Articles

The Greatest Fighter who ever Lived

Sam Langford, the Negro kid who ran away from home in Weymouth, N.S., became the terror of the world's prize rings. Now blind and broke, he sits rocking slowly in his chair while sportswriters still claim he was

TRENT FRAYNE February 15 1955
Articles

The Greatest Fighter who ever Lived

Sam Langford, the Negro kid who ran away from home in Weymouth, N.S., became the terror of the world's prize rings. Now blind and broke, he sits rocking slowly in his chair while sportswriters still claim he was

TRENT FRAYNE February 15 1955

The Greatest Fighter who ever Lived

Sam Langford, the Negro kid who ran away from home in Weymouth, N.S., became the terror of the world's prize rings. Now blind and broke, he sits rocking slowly in his chair while sportswriters still claim he was

Articles

TRENT FRAYNE

UPSTAIRS in a venerable boardinghouse in an ancient section of Boston a blind old Negro sits all day rocking backward and forward in a creaking wooden chair. His sightless eyes are masked by a pair of cheap plastic-rimmed spectacles, long since scratched and smudged by age. His greying bullet head is covered by a faded maroon baseball cap and his lean ageing body swaddled in a nondescript bathrobe. He is a man with many ailments, few hopes and only one amusement: On Wednesday nights, when the fights come on the little mantel radio, as they do on radios all over the continent, his head cocks and his face lights up as he lives once again in a golden past.

For this is Sam Langford, a living legend from Weymouth, Nova Scotia, and perhaps the greatest fighter of his size who ever lived.

Hype Igoe, the most renowned of all boxing writers, made no bones about it in the old New York Journal. "Langford s the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who ever lived," he wrote. Just this year, Joe Williams, the respected sports columnist of the New York World-Telegram, echoed Igoe's words. "Langford was probably the best the ring ever saw," he wrote in his current TV boxing book. The great Grantland Rice described Langford as "about the best fighting man I've ever watched." Langford's old manager, Joe Woodman, put it a little more colorfully last month. "At `seventy-two,' " he said, meaning 172 pounds, "he'd have eaten Joe Louis."

Langford was a small man-five feet

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The Greatest Fighter Who Ever Lived

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six inches—who took on opponents as much as ten inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than himself because he couldn’t get enough fights with men his own size to keep him busy. He was so good that he could actually name the moment he’d knock out an opponent. One night in 1910 he was fighting a pug named Dewey, who weighed 205 and stood six feet two. The bout was in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a section where trains came and went irregularly. His manager was anxious to get back quickly to Los Angeles. When he consulted timetables he discovered that the only train that day left half an hour after the fight was to start.

“Why, I’m surprised you’re worrying,” Langford said. “That gives us lots of time.” Whereupon he knocked out Dewey in a minute and forty-two seconds of the first round.

He was so good that he once knocked an opponent smack into the lap of an unfriendly writer. In San Francisco in 1908, when he weighed about 155 pounds, he fought a 210-pound bruiser named Fireman Jim Flynn who was six feet one. In the first round Langford jostled Flynn toward the ropes above the ringside seat of a west-coast sportswriter named H. M. Walker. Walker had written that Flynn ought to stop mixing with “clowns like Langford” if be wanted to prove he was a genuine threat for Jack Johnson’s heavyweight crown.

“Mr. Walker,” grinned Sam, “here comes your champion.” And he knocked Flynn into the writer’s lap.

Langford fought in an era when Negroes were in a highly anomalous position as fighters. Jack Johnson, a Negro, was the champion. And largely because of this there was a national wave of sentiment against Johnson in particular and Negroes generally. “Somebody has got to beat him,” people said, and managers strove to find a “white hope” who could.

The “white hope” industry was launched in 1908 right after Johnson followed Tommy Burns to Australia and beat him to a pulp in fourteen rounds in Sydney to win the world’s championship. Johnson thus became the first man to cross the “color line” established by John L. Sullivan, the first American heavyweight champion of the world, who had refused to meet Peter Jackson, an outstanding Australian Negro. For years the color line was invoked by each succeeding champion. But Johnson refused to keep what most whites regarded as “his place.” As champion he was once compelled to flee to Paris after being charged with violation of the Mann Act—he was accused of transporting a white girl, Lucille Cameron, whom he later married, across a state line for immoral purposes. In Paris he bet lavish sums on race horses, wore a beret and sipped champagne through a straw, habits that swelled the sentiment against his race.

In this turbulent atmosphere, not all white hopes were worthy challengers; rather, many were products of skilful manipulation by their managers and the worked-up fervor of prejudiced fans. White hopes were usually too wary, or their handlers too discreet, to risk their reputations against Negroes of Langford’s talents. Woodman told me recently that Sam “almost always” had to “do business” to get a fight with a white man. In other words, white fighters exacted promises that Langford would carry them so far.

To get fights and to keep eating, Langford had a long series of bouts with Harry Wills, Sam McVey, and Joe Jeannette, who, with the champion Johnson, were the best prize fighters in the world. During the time Johnson was champion, from 1908 until 1915, the other four tried constantly to track him down, but Johnson avoided them. “On a good night Sam is just liable to beat me or make it close,” the champion said when a match with Langford was proposed in Paris in 1914, “and what’s the sense of that for the kind of money we’d draw?”

They did meet, once— but. that was before Johnson was champion. When Langford weighed 151 pounds in 1906 he fought fifteen brutal rounds with Johnson in Boston. Although Johnson, who weighed 186, won the fight, he resolutely refused to meet Langford again. Two years after he became champion he was cornered by Langford and Joe Woodman in the sports department of the Boston Globe, and offered $10,000 if he’d agree to a return bout. He did, but when the two fighters were to meet at ten o’clock the next morning to sign papers for the fight, Johnson

didn’tshow up. The bout naturally died.

In his fighte Langford invariably got the worst of physical odds. He fought fifteen times with the brawling Harry Wills, who outweighed him by almost fifty pounds and was seven inches taller—unbelievably violent clashes. Wills, who chased the heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey for a fight in the early Twenties and was bypassed in favor of Gene Tunney, who won the championship in 1926, once knocked Langford down nine times in the first four rounds of a bout in New Orleans in 1916, and then was knocked out by

Langford in the nineteenth round.

Langford fought McVey and Jeannette fourteen times apiece and lost only two bouts to each. McVey weighed 195 and Jeannette 205. Sam broke even in two fights with Fred Fulton, who weighed 210 and who, at six feet four, was a full ten inches taller. When Langford was crowding forty in 1920 he twice knocked out a Negro named George Godfrey, who stood six feet three and weighed 240 pounds.

The phrase, pound for pound, fits naturally into any comparisons with Langford because he was so much smaller than such heavyweight champions as Johnson, Jess Willard, Dempsey and Joe Louis. He had exceptionally long arms, heavy shoulders and a deep thick torso. He started fighting as a youngster in the lightweight division at 132 pounds and when he added weight almost all of it was in his upper body. He outgrew the lightweight, welterweight (147) and middleweight (160) divisions. Most experts agree his best fighting weight was at 172.

Under his barrel build and with his long strong arms, Langford’s short legs gave him a curiously gnomelike appearance. Then, as now, he had a broad flat nose, a cauliflower left ear, thick heavy lips and crisp short curly hair that fitted the broad contours of his head so tightly it looked almost like a skullcap. In the ring, as one Francisco writer put it, he resembled “a man from the Dark Ages.”

Built along the general lines of a gorilla, he would come loping out of his corner, his face impassive, his black skin glinting. He fought in a crouch that made him a difficult target for taller opponents and he usually offset their superior height by working his way inside their defense, pounding solidly to the body and then hooking to the jaw. His judgment of distance was uncanny. One old-time boxing writer in Boston, William A. Hamilton, recently described this talent of Langford’s:

“He would glide out in a crouch and when his opponent led he’d move just a fraction and let the blow graze his head,” Hamilton recalled. “He could hit like a terror with both hands.”

Langford was never able to get a fight for a world’s championship in any division. Johnson refused to meet him and so did Georges Carpentier when he was the light-heavyweight champion. When Stanley Ketchell was middleweight champion his manager, the astute Willus Britt, refused repeated offers to meet Langford in California, but finally consented to a no-decision, six-round bout in Philadelphia on April 27, 1910.

Langford had instructions from Woodman to go easy, the theory being that Ketchell might then consent to a

championship bout. Newspaper reports relate that “they gave a pretty boxing exhibition, with Langford having something of a shade on points in the first three rounds. After that, Langford contented himself with blocking Ketchell’s punches, without making any attempt to fight back.” Woodman’s plan for a return match faded forever six months later when Ketchell was shot and killed.

Langford got $300 for fighting Ketchell. Throughout his twenty-one years in the ring his purses were small. Although one of the greatest ringmen of his time, he never drew more than $10,000 for a fight, and reached that level only once—in London in 1909 when he knocked out Ian Hague, the English heavyweight champion, in four rounds.

“I once fought Joe Jeannette on a percentage of the house and the gate was only a few hundred dollars,” he recalled recently. “One time I boxed for a Negro promoter in New Orleans. The bout drew seventy-five dollars and I got a fourth of that. Most of the time I got a couple of hundred dollars.”

But prices were low too. In 1914 eggs were twenty-three cents a dozen and a man could buy a Ford runabout for $440. Tailored suits were twentytwo dollars and newspapers were a cent apiece. Boxing was in low repute socially and few women attended fights, which were often held in smoky billiard rooms in men’s clubs. In many states, boxing was illegal, although police often looked the other way.

Why Women Stayed Home

Finally in 1920 New York State adopted the Walker Law, which set up a state boxing commission. Other states followed suit and formed the National Boxing Association, legalizing boxing in the U. S.

Langford fought most of his early bouts in and around Boston, frequently at the Armoury Athletic Association where billiard tables were removed to make way for ringside chairs and the long heavy boards that served as bleacher seats. Club members and their friends attended. Membership was fifteen dollars a year and a friend could become a “temporary member” for a dollar on the day of the fight. Later, after World War I and just before Prohibition, a few emancipated women began to appear at fights, although reformers shouted that boxing was “brutal bear-baiting.”

If he wasn’t highly paid Langford was at least highly regarded in Boston, home of the abolitionists where a Negro could rise above the crowd. Sam spent his money on fancy clothes and feted his friends at the bars. He took a drink himself and once, before embarking for England, nearly missed the boat as

he said his raucous farewells to wellwishers who danced to the pier as the gangplank was going up.

In one of his infrequent returns to Canada he was greeted in Weymouth, N.S., as the hometown boy who made good. In the province that has the highest proportion of Negroes in Canada hut doesn’t always treat them too well, everybody turned out to greet him and they carried him down the street on their shoulders. At Cape Breton he was acclaimed by miners who came up from the pits to cheer the Nova Scotian who’d built a world reputation in the ring.

When Sam was nearing the end of his long career he made his only appearance in Toronto where he met Young Peter Jackson on Oct. 18, 1921. The Toronto Star carried this advance notice on Oct. 14:

Nothing is too good for Sam Langford, the King of Smoky Swat, according to local colored folk. One grand reception has been arranged for Hon. Sam by Toronto people of his race . . . After a downtown parade, King Sam Swat is going to dine somewhere but just where has not been decided. About every colored man in town who has a spare room and credit for a pair of chickens or a collection of pork chops wants to have Sam’s knees under his mahogany.

On Oct. 19, the story of the fight, in which Langford knocked out Jackson in the second round, appeared under the byline of Lou E. Marsh.

A pickaninny has as much chance in a rassling match with a gorilla as Young Peter Jackson had with Sam Langford , . . They say Langford trained on pork chops. Well! if he did he done gobbled up Mistah Y P. Jackson in two bites like any other pork chop.

Langford was reportedly in his forties when he won that fight but as is the case with Jersey Joe Walcott, former heavyweight champion, and Satchel Paige, a venerable baseball pitcher, his age has always been a source of speculation. Some record books note his birth year as 1880 and others make it 1886. He once explained that his father just chopped a notch in a tree when a child was born, and that way kept track of the youngsters if not their birth dates.

On other counts, however, his memory appears excellent, and he can sit by the hour in his dim upstairs room in Boston recounting the past, a smile on his broad flat features, his head tilted back, an occasional slit of the white of his right eye showing briefly through smudged glasses. He is totally blind, but cheerful. His white teeth flash as he throws back his head and laughs, and one gold tooth gleams brightly among them.

Sam’s father was a sailor on a windjammer, he recalls, and the family lived on a farm near Weymouth. Between voyages, his father cut trees and hauled them by oxen into town where he sold them. There were four boys and three girls and Sam remembers that early in his life his father taught him a lasting lesson.

‘T had an accident,” he grins. “I was running with some boys and we went and borrowed some eggs. I say, we borrowed some eggs. Well, they arrested us and the bigger boys said that I gave ’em the eggs. The judge gave me a fifteen-dollar fine or fifteen days in the Digby jail.

“My father said, T can pay the fine but I’m not gonna. I’m gonna learn him some sense.’

“So they put me in a cell with some other fellahs and I guess I was about ten or twelve. When I came out who should be there to meet me but the old

man and he says, ‘Sam, I guess there’ll be no more stealinV There wasn’t either.”

Not long after, Sam’s father sent him to town to pick up some groceries. He met some boys, got playing, and forgot all about the groceries.

“The old man gave me a lickin’ and I decided I’d go somewhere. I got up in the morning, got my oxen ready and drove ’em toward the woods where I was supposed to be cuttin’. But I just tied ’em up and away I went toward Weymouth.

“I had nowheres to go, no one would take me in and I remember I slept in a chicken house. I don’t remember eatin’ much but I slept the next night in a hayloft and in the morning a man came along and he says, ‘Do you want work?’ and I said I did and then he asked me if I’d like to go to Boston. I said sure I would and he says, ‘If you meet me in Yarmouth Saturday I’ll take you.’

“So I boarded a freight to Yarmouth and goes to the Grand Hotel and asks for Dr. Blodgett—the man was a doctor in Boston at the Massachusetts General Hospital—and I got him his horse from the stable and away we went to Boston on the boat.”

The doctor and his family lived outside Boston. Sam drove him to the train each morning and met him at the train each evening. Through the day he worked in the stables. He used to play with the doctor’s three children, two girls and a boy, and he recalls with a chuckle that they used to call him a “herrin’ choker.”

The Customer Was Wrong

He stayed with the family for three years, by which time he was “gettin’ on toward fifteen or sixteen, I guess.” He went to work in the brickyards in North Cambridge where he stayed a year and then he went to New Hampshire to live with his brother Charlie, who had left home ahead of him. Then he headed back for Boston where he had a sister.

“I could find a room for thirty-five or forty cents and I used to go to my sister for something to eat,” he says. “Then one day I was walkin’ past the old Glenbrooke Saloon and I went in and asked the man if he needed somebody to clean up. The man’s name was Mike Foley—he was an Irish fellah— and he let me clean up in the morning and wash glasses and work around the place like that.

“One day Mike was out at the back and a fellah comes in and asks for a lager. So I went behind the bar and gave him a lager. He asks for another and I give him another. He asks for another and I give him another. Then he starts out.

“ ‘You owe me fifteen cents,’ I say.

“ ‘You’re a scab,’ he says. ‘You’re not a bartender.’

‘*So over the bar I came and we went to it. I knocked him down, took my fifteen cents and Mike comes runnin’ out from the back and he looks and says, ‘Sam, you ain’t got no business bein’ broke; you can make money fightin’ in the amateurs. Here’s a dollar. Go to Prospect Street and get yourself a license.’

“Mike Foley got me some battered old tights and a pair of gloves and in my first fight, there’s me and a Scotch fellah. I knock him out and I get a watch that I can hock for thirty dollars. I fight a couple more times and then one day Mike says, ‘Sam, do you know a fellah named Joe Woodman?’ I say no and Mike says this fellah’s a druggist who’s interested in fighters and he wants to see me. So I go, and Woodman says, ‘You got no business fightin’ amateurs. I know where you can get

some money.’ That’s all I wanted to hear. I became a pro and Woodman became my manager.”

The record book shows that the year was 1902, when Sam was probably somewhere between sixteen and twenty. He had four fights, all in Boston, and won them all in six rounds or less. He had twenty-six fights the next year and lost only one. Although still a lightweight (135 pounds) he fought two draws with a middleweight (100 pounds) Andy Watson, and on Dec. 8, 1903, he met Joe Gans, one of the ring’s great boxers who had temporarily

given up the lightweight championship to battle in the welterweight (147 pounds) division. Gans had been fighting for ten years and he was later to regain his lightweight title. He was a strong favorite to beat the newcomer Langford.

Langford was somewhat overawed by Gans’ reputation and in early rounds Gans’ swift jabs and left hooks had him in difficulty. A hook staggered Langford and as Sam reeled back Gans followed with a right cross to the mouth. The blows made Langford even more wary, but by the fifth round

his confidence’was returning. In the sixth he began crowding Gans and for the next nine rounds he was clearly in charge. He won the fifteen-round decision. In his next outing, two weeks later, he proved he was on his way to the top by fighting a twelve-round draw with one of the most scientific boxers in the game, Jack Blackburn, who later became Joe Louis’ teacher. This pair fought four times in the next two years. The first was a no-decision sixrounder, and the next three were victories for Langford.

On April 26, 1906, Langford met the

man he was to pursue for the next ten years in a fruitless search for the world’s heavyweight championship, Jack Johnson. Langford was barely more than a heavy welterweight at 151 pounds and Johnson was a tough established heavyweight, thirty-five pounds heavier and on his way to the world’s championship.

In nearly fifty years since that fight, which Johnson won on a fifteen-round decision, the story has grown that Langford gave Johnson such a handful that Johnson was afraid to meet him again. But the files of the Police Gazette, a sort of boxing bible, relate that “Johnson gave Langford a terrible beating and was awarded the decision.”

Sam was so upset by the defeat that in his next bout two weeks later he lost a decision to Young Peter Jackson. The same year in Rochester he knocked out Jackson in five rounds.

In the spring of 1907 he was having difficulty finding opponents. He visited a veteran Boston fight writer, Doc Almy of the Post, and asked him if he could help scare up some fights. Almy had been in touch with an English promoter, Peggy Bettinson of the London National Sporting Club, and he asked Langford if he’d like to go to England. Sam sailed early in April and spent three months in England. There he knocked out Tiger Smith in four rounds and Jeff Thorne in six. On his return on June 21 the Boston Post was distressed that he had been unable to bring back “the moving pictures that were taken of the fight” with Thorne.

“It happened,” the Post’s yellowed clipping reveals, “that when the pictures were developed they showed a large number of royalty occupying ringside seats. The authorities then prohibited the pictures being shown in England or taken out of the country.”

A Different Rabbit Punch

In 1908 Langford became a PacificCoast favorite when he knocked out Jim Barry and Jim Flynn in Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. HLs attack on Flynn was unbelievably ferocious. He broke Flynn’s nose in the second round and broke his jaw in the third. When he put him away with a right uppercut Flynn was unconscious for more than twenty minutes.

In England again he knocked out Ian (Iron) Hague, the British heavyweight champion, on Victoria Day 1909, and a year later, after his no-decision affair with the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchell in Philadelphia, Langford was summoned back to London to meet an Australian heavyweight named Bill Lang whom an Australian promoter, Hugh McIntosh, had discovered. Lang weighed 196 pounds, which made a resounding thump as they landed on the canvas in a heap in the sixth round.

Sam was dismayed because it took him six rounds to dispose of Lang; he felt he wasn’t getting his usual snap into his punching. One possible explanation, he felt, were the gloves provided by McIntosh. They were white. He reasoned that against the dark background of his body the punches had been “telegraphed” to Lang. He cut open one of the gloves. It was stuffed with rabbit fur instead of horsehair, which gave the gloves the resiliency of a down-filled pillow.

“Why, Mr. McIntosh,” Sam grinned at the promoter, “I never realized howmany ways there were of using a rabbit punch.”

McIntosh then took Sam and the American Negro, Sam McVey, to Australia. Eighteen thousand people saw their first fight in the broiling sun of Sydney on Boxing Day 1911. McVey won a twenty-round decision that was

roundly hooted. They were rematched in the same city four months later. Langford won in twenty rounds, and then repeated with another twentyround decision in Sydney on Aug. 3. In Perth on Oct. 10 in a violent brawl, Langford knocked out McVey in eleven roundsand then, a year to the day after their first meeting in Sydney, Langford knocked him out again, this time in thirteen rounds.

The next three years, in the opinion of his manager Woodman and ring historian Nat Fleischer, were the best of Langford’s long career. Fighting everywhere from New York to Paris to Denver to Buenos Aires he fought thirty times and lost only two decisions, one to Joe Jeannette and one to Harry Wills.

In the midst of his running battle with Wills, Langford reached the turning point in his career. On June 19, 1917, when he was in his early thirties, he went to Boston for a match with Fred Fulton, a towering 215-pound Kansan. Langford was out of shape—a puffy 181 pounds—and for six rounds he took a dreadful beating that eventually cost him the sight in his left eye. In the sixth he was knocked down for the third time with a left hook to the jaw. Sam climbed to his feet dazed and helpless as Fulton swarmed on him. Fulton drove both hands to Langford’s eyes, nose, jaw and stomach and Langford simply rolled along the ropes.

He weathered the round and as he stumbled drunkenly to his corner his left eye was tightly closed. As the bell sounded for the start of the seventh round Sam did not rise from his stool. He sat there, tears slowly trickling down his cheeks as he signaled the referee, Matt Hinkel, that he could not continue. He never regained the sight in his left eye.

“Sam should have quit fighting then,” Woodman, a voluble spry man who still handles fighters, told me recently at Stillman’s Gym in New York. “I told him to quit while he still had his senses and one good eye.”

“ ‘Are you telling me you’re through with me?’ Sam said, and I said, ‘I’m telling you you should quit.’ But he wouldn’t quit. We parted, but he went on fighting for another six years.”

Langford had nine more fights with Harry Wills and, incredibly, after being knocked out twice by Wills in Panama in 1918, he won a fifteen-round decision from him in Tulsa in 1919.

Sam continued to fight until late in 1923 when he was in his forties. He had three fights in Mexico City, then quit. He stayed in Mexico “six or seven years and then I got sick and tired of it.” In San Antonio, Texas, one night he watched a fight card.

“Both my eyes were bad then but 1 could see a little bit,” he recalls. “1 knew 1 could lick the whole bunch put together.”

He asked a promoter for a fight. The promoter agreed. The old fighter doesn’t remember the name of his opponent but he remembers thinking “they’re not teachin’ boys to fight these days.”

“When we got in there,” Sam recalls, “he started swingin’ that left hand and I blocked it and he swang again and I blocked it. An’ then I knocked him out.”

Sam adds that punch line with a gr;n. He grins a good deal these days, skipping lightly over the hardship he suffered after his last fight, the exhibition in San Antonio around 1929. Ten years ago a New York boxing writer, AÍ Laney, writing a series about old fighters, went searching for Langford in Harlem. He found him after two weeks “in a dingy hall bedroom on 139th Street down a corridor so dark you had to feel your way.” Sam by

then was totally blind as well as broke.

Laney’s story marked the beginning of a fund that enabled Langford to return to Boston where he lived with his sister until a year ago. Boston writers raised a few thousand dollars in a benefit boxing card. But the funds were just about dissipated when Sam’s sister died a year ago.

Then Mrs. Grace Wilkins, a widow who runs a somewhat forlorn rest home in Boston, agreed to look after Sam. Ordinarily, she charges $35 a week to look after old people but there is nothing like that in what remains of

Sam’s funds. The money, she says, arrives sporadically, an occasional cheque for $49.18 from the New York fund and an infrequent $60 from Boston.

“Mr. Langford uses just about that much in coffee and tobacco and doughnuts,” she smiled recently.

Sam is an amiable guest in the dim room on the second floor of the fifteenroom house at 136 Townsend Street— a big old house from which the paint is peeling and the shutters are hanging at odd angles. But he spends many of his dark hours worrying about money. Mrs. Wilkins, who sometimes buys him

pyjamas, underwear and tobacco, says he often expresses deep concern that he is too much of a burden.

“I asked him one time,” Mrs. Wilkins says, “I asked him, ‘Mr. Langford, what would you like to do now if you could do anything in the world you wanted?’

“And he replied, ‘Missus, I’ve been everywhere I wanted to go, I’ve seen everything l wanted to see, and I guess I’ve eaten just about everything there is to eat. Now I just want to sit here in my room and not cause you any trouble.’ ” ★