Very possibly the single greatest fighter who ever lived; absolutely the greatest fighter never to have become world champion, Sam Langford was born today in 1883. Born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, Canada, Langford went on to punch out a truly astonishing ring career – indeed, a career that, when it comes to written accounts, makes for long, fascinating and inspirational reading of the highest quality. Langford’s story is about as mind-boggling as it gets.
Leaving home at a very young age, possibly to get away from an abusive father, Langford managed to make it to Boston, where he found work as a floor cleaner, and probably general dogsbody, in a boxing gym named the Lenox Athletic Club. Quickly becoming fascinated by the boxers that worked out there, Langford knew the Sweet Science was for him. Langford sparred the best in the gym and he handled himself with aplomb. At the age of just 15, Sam won the amateur featherweight championship of Boston.
In time, Langford – a master of distance, of hitting and not getting hit, of feinting, of landing the killer blow, of dictating the pace in the ring, in fact a master of everything when it comes to boxing – was fighting the best heavyweights of the day (those who were willing to face him, that is), and he was dominating them. The long list of great fighters Langford fought, from lightweight up to heavyweight, is really something to behold: Joe Gans, Jack Blackburn, Barbados Joe Walcott, Young Peter Jackson, Joe Jennette, Jack Johnson, Fireman Jim Flynn, Klondike Haynes, Stanley Ketchel, Sam McVea, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Gunboat Smith, Harry Wills, Bill Tate, Kid Norfolk, Fred Fulton, Tiger Flowers, and Bearcat Wright.
Not too many of these men managed to defeat Langford, while some of them (Jack Johnson and Joe Walcott to name two) never went near him a second time. Other legendary warriors, most famously Harry Wills, battled Sam numerous times (Langford and Wills two going to war an incredible 22 times). Indeed, guys like Langford, and Jennette, and Jackson, and McVea, and other black fighters of the time were so good, they only had each other to fight.
Langford, who was handed the nicknames “Boston Tar Baby,” “Boston Terror,” and “Boston Bonecrusher,” stood just 5’7” and he never weighed above 170 pounds in his prime. Yet Sam had long arms, immense physical strength and conditioning, and a boxing brain to kill for (or be darn near murdered by).
Denied the vast number of world title opportunities his enormous talents clearly deserved, this due to the racial barrier of the time, and of champions wanting nothing to do with him – the great Jack Dempsey, for example, told a writer of the day how he feared Langford, “he probably would’ve knocked me out,” Jack is said to have remarked – Langford had to make do with the Mexico heavyweight title, the World Colored heavyweight title, and the Australian heavyweight title.
Langford, who fought in America, in Canada, in France, in Mexico, in Australia, in Argentina, and in Panama, was granted one legit world title shot, this against defending welterweight ruler Walcott in September of 1904. The 15 round fight was scored a draw yet most people felt Langford deserved the win. And Sam had been boxing as a pro for less than two-and-a-half years! Walcott was one superb fighter who failed to grant Langford a rematch.
Instead, Sam moved up and challenged Jack Johnson for the World Colored heavyweight title, this in April of 1906. Now a pro for four years, Langford lost the decision, with “The Galveston Giant” soon winning the real thing, and never agreeing to fight Langford again. Incredibly, Langford had almost 20 years of prize fighting ahead of him.
Langford dropped down and won the World Colored middleweight title, this in August of 1907 with a decision win over Larry Temple, before he again moved up to fight the heavyweights. Sam won the Colored heavyweight title, for the first of many times, in July of 1909, this with a win over Klondike Haynes. Many of the heavyweights Langford fought during this part of his career all said the same thing: namely how Sam was the hardest hitter they ever met. One other fighter Langford was anxious to fight a second time was middleweight ruler Ketchel. The two boxed a six-rounder in April of 1910, with Langford winning easily, even “carrying” Ketchel in the opinion of some reports of the day. Langford never got a shot at Ketchel’s crown, however, as Stanley was murdered in October of 1910. Langford instead engaged in many more heavyweight bouts.
Wars with the likes of Battling Jim Johnson, Jennette, McVea and especially Wills took a lot out of Langford. And the pay wasn’t great, for either fighter.
Langford’s brutal schedule (25 fights in 1920 alone) cost him dearly. As adept as he was at making the other fella miss, Langford did take punches, and his eyesight suffered. By 1922, Langford was blind in his left eye, and he reportedly lost vision in his right eye in his battle with Flowers. The result? Langford, astonishingly, knocked Flowers flat in round two that night of June 5; his right hand somehow landing flush on its target!
Fighting on, simply because he was flat broke, Langford, who would be treated like a king of kings were he living and fighting today, engaged in over 30 more fights, his eyesight ever deteriorating. Somehow, Sam won most of these fights, being KO’d just three times, including in his final fight, this on August 2, 1925. Sam was 43 years old and he had fought (as close as anyone can compile, the figure certain to be higher) no less than 313 times.
Langford’s final years were nothing short of tragic. Blind, penniless and forgotten by too many, Sam was, in 1944, located in Harlem by writer Al Laney. Laney set up fundraisers for the great man who he had found living alone in a darkened, squalid room. It was terrible that Langford met such a fate, yet Sam himself never once felt sorry for himself; nor did he ever stop smiling. He died in a Cambridge, Massachusetts nursing home, this at age 72.
Sam Langford is in a class ALL by himself.