myself, why then I’d go to the plan of wearing them down. The old saying of “If you kill the body, you’ll kill the mind”, that was true, and still is true. I was a good body puncher and I made use of all my talents. I had power in both hands. I sometimes would switch from southpaw to orthodox to throw people off and throw my combinations.

JW: Would you consider yourself to have been more of a boxer, or more of a slugger?

JG: I could punch with the best of them-any of them as far as power is concerned. But I would have to say more of a boxer. I thought about what I was doing out there.

JW: Dan Cuoco, director of the International Boxing Research Organization in Massachusetts, helped me to obtain an accurate ring record of your career. When speaking with him, he told me to tell you that you are included in a new computer boxing simulation game that only includes really good fighters called "Title fight 2001". He also told me to tell you that if you were fighting today, you’d clean up the division, unify the belts, and go down in the Hall of Fame five years after you hang up the gloves. What do you think of these statements by a professional that is regarded as one of the best boxing historians in the world?

JG: Oh my! Gosh, what a compliment. But that is true. That’s very true. The fighters were very different back then compared to what they are today. We fought every few weeks or every month or so. It didn’t matter if we weren’t completely healed from our previous fights, or if we got cut or bruised during sparring, we would never even think of pulling out of a fight, not ever. My gosh, if you did that you’d get a reputation as a fighter that is risky for a promoter, and would mean less fights for you.

JW: You also weren’t paid the purses of today’s fighters.

JG: Oh you’ve got that right! (says while chuckling). If you wanted to make a living fighting, then you had to remain active, at least pretty active until you became a main event and could command part of the gate, which I was fortunate to be able to do very early on. But I wasn’t used to having that kind of money, and didn’t really spend it wisely. I gave a lot of it away too.

JW: What do think of today’s fighters? Do you get a chance to watch any fights?

JG: Yes, I get a chance to watch the fights on Friday nights (ESPN2’s Friday night fights), and I think a lot of them are bums. They have no heart. I don’t think they would even be able to be sparring partners of mine or Pep’s, or Del or Glen Flanagan’s. Some, but not most. I watch them and it makes me want to make a comeback. (We both start laughing). It really does. It makes me wonder what might have been if I’d be fighting today. Sometimes I get too excited watching the fights and I get up and start shadow boxing. Sometimes it’s too much for me. I still go into dreams about my fights. At night, and in the day. I wake up or I snap out of a daydream and I start shadow boxing. Sometimes they are so real too. Even today at my age I still dream about my fights…and other fighters too, like Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. I’ll never quit dreaming about my boxing.

JW: Who are the 3 greatest fighters of all time in your opinion?

JG: I always say that the greatest fighters that I knew were Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Willie Pep. Oh, and Sandy Saddler. He was great too. He was fast and crafty just like Pep, only meaner and more powerful.

JW: What was it like fighting Willie Pep?

JG: Well, he was fast, very fast, and crafty too. He was hard to hit. Willie Pep…I’ll never forget him as long as I live. He was a great, great, fighter, and a great, great, person. Willie Pep…

JW: Do you remember the fight with Willie Pep?

JG: Not in great detail, no.

JW: Do you remember knocking him down? I believe you knocked him down in the 6th.

JG: Is that right? I don’t remember it, but I must have. I knocked down the great Willie Pep huh? Man.

Jake Wegner: Willie says that in your fight, he won the third round without ever throwing a punch. Is that true? Do you remember? I don’t remember. It seems like that would be a very hard thing to do, but maybe it happened. A lot of times I can’t remember things anymore…I guess I would say that it probably did happen.

Jake Wegner: And why would you say that Jackie?

JG: Because I remember that it was really hard to hit him during that fight. The times that I did, I hit him pretty hard I think. But I do remember feeling confused and frustrated during the fight. I remember feeling embarrassed because I was fighting here in Minnesota with all my friends and family watching, and I felt foolish missing on my punches so much, and with so many watching.

Jake Wegner: If you could have fought Willie again, what would you have done differently?

JG: I don’t know. I tried to get a rematch, but I don’t remember why it didn’t happen. I don’t know. Well, he was a great one. I can’t say any style would have worked against him, because he was that good. I always say that Willie Pep was the greatest Featherweight that ever boxed and ever lived. He was that great. And Sandy Saddler was another one.
(According to Jackie’s brother Harold Graves, Pep’s manager Leo Viscuci had told Jackie that the only way he would agree to give Jackie a rematch is if Jackie would sign over half of his contract to Viscuci - An offer that Graves had to turn down.)

Jake Wegner: What was the greatest memory of your career?
JG: They all were great. But my fight with the Featherweight Champion of the world, Willie Pep. Regardless of the outcome, that was my greatest moment of my career. I just wish I could do it all over again-all of it. I used to joke with Willie that his name is Pep, and he has a lot of pep. (laughs) Lordi, that man never ran out of gas. He was great.

Jake Wegner: Looking through the old newspaper clippings, I see that you headlined more fight cards held in Minnesota than any other boxer in the state’s history with over 60. Right here is a clipping of your sweeping win over World Boxing Hall of Famer Harry Jeffra that drew 9,000 people, and another here that says how you cut up Mike Gravino from the eyes to the nose, and mouth as well, all by the 3rd round when the ref stopped it.

JG: They were all great fighters, all of them that I fought. Every one of them was a class act, and good people too. I enjoyed all of them. Jeffra thought he could whip me, but I took every round from the former champion, and with Gravino…I told the ref that if he didn’t stop the fight, then I was going to quit. I didn’t want to hurt the guy anymore. The guy was bleeding all over the place, it looked like his face was coming apart.

Jake Wegner: What was it like fighting the tough, but short 4 ft. 11 in. Luis Castillo in April of 1945?

JG: Oh Lordi, I remember that fight. (laughs) I used to hit him on top of the head, he was so short. I loved those days. I wish I could back and do it all over again. I really do. Pep and all. It was all worth it just for the memories, because it’s the memories that are all I have left today.

Jake Wegner: You beat Glen Flanagan on October 13, 1949 by decision, and then lost the rematch a month later by getting knocked out in the 3rd round. You also fought him again in 1956 and got knocked out in the 3rd round. What happened in these last two rematches with him?

JG: Well, I won’t say anything to make an excuse. I just got caught in the rematch with a good punch I think, and that was that. But the third fight with Glen in 1956, I blame on drinking too much and not training the way I should have with the alcohol and all. The same thing with his brother Del. I was drinking way too much at that period of my career and it was a problem affecting everything in my life.

Jake Wegner: Del Flanagan was really a welterweight though wasn’t he? I mean you were outweighed by a good 20-25 pounds for that fight weren’t you?

JG: Yes, Del was naturally a lot bigger than I was and could probably hit harder.

Jake Wegner: Are you sure about that Jackie? Are you sure Del could hit harder than you could?

JG: Well, I had more natural power, see. But he had more weight behind his punches I think, and that was a big disadvantage, see.

Jake Wegner: How did you train for fights?

JG: That’s one thing that I took very seriously until I started drinking. But I ran at least 3 miles every day, seven days a week, and everything was always boiled I remember. I never would combine my meat with my potatoes. I wouldn’t combine meats with carbohydrates you could say because it drained me of energy. My only weakness was spaghetti. But sometimes I ran twice a day and I also worked the heavy bag every day. I never had a problem making weight though. I never let myself get over 136 between fights, ever.

Jake Wegner: What eventually pushed you to retire in 1956?

JG: I reached a point when I didn’t want to hurt anybody anymore, and I didn’t want to get hurt anymore myself. I was starting to get hit with punches that I usually wouldn’t have gotten hit with before. I guess that’s old age for a fighter, the 30’s. My wife Helen also wanted me to quit. It was sort of scary because that was all I had ever done was box. What do I do now? One thing I can tell you that may interest you is that I never had a nose bleed ever in a fight, and my nose was never broken, it would just bruise.

Jake Wegner: What did you do for work after boxing?

JG: I don’t remember everything I did. I lost track of myself I guess and drank more. But I did drive for Patty Hearst and Steve McQueen. And those were good memories. I wish I could go back and do that again too.

Jake Wegner: What do you think of women boxing now?

JG: Women are boxing?! My gosh, I’m gonna start boxing again! I’m making a comeback (laughs). Boy these women are getting wild. (everyone laughs). Tell the world that Jackie Graves is coming back, and maybe now I’ll finally be champion. But being serious now, after watching these fighters today…Jeeeez! I may as well make a comeback these guys are so terrible.

JW: If you could tell your fans one thing, what would it be?

JG: “Hello” (laughs). “Thank you”. “Good-bye”… no wait….. please don’t ever say good-bye.

So did Willie Pep really win the third round of a fight without throwing a punch? Not against Graves he didn’t. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Pep. Or perhaps he did pull this amazing feat off like he and Don Riley said, but it could not have been against the Austin Atom, Jackie Graves as the evidence clearly points out. And so, one mystery has been re-opened and now closed, and another has presented itself… if this really did happen, who was the opponent?


Willie Pep

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