Sports History

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT

JOHN DEMONT May 28 2001
Sports History

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT

JOHN DEMONT May 28 2001

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT

Sports History

BY JOHN DEMONT in Weymouth Falls

Bernice Beals still has a few memories of the one time she met her great-uncle back in the early 1930s. The great boxer Sam Langford was essentially blind when he made one of his final visits to Weymouth Falls, N.S. He was nearly 50 then, and spoke with his usual Mike Tyson-like lisp, which made his name sound like “Tham.” In retirement, his face was bloated and disfigured, he sported a cauliflower ear and his nose had been beaten flat in a career spanning, by some estimates, more than 600 bouts. Beals, who grew up listening to Langfords fights on the family radio, remembers thinking how huge he looked, even though he stood just five-foot-six, and that the high-living fighter—who earned more than $300,000 in the ring back when money like that meant some-

thing—was hitting the bottle pretty heavy. “He didn’t suffer fools,” says Beals, now 83 and living with a daughter in Kingston, N.S., 100 km east of Weymouth Falls. “I remember that much.”

If he seemed tired and cranky to a teenage girl, perhaps Langford had a right to be. By then, he was a broken man, and broke, too. Back in the United States, his adopted home, he had dropped out of sight and was rumoured to be dead. Yet in his prime, Langford’s face was everywhere: on kids’ trading cards, matchboxes, cigarette packages, in the American sports pages, on the cover of French magazines. The newspaper photos from the era invariably show a sea of white men in formal attire, a body sprawled on the canvas and Langford, a squat black man with no neck, thickly corded shoulders

Sam Langford may have been the greatest. Too bad he never got a chance to prove it

and long, muscular arms, striding calmly back to his corner. Nat Fleischer, the longtime editor of Ring Magazine, in 1958 ranked Langford the seventh-best heavyweight in boxing history—quite an accolade considering he never held a world title. Hype Igoe, the most renowned of all American boxing writers during the 1950s, went even further, calling Langford “the greatest fighter pound-for-pound who ever lived.”

In Weymouth Falls, a proud, poor black community a few kilometres from the Bay of Fundy, they still celebrate the late fighter. There’s a hand-painted sign announcing “The Home of Sam Langford” that stands beside the road into the community. The road curves past other reminders of his accomplishments: a Parks Canada plaque on a stone monument, and a wall inside the aging community centre devoted to “Sam Langford: The Boston Terror,” the politically correct version of his earlier nickname, “The Boston Tar Baby.” Eventually, the road climbs a small rise of land, atop which stands the tiny yellow wooden house—now the summer home of a New Brunswick family—where Langford was born in 1886. Langford’s family had moved to the area in the late 1700s with other black United Empire Loyalists who settled across the river from the more prosperous white community of Weymouth. And if life is hard now for the people ofWeymouth Falls, it was harder at the tail end of the 19th century. “There were no jobs,” says Karla Kelly, a teacher and local historian, “no prospects to improve your life.” Langford, the son of a widowed windjammer sailor who drank too much and beat his seven kids, understood that. By age 12, he had run away to Boston to join a sister.

Then one day in 1901, his life changed when he walked into a drugstore owned by Sam an, who also operated the Lennox Athletic Club, a small Boston fight gym. The older white man never forgot his first sight of the frail kid with the ragged clothes and the toes sticking

out °f his shoes. Langford asked if he could clean the store an^ sweep out the fight club in return for something to eat. He got the job. And when he wasn’t sweeping or cleaning, he found himself drawn to the sound of the heavy bag, the smell of sweat and liniment inside the gloomy old gym, and eventually, with

Woodman’s help, the sport itself.

In some respects, Langford was a natural: he had an iron chin, a long reach for his size and the ability to generate tremendous punching power with both hands. But working in the gym gave him a chance to study other fighters, and though only 16 when he turned pro in 1902, he had already developed a unique crouched fighting style that made him an elusive target for any opponent. Managed by Woodman, he quickly began piling up wins against bigger, more experienced fighters. Professional less than a year, he stepped into the ring with Joe Gans, then the lightweight champion of the world, and won a 15-round decision. But Langford was denied the title because both fighters had weighed in over the 133-lb. division limit.

brutal draw. In 1906, at just 155 lb., he took on the most feared boxer on the planet—Jack Johnson. Johnson was six inches taller and 30 lb. heavier and was about to become the world’s first black heavyweight champion. Johnson knocked him down twice and took a 15-round decision. But he left with great respect for the smaller man’s abilities. After taking the world tide from another Canadian, Tommy Burns, in 1908, Johnson refused to grant Langford, or any other black, a fide shot. His reasoning was simple: a black champion could make more money taking on white contenders, even if they were less skilled, than by fighting black challengers. “On a good night, Sam is just liable to beat me or make it close,” Johnson once said, “and what’s the sense of that for the kind of money we’d draw.” PRIME AND PREJUDICE: Once a star Langford was blind and broke in his last

days in Boston

How good was Langford? According to one tale, he once knocked an opponent through the ropes and into a particular sportswriter’s lap to show displeasure over a story the reporter had written. Another time, in 1910, Woodman was anxious about missing a train that left 30 minutes after the scheduled start of a fight in Cheyenne, Wyo. “That gives us plenty of time,” Langford reputedly told his manager—then proceeded to knock out his opponent at 1:45 of the first round.

His legend grew, in and outside of the ring. Langford— whom Woodman once called “a kid who never grew up”— blew his earnings on clothes and on drinks for his friends. Once, he nearly missed a boat to England as he said his raucous farewells to the crowd gathered on the dock to see him off. At the height of his fame in the late teens and early ’20s, members of Toronto’s black community held a parade in his honour during his only appearance in Toronto, and Cape Breton miners rode to the surface to cheer him. On a rare trip home to Weymouth Falls, everyone in the village turned out, lifting the conquering hero onto their shoulders and marching him down the main street.

But Langford’s moment was passing. Johnson was a lightning rod for racism, not just because he demolished every white heavyweight who dared face him, but also because of his high living and the way he flaunted his relationships with white women. The resulting backlash caused boxing promoters to bar black fighters from title

fights at any weight until well into the 1920s. Langford had no choice but to fight for lesser titles—and smaller purses—in Europe. And in the United States, he absorbed terrible punishment in battles with other black heavyweights who, like him, were unable to fight for the big prizes. Particularly brutal were his 18 fights with Harry Wills—50 lb. heavier and seven inches taller. One Langford victory came by 19th-round knockout after Willis had

Sports History

Jack Johnson flatly refused to grant Langford, or any other black fighter, a title shot

knocked him down nine times in the first two rounds.

Among other ailments, his eyes began to go: in 1923, bloated to more than 200 lb., he won the heavyweight championship of Spain in Mexico City when his opponent was just a blur. Langford fought twice more, then retired in 1924 and underwent an operation to save his sight.

For a while, he gave lessons and exhibitions: other than that, little is known about the next decade or so of his life. But in Weymouth Falls, now just a shadow of the place where Langford was born, most people know how the story ends. In 1944, a New York City boxing writer named Al Laney discovered the old boxer blind, broke and living alone in a Harlem tenement. A trust was eventually set up so that he could return to Boston, but he lived out his last days in the charity ward of a Cambridge, Mass., hospital, an empty coffee can between his legs for his tobacco juice. He died in 1956. “It’s a sad tale in away, isn’t it,” Marlene Cole, an employment counsellor, said recendy as she stood inside Weymouth Falls’ Sam Langford Community Centre. “But I’ll tell you this: he took on everybody. He never backed down.” And in a town where life can still be a struggle, that means something. El