By Clay Moyle
Pound for pound, who was the world’s greatest boxer?
Whenever boxing fans debate the question, the name most often mentioned is that of Sugar Ray Robinson. However, many boxing historians would argue in favor of Sam Langford, a.k.a. “The Boston Tar Baby,” a lesser-known fighter born in Weymouth, Nova Scotia, in 1886.
Today, many followers of “the Sweet Science” couldn’t tell you who Sam Langford was. But during the first quarter of the twentieth century, the prospect of facing the five-foot-seven-inch dynamo, who weighed no more than 175 pounds at his peak, struck terror in the hearts of most of his contemporaries, including heavyweight champions Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey.
In June 1916, the 21-year-old Dempsey was climbing up the heavyweight ranks toward the eventual destruction of heavyweight champion Jess Willard in the summer of 1919. Offered the chance to face an aging but still dangerous Langford in the ring, Dempsey quickly declined. Recalling the incident years later in his autobiography, Dempsey wrote, “The Hell I feared no man. There was one man, he was even smaller than I, I wouldn’t fight because I knew he would flatten me. I was afraid of Sam Langford.”
Jack Johnson, on the other hand, did face Langford – once, in April 1906 – when Langford was only a 20-year-old lightweight who gave up over 40 pounds to the 28-year- old heavyweight contender. Johnson won a convincing 15-round decision over the youngster, but discovered just how tough the Tar Baby was and what kind of dynamite he carried in his fists.
Two and a half years later, Johnson was in pursuit of a title bout with the reigning champion Tommy Burns but he found himself stranded in London without enough money to follow Burns to Australia. England’s National Sporting Club stepped in and provided the needed funds on the condition that, in the event that Johnson beat Burns, he would return and make his first title defense before the club against Langford.
Johnson obtained his match for the title and captured the crown with a convincing fourteenth-round defeat of Burns on December 16, 1908. However, rather than return to England and face Sam Langford – who, since their earlier encounter, had added 30 pounds of muscle to his frame – Johnson reneged on the signed letter of promise he had provided to the club.
Johnson maintained that the money offered by the club was insufficient and that his manager had signed the agreement without his approval. The National Sporting Club countered by producing the document that Johnson himself had signed. It was to no avail: Johnson had other plans. Over the ensuing years Langford and his manager, Joe Woodman, hounded Johnson in futile pursuit of an opportunity to fight for the heavyweight championship.
“Nobody will pay to see two black men fight for the title,” Johnson rationalized. However, when Johnson grew weary of Australian boxing promoter Hugh “Huge Deal”’ McIntosh’s efforts to arrange a match with Langford, he admitted that he had no wish to face Langford again. “I don’t want to fight that little smoke,” said Johnson. “He’s got a chance to win against anyone in the world. I’m the first black champion and I’m going to be the last.”
Years later, Johnson confided to New England Sports Museum trustee Kevin Aylwood, “Sam Langford was the toughest little son of a bitch that ever lived.”
Interestingly, Duke Mullins, the only man to train both fighters, substantiated what McIntosh said about Johnson’s reluctance to face Langford a second time. According to Mullins, Johnson was never anxious to talk about Langford and normally changed the subject whenever Langford’s name was mentioned. On one occasion Johnson noted that there were dozens of easy money white men for him to meet without having to fight a tough rival like Langford. While Johnson told Mullins that he felt heavyweight Joe Jeannette was the toughest man he ever saw, he also noted that Langford was the most dangerous.
Jeannette himself would have agreed: He and Johnson and faced each other in the ring at least 10 times before Johnson became champion. Those ten meetings resulted in five no-decisions, two draws, two decision victories for Johnson and one win on a foul for Jeannette. But Jeannette fought Langford 14 times, suffering his only knockout at Langford’s hands. For that, Jeanette held Langford in the highest esteem.
“Langford, was the greatest fighter who ever lived,” Jeanette would say in an article published by Boxing Illustrated. “Sam would have been champion any time Johnson had given him a fight. And Johnson knew it better than anybody.” Jeannette often exclaimed while rubbing his oval jaw, “Man! How that baby could hit. Nobody else could hit like that. Well, maybe Joe Louis could,” he conceded. “But don’t forget that Sam only weighed about 160 pounds. Louis was about 195.”
Given such testimonials by boxers, trainers and sportswriters who witnessed Sam Langford in action, why isn’t he better known today?
One reason is that, despite participating in over 300 professional bouts in a 24-year ring career (from 1902 to 1926), Langford never won a world title. He defeated reigning lightweight champion Joe Gans by decision in December 1903 but was not recognized as the new champion because he came into the fight two pounds over the lightweight limit. Nine months later Langford fought the world welterweight champion, Joe Walcott, to a 15-round draw in a contest that the majority of those in attendance felt he deserved.
Surprisingly, Langford would never receive another opportunity to fight for a world title. Although he faced the great middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel in a six-round fight in April 1910, this was a predetermined no-decision contest that was rumored to be a preview for a 45-round title bout on the West Coast later that year. Unfortunately, Ketchel was murdered before that event could be held.
To this day some still debate over who got the better of that short contest, but reportedly when Sam received the news of Ketchel’s death, he said simply, “Poor Steve [Stanley’s nickname], he went to his grave thinking he could really lick ol’ Sam.”
For many years Langford was bothered by the fact that did not get the opportunity to prove his superiority over Ketchel bothered Sam for many years. In a letter to New York Evening World sportswriter and cartoonist Bob Edgren – which Edgren reproduced in his November 3, 1916, column – Langford wrote:
I am always glad to see you or any other person giving Stanley Ketchel a boost. He deserves it. Your boost for the late Stanley Ketchel last week read all right excepting for the part where you said he nearly knocked me out in our six-round rumpus in Philadelphia. To be real frank with you, I will say that you are greatly mistaken, for the simple reason that he never had a chance. I could say much more, but rest most assuredly I told you a mouthful.
In fact, Langford was often accused of holding back and of participating in a number of fixed fights. He always denied the charge but he admitted to going easy on an opponent from time to time when it made economic sense to do so. Referring to himself in the third person, Langford said, “In all the years that little Sammy was out there strutting his stuff, there was not one time when Sammy had an agreement with the other boy. Little Sammy did do some agreeing about fights, but he did all of it himself. If in some of my fights I didn’t try to kill the other boy, it wasn’t because I told him I wouldn’t.”
Langford maintained that only once did he break his pledge not to hurt the other fighter too much, and that was in the fight in which Joe Jeannette suffered the only knockout of his career. Fighting Jeanette in Rochester, Langford resolved not to batter his opponent because they were going to have another fight shortly thereafter, and he didn’t want to deny Jeanette and himself the money from a rematch. Langford threw such fearsome blows that Jeanette thought his brains would be knocked out, and attempted to respond in kind. When Langford wound up and began to throw a right almost from the floor, Jeanette tore in and caught the punch – which Langford had planned to throw wide – on the point of his chin. Jeanette crumbled to the floor and was counted out. Langford claimed that he was more surprised than everyone.
Although Langford began competing as a lightweight and then as a welterweight, once he matured physically, it became more difficult for him to keep within those weight limits; that, coupled with the fact that there was more money in fighting big fellows, convinced him to go after heavyweights. Over the years he met and defeated many men much larger than himself: men like “Battling” Jim Johnson, Sam McVey, Sandy Ferguson, Joe Jeannette, Sam McVey, “Big” Bill Tate, George Godfrey and Harry Wills. Some of these fighters towered over Langford, who gave up as much as 40 pounds in weight.
One opponent, “Fireman” Jim Flynn, said of Langford’s punching power: “I fought most of the heavyweights, including [Jack] Dempsey and [Jack] Johnson, but Sam could strength a guy colder than any of them. When Langford hit me it felt like someone slugged me with a baseball bat.”
In 1917, Langford completely lost the sight of one eye during a loss against Fred Fulton. Remarkably, he would continue fighting with one eye for another nine years, the last few with limited sight out of his one “good” eye. In 1923 he captured the Mexican heavyweight title in a contest at which he had to rely on his handlers to help guide him into the ring and to his corner. Langford’s assistants were so concerned about his eyesight that they wanted to call the fight off, but Langford refused: He needed the money.
“Don’t worry about little Sammy,” he said, “I don’t need to see that boy, I just got to feel him.”
Langford’s opponent, 24-year-old “Kid” Savage, was the reigning champion of Mexico and extremely cautious; he ran around the ring, keeping his distance, as Langford struggled to follow his movements. Periodically, Langford would get a bearing on Savage’s location and rush him in an attempt to corner him. He failed miserably for a time but eventually managed to catch Savage near the ropes and successfully measured him for a right uppercut that landed on Savage’s chin, knocking Savage out about one minute and forty-five seconds into the first round.
But Sam’s best days were well behind him. He fought on for another two years while his eyesight continued to fail, until in August 1925, in his last professional bout, he was forced to quit in the opening round of a fight when it became obvious that he couldn’t see his opponent at all.
By 1944, Langford was blind, all but forgotten and living in poverty in a dingy tenement in Harlem, N.Y. In January of that year, sportswriter Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune decided to write a story about Langford, a great boxer who had seemingly vanished from the face of the earth. Since Langford’s last known residence was in Harlem, Laney decided to focus his efforts there.
The search proved futile for quite a while. Many people Laney questioned were not even aware of who Langford was. At least a dozen others but claimed that Langford was dead. Eventually Laney learned that Langford was in fact alive and residing in a building on 139th St. A woman there led Laney to a tiny, dirty bedroom at the end of a dark hallway on the third floor. There, Laney found Langford, just one month shy of his fifty-eighth birthday, sitting on the edge of his bed, listening to an old radio.
Langford had 20 cents in his pocket and was subsisting on a few dollars he received each month from a foundation for the blind. Twice a day, two young boys would come by and take him to a restaurant for breakfast and a second meal late in the afternoon. Langford told Laney that he the rest of his time sitting alone in his dark bedroom with only his radio for company.
When he’d gathered the information he needed for his story, Laney went back to the office and banged out the story on his typewriter for the paper. But he didn’t stop there: He was so moved by Langford’s situation that he initiated a drive with a group of New York businessmen and -women that raised $10,892 for a trust fund for Langford. Among the 705 contributors were men fighters Jack Dempsey, Beau Jack, Fritzie Zivic, and Joe Louis, boxing promoter Mike Jacobs, and famed New York nightclub owner Toots Shore. Sam was provided with an initial payment of $125, followed by $75 per month until April of 1945, after which the balance of $9,000 was invested in an insurance company so that Langford would receive an annuity of $49.18 a month for life.
In 1952, Langford moved back to Boston and quietly lived out the remaining years of his life in a private nursing home. He passed away on January 12, 1956, just two months fore his seventieth birthday and only ten weeks after being enshrined in the Boxing Hall of Fame. At the time of his induction, Langford was the only non–world titleholder to be so honored.
Langford never regretted his chosen profession and expressed no bitterness or remorse over the loss of his eyesight. He maintained a keen sense of humor and kind disposition throughout his life and always said that boxing provided him with a wealth of memories. In a statement attributed to him a few months before his death, he said, “Don’t nobody need to feel sorry for old Sam. I had plenty of good times. I been all over the world. I fought maybe 600 fights, and every one was a pleasure!”
Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer once said of Langford: “Sam was endowed with everything. He possessed strength, agility, cleverness, hitting power, a good thinking cap and an abundance of courage. He feared no one. But he had the fatal gift of being too good and that’s why he often had to give away weight in early days and make agreements with opponents. Many of those who agreed to fight him, especially of his own race, wanted an assurance that he would be merciful or insisted on a bout of not more than six rounds.”
The great former lightweight king Frank Erne, when asked in the 1950s what he thought about Langford, replied: “I’d pick him to knock out Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and Rock Marciano. When he was not under wraps, he was a ring marvel.”