Sam Langford: Papa Jack’s Ominous Shadow
By Mike Casey from Boxing Scene
What was it really like to have Sam Langford coming at you? On March 17, 1910, at the Jeffries Arena in Vernon, California, Fireman Jim Flynn got the answer to that question in painful, brain-scrambling fashion. So hard and true was Langford’s knockout punch, so perfectly timed, that Fireman Jim believed the fight was still on after his brief but ill-timed slumber. The pugnacious battler from Pueblo could not be convinced that his business for the day was done, even as a smiling Sam rushed around the ring and shook hands with his well-wishers.
Dazed and disoriented, Flynn was set to hurl himself into another frenzied attack at his tormentor when referee Charles Eyton told Jim he was out and escorted him back to his corner. Reality took some time to penetrate Flynn’s scattered senses. Gritty, proud and stubborn, the Fireman couldn’t conceive of having his flames put out by Langford. Jim had drawn with Sam just a month before in Los Angeles and had belligerently predicted a drubbing for the Boston Tar Baby in their return.
Now Flynn was sitting in his corner, getting the terrible confirmation of the result from his handlers and feeling like a man who meticulously plans a long journey and then somehow contrives to miss his train.
It was a masterful execution. A big right uppercut from Sam dropped Flynn face down in the eighth round. The punch was expertly thrown. Jack Johnson, Langford’s fellow legend and great rival, would fire the uppercut from an upright position. Sam would twist his body in the appropriate direction and somehow thread the blow through his opponent’s crossed forearms to the target. Such was Langford’s sense of timing and commitment to the punch.
Up to the stunning coup de grace, the fight with Flynn had been full of action and endeavour. Jim pressured Sam all the way, but it was noticeable that Langford was considerably calmer and more measured as he looked for openings. Flynn certainly provided a test for Sam’s analytical boxing brain. When the Fireman wasn’t bulling forward and lashing away with wild blows, he was causing some amusement with his curious defensive tactic of curling himself into a ball like a hedgehog.
Langford in his best form was beautifully economical. He wouldn’t throw a punch unless he was sure in his own mind that he could hit the target. Here was a man who apparently had never had a formal boxing lesson, yet he idolised Joe Gans and was arguably even more innately gifted than the Old Master.
Jim Flynn’s face was soon bleeding and bruised from the attention of Sam’s accurately placed jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Realising his best bet was to stay close to Langford, Flynn would storm to close quarters and hook to the ribs and the side of the body as he rested his head below his opponent’s chin. Jim could use that head of his in more ways than one, as Jack Johnson would discover two years later. Weary of being held in Jack’s vice-like grip in the clinches, the shorter Flynn would comically take to the air as he repeatedly jumped up and head-smashed Johnson to the chin. Watch the film of that old fight and you will see Jack smiling wryly at livid Jim’s antics.
Langford knew he had Flynn. Countless stories would subsequently be written of Sam’s apparent, uncanny ability to bring the curtain down at the time of his choosing. Some such tales have inevitably strayed into the mythical, but there is little doubt that Langford’s ability to read and dictate a fight was exceptional.
In the seventh round, Sam slowed his pace and the largely pro-Flynn crowd was deceived into believing that their man Jim was finally on the upswing. In the words of the old song, Langford was simply reviewing the situation. If Fireman Jim gained any comfort from Sam’s apparent lethargy, it was short-lived. As the round drew to a close, Langford opened up again with a succession of ripping and hurtful shots.
Boxing can be a cruelly deceptive sport. It can paint pretty pictures and then deface them at the drop of a hat. Flynn looked just fine as he set about his work in the eighth round. In fact he was better than he had been all the way through as he chased Langford and found the mark with some hefty body blows. Then Sam pulled the trigger. As Jim lowered his head to begin another charge, Langford took one step back and launched the deciding uppercut with a full sweep of his arm. The blow caught Flynn between his chin and mouth and belted his world right off its axis.
The writers of Sam Langford’s day were lavish in their praise of the Boston Tar Baby’s many talents. While we are all guilty of having a soft spot for the fighters of our generation, it is true to say that the twinkle of Langford’s star has not diminished with the passing years.
My good friend Curtis Narimatsu in Hawaii, who very kindly tops up my vast collection of old fight reports with scrumptious clippings of his own, has long identified Langford as a member of one of boxing’s most significant triumvirates, along with Bob Fitzsimmons and the matchless master, Joe Gans.
Says Curtis, “There is a distinct line of mentor influence linking that stellar trio. Just as Gans idolised Fitz, so Langford idolised Gans. Years later, in much the same way, Muhammad Ali would learn and improvise from the technique of Sugar Ray Robinson.”
Broadway Charley Rose, the veteran boxer, trainer and manager, saw them all up until his death in 1974 and would not budge on his choice of Langford as the greatest fighter he had seen and among the elite of the heavyweights. That is some compliment when one considers that Sam was never more than a middleweight with lofty aspirations.
Rose said: “Sam Langford was the greatest fighting machine I have seen. He could box, he could hit, he could out-think his rivals and display the most consummate ring generalship the sport yet has seen.
“When Langford hit you on the button, there was no need to wait and count over the fallen fighter. I remember when he stopped Al Kubiak in New York. He belted Al with his famous right, and as Kubiak toppled, Sam left the ring. He knew that the fight was over.
“Langford stopped Fireman Jim Flynn in Los Angeles virtually with one punch. One of the local papers the next day said, ‘Fireman Jim Flynn got hit on the chin. Amen’.
“Flynn had threatened to ‘malerate’ the Boston Tar Baby. Sam was a great fighter in an era of great heavyweights.”
Writer Bill McCormack was also taken with Langford’s overall prowess. In 1962, McCormack wrote: “Without doubt, Jack Dempsey was the most exciting heavyweight – if not the most exciting fighter – the ring ever knew. But I think the best of the big boys must have been Sam Langford. I know that’s taking in a lot of territory, because Dempsey, Louis and Johnson were great, but I have my reasons for liking the Boston Tar Baby.
“First of all, Langford made Lil Arthur (Johnson) run away and hide. Johnson got the decision, by one means or another, when they fought in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1906, but never again could he be lured into the ring with manager Joe Woodman’s squat fighting machine.
“Then, too, it was a well established fact that Sam was so good he had to ‘put on the handcuffs’ before any of the big boys would take him on. As it was, he licked Harry Wills in several of their numerous encounters, and flattened Jim Flynn and Gunboat Smith when he was way past his prime.”
McCormack rightly pointed out that Sam was still a formidable competitor near the end of his career when he was virtually blind.
“Perhaps the greatest thing Langford ever did was to flatten Tiger Flowers in Atlanta in 1922. At the time, Sam was 44, Flowers 26.
“In the first round, Langford literally felt out the Tiger. He had to. He couldn’t see him and had to locate him by feel. He came back to his corner and notified his handlers, “This boy’s making mistakes. He makes ‘em again and we go home’.
“Flowers made the mistakes and Langford knocked him out in the second. Flowers went on to win the middleweight title from the great Harry Greb in 1926.”
Langford was a pure natural. His physique, his brilliant boxing brain and lateral thinking and his fistic versatility were all delightfully out of kilter with textbook teaching. He thrilled the romantics and frustrated the deep thinkers and number crunchers who despair whenever a Sam Langford cannot be specifically filed and categorised.
Let us start with Sam’s incredible physique. In less enlightened times, he was frequently compared to a gorilla. Such a yardstick might make some of us wince with embarrassment now, but the comparison was well meant and actually very apt.
For while Langford stood just 5’ 7’’, he was a physical powerhouse. Broad shouldered and deep in the chest, he also possessed incredibly long arms that consistently fooled opponents who thought they were out of range.
Sam was able to take full advantage of these physical gifts. His speed in the ring was frequently described as ‘phenomenal’ and he was a thunderous puncher. His stamina was never questioned and his boxing brain was as sharp as that of Ray Robinson or any other fighter in history.
These talents gave Langford his career longevity. Starting out as a featherweight in 1902, his last recorded fight was in 1926. He was going steadily blind from 1917 and could barely see his opponents during the last days of his career. He had turned 40 when he knocked out Andres Balsa for the Spanish and Mexican heavyweight titles in 1923. Sam engaged in well over 300 professional fights, although it is doubtful that we will ever nail down his exact total.
So fabled are Sam’s exploits as a giant killer of heavyweights and light-heavyweights, it is often forgotten that he was a genuine all time great in the middleweight and welterweight divisions.
Back in the late forties, a phony was posing as Sam Langford down in Lexington, Kentucky. An eager sports writer delved into the story and found the real Sam. The old champ was stone blind and just about getting by in a hall room in Harlem.
Manager Joe Woodman had seen the disturbing signs years before but couldn’t persuade Langford to quit. The successful partnership between the unlikely pair was dissolved after Sam’s fight with Fred Fulton at Boston in 1917. Woodman recalled: “Sam got badly busted up around the eyes in that bout, and I was afraid he’d go blind if he kept fighting. I told Sam he’d better quit, but he was stubborn. He insisted he’d keep going.
I said it was dangerous for him, that he’d probably lose his eyesight and I didn’t want to be held responsible. I argued and pleaded but it did no good. So we parted. I was right. Sam did keep fighting and eventually became blind. It was too bad. He was a great fighter and one of the finest chaps, personally, I’ve ever had anything to do with.”
Joe Woodman was a licensed pharmacist by trade and was running a drug store near North Station in Boston when his interest in boxing led him to promoting fights at a small local club.
There he took an interest in 16-year old Sam Langford, who had travelled down from his home in Weymouth, Nova Scotia. Young Sam was working in a brickyard at the time and wanted to fight professionally. His relationship with Woodman would span 17 years and take them all over the United States and Canada, and around the globe to England, France, Australia, Panama and Argentina.
The living wasn’t always easy, as Woodman explained: “I don’t know how many miles of land and water we covered, but I can tell you one thing: it was long, often tedious travelling. There were no airplanes, you know, and we had to go by train and ship. We were constantly moving. We didn’t stay too long in any one place – just kept going to wherever we could get fights.”
Wills on Langford
Whilst preparing for his 1924 fight with Luis Angel Firpo, Harry Wills proudly told Damon Runyon: “I fought Sam Langford fourteen times and he kept me down on the canvas for the full count but twice. Once, Sam stuck me away in nineteen rounds and the other time in fourteen. I wasn’t in real good condition either time.”
What Wills neglected to mention was that Langford wasn’t in the greatest shape himself for the latter part of their ongoing series. The bare statistics tell us that Harry decisively trumped Sam in the overall score, but Wills was beating an ageing man whose eyesight was rapidly deteriorating. One has to bear in mind also that the newspaper decisions of that era were not always the most reliable of barometers.
Yet Harry was unstinting in his praise of Langford’s ability. When it was suggested that Firpo was a dangerous puncher, Wills said, “He has a good right hand but he can’t begin to punch with Old Sam. How that Langford could crack you on the button! Just a twist of the wrist, and when you came to your seconds would be dragging you to your corner.”
Harry Lenny, one of the great fight managers, pointed out that the true one punch finisher is more of a rarity than many imagine. Langford, in Lenny’s book, was one of the chosen few. “There are all kinds of punchers. There’s the fellow who numbs you and the one who gives you a sharp shock.
“Joe Louis is what I call a bruising puncher. But he’s not one of those one punch finishers He hit Max Baer over 250 times right on the whiskers and still Max wasn’t unconscious when he was counted out on one knee.
“Jack Dempsey also was a crushing puncher, but it took a lot of punches as a rule for him to finish a man.
“There have been very few one punch finishers in the ring. These birds really are the terrific hitters. Sam Langford was that kind of a walloper and there was a kid down in Baltimore years ago – George (KO) Chaney, a lightweight – who could stiffen his man with one sock.
“When Langford hit you a short, sharp jolt, the lights went out on you and that’s all there was to it.”
In the early years of the twentieth century, Langford was one of a famous and celebrated quartet of black fighters. Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey were Sam’s greatest rivals, but in truth only Johnson was on the Boston Tar Baby’s special level.
When Sam decisioned Joe Jeannette over 20 rounds at Luna Park in Paris in December, 1913, correspondent Stephen Black drew attention to the marked differences between the two men in their talent and general demeanour. “Jeannette fought like a greyhound, a plucky greyhound that wants to fight but can only fight his own way. As he retreats, he snaps back little biting snaps that worry the other fighter unless he is a thoroughbred bulldog like Sam Langford. For that is exactly what Langford is in appearance and by temperament. He is a bigger edition of Joe Walcott, the black demon, and I think a better one.
“Jeannette looked worried in his corner before the beginning, whereas Langford sat up waiting for the bell like a bulldog expecting a bone.”
Jack Blackburn, legendary trainer of Joe Louis and a formidable lightweight in his day, offered the opinion that Sam Langford was the greatest fighter of all. Plenty of Jack’s contemporaries concurred with that opinion.
In his wonderful book, ‘Kings of the Ring’, British boxing writer James ‘Jimmy’ Butler, said of Langford: “I set him down without hesitation as the greatest glove-fighter I ever met. I still think that had he been matched a second time with Jack Johnson, he would have beaten the champion.”
Butler was at ringside for Langford’s fight with the big Australian Bill Lang at Olympia in London in 1911. The record book has been kind to big Bill, as it shows that he lost the bout on a sixth round disqualification after whacking Sam on the chin while he was on one knee from a slip. This masks the fact that Langford gave Lang an almighty thrashing up to the unfortunate conclusion. The 210lb Lang had outweighed Sam by nearly 50 pounds.
Lang’s mentor, newspaper magnate Hugh D McIntosh, couldn’t believe what he saw. Before battle was joined, he had raved about his white hope to Jimmy Butler and said, “He’ll eat this coloured boy, Jimmy – just eat him.”
During Sam’s visit to London, he told Jimmy Butler, “I’m not the champ. Jack Johnson is that guy and he keeps dodging me.”
Butler subsequently wrote: “That, as a matter of fact, was the plain and unvarnished truth. Johnson did dodge a meeting with the Boston Tar Baby after their terrific clash at Chelsea, Massachusetts.
“Johnson just scraped home on points after fifteen rounds, but I think he learned enough to realise that if he ever got into the same ring with Langford again, those gigantic arms and shoulders would make short work of sweeping him off his throne.”
Well, there is little doubt that Johnson did indeed steer a wide berth of Langford after their one and only confrontation. But did Sam really give Jack such a close call in that Chelsea fight? The rumour persisted for years that Langford had even decked Papa Jack, which offended Johnson greatly and prompted him to issue a series of vehement denials.
In an open letter to The Ring magazine in 1934, Johnson wrote: “I have accounts of the fight from my dear old friend, Tad (legendary sports writer and cartoonist Tad Dorgan) which show how badly Sam Langford was whipped. Please note the account of our fifteen-round fight at Chelsea, Mass., which I am enclosing. The report shows that I gave poor Sam such a severe trimming that he had to find his way into a hospital to recuperate. The records of that fight prove that statement to be correct.
“Langford was among the five fighters to whom I gave the worst beatings in all my career. This quintet was composed of Jim Jeffries, Tommy Burns, Sam Langford, Sailor Burke and Frank Childs.”
To his dying day in 1972, Ring editor Nat Fleischer maintained that Jack Johnson was the greatest of all the heavyweights. Understandably, Nat was eager to get to the bottom of the Johnson-Langford controversy. In his 1958 book, ’50 Years at Ringside’, Fleischer produced the testimony of his father-in-law, Dad Phillips, who allegedly saw the fight.
Said Phillips: “Jack Johnson decisively defeated Sam Langford. He was complete master of the situation. Jack so far outclassed Langford that for a time, until he purposely eased up on his onslaughts, the fight was one-sided.
“Langford was dropped twice for counts of nine, and he would have been out the first time if referee Martin Flaherty had not slowed up the count. At the end of the fight, Sam had to be taken to a hospital.
“As for Langford dropping Johnson, that’s absurd. Why, he couldn’t land on Jack.”
Sam’s alleged knockdown of Jack continued to bug Nat Fleischer, who had to find the truth from the nearest equivalent of the horse’s mouth. Nat cornered Langford’s former manager Joe Woodman and good-naturedly demanded the true version of events.
According to Fleischer, this was Woodman’s response: “You’ve got me, Nat. Langford never dropped Johnson. But I was anxious to fix up another fight between the two and, knowing Jack’s pride, I invented the story of that knockdown to goad him into the ring against Sam again.
“Although it never happened, all the newspapermen believed it. They just never took the trouble to investigate. That knockdown was just a publicity gimmick.”
Well, we take all that for what we will. The simple fact is that only the long dead players and supporting cast from that gloriously mystical fight at Chelsea knew what really happened.
Sam and Stan
The National Athletic Club in Philadelphia had never known the like of it People came from all over the country. There was a special train of six cars from New York and large parties from Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Boston and other major cities.
It was April 27th, 1910, and Sam Langford was locking horns with Stanley Ketchel. The two titans of the game would wage a six-rounds no contest, but the short-lived bout was still worth the miles and the money to those who came.
The myth of this set-to was that it was little more than an exhibition. It was much more than that. It was a thrilling fight in which both gladiators fought viciously. After a quiet first round, Sam and Stan set about seeing what they were made of. Ketchel attacked Langford’s body with ripping hooks, only to be met by sledgehammer jabs and powerful right uppercuts.
At the end of the third round, a hard uppercut from Sam brought blood streaming from Stan’s nose, angering the Michigan Assassin and causing him to swing wildly.
The tide turned in the fourth when Ketchel shot a tremendous left to Sam’s body. The blow closed Langford’s eyes momentarily and forced his mouth to drop open. The bell prevented Ketchel from doing further damage.
Sam had Stan’s nose bleeding again in the fifth round, but had to withstand a hard right to the jaw for his troubles. Canny Ketchel was staying as close to Langford as he could, but a steaming uppercut from Sam in the sixth lifted the Assassin off his feet. Incredibly, Ketchel kept coming, although he seemed to be slowing at the finish as his nose bled heavily and stained his body crimson.
There were those who believed Sam had the edge by the close of battle. Others disagreed. There had to be a return match, but fate cruelly prevented it. Six months and three fights later, Ketchel died from the bullet of another assassin who came in through the back door.
Sam Langford, of course, just kept rolling along. Ye gods, what a pair!
* Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).