Sam Langford, known as the “Boston Terror” and
"The Boston Tar Baby," is considerd to be the greatest fighter to never
win a world boxing championship. The reason is simple. He was the most
avoided fighter in the illustrious history of boxing. Despite often
being outweighed by 20 to 50 pounds in many of his fights, he scored
more knockouts than George Foreman and Mike Tyson combined. Fighting
from lightweight to heavyweight Sam Langford took on all the best
fighters of the first two decades of 20th century. He spent the last
years of his fighting career virtually blind where the bulk of his
losses occurred, although he still won a number of fights impressively
by knockout. He was an amazing fighter. His record was 214-46-44 16 ND
3NC with 138 Kayo's, according to research by historian Tim Leone.
Sam was powerfully built. His measurements were
5’6 ½’ with a 17” neck, 15” biceps, a 42 ½” inch chest and a 73” reach.
He spent much of his prime career at middleweight, with his best weight
about 165 pounds, by age 27 he was a small heavyweight weighing around
180 pounds. If he were fighting today he would have contended for titles
from welterweight to light-heavyweight. He eventually weighed around 190
pounds and may have challenged heavyweights as he did in his own time.
Langford was a short, stocky, long armed and
powerful puncher. He had huge shoulders and massive back muscles. He was
known for his quick hands, debilitating left jab, crushing hook,
powerful right cross, smashing uppercut and devastating body punches. He
was equally adept at punching from long range or short punches at close
range. When he had his opponent hurt he was a deadly finisher.
He was master at the art of feinting. His
ability as a feinter is easily described in his knockout over the “white
hope” Gunboat Smith. The Oct. 21, 1914 Boston Globe reported, “A
couple of stiff jabs on Smith’s chin sent him to the ropes. Langford
kept forcing Smith about the ring and when the gunner was near his own
corner Langford feinted and Smith dropped his guard, Sam then shooting
the right under Smith’s ear.”
Sam was also an outstanding defensive fighter;
a master at blocking an opponents leads with an open glove with the rear
hand in proper position, a master glove blocker and counter puncher as
well as a fighter who would duck and counter putting his whole body into
his blows. Sam had the perfect balance, timing and leverage of a great
puncher. He also had an outstanding chin and was able to absorb the
punishing blows of much larger men. A terror on offense and a master of
defense Sam could do it all.
Al Laney wrote, "This is the man competent
critics said was the greatest fighter in ring history, the man the
champions feared and would not fight, the man who was so good he was
never given a chance to show how good he really was."
Mike Silver stated, that Sam was "Quite
possibly the greatest fighter who ever lived, Langford mastered every
punch. His short hook on the inside and his right cross and uppercut
were particularly deadly. His punishing jab was also one of the best. He
was a strategist who knew how to maneuver, with the ability to explode
out of an offensive or defensive position. He could instantly stop when
retreating, revert to the offensive, and in the blink of an eye render
an opponent unconscious with trip-hammer blows thrown in four and five
punch combinations. Langford's every move embodied the technique of a
studied master boxer. During his prime he was rarely outfought,
out-thought, or out-punched."
William Detloff wrote, "Langford wasn't simply
an all out slugger. He was smart and crafty and knew how to out-think
guys in the ring. He could fight inside or outside and was impossibly
strong. He was decades ahead of his time."
Ring founder Nat Fleischer reported, in
Black Dynamite Vol 4, “Langford was as quick and slippery as an eel
in action, highly intelligent and made up of surprising dodges from head
to heels. Sam used his bulky shoulders and clever blocking arms to avoid
blows and his potent punching power stayed with him until the end of his
Gilbert Odd penned, “Langford with his massive
pair of shoulders and long arms was a danger to anyone. Although only a
middleweight he gave weight and a beating to many heavyweights.”
R. Stockton stated, "Langford had all the
attributes of a great fighter, speed, punching power, an amazingly
elusive defense, the ability to absorb punishment, and unlimited
W. Diamond wrote, “Sam Langford was a great
fighter in an age of great fighters. In proportion to his height and
weight there never was a greater fighting man."
Norman Clark who saw Sam fight on his tour of
England wrote,All in the Game 1935, “On the whole, I think
Langford was the most tremendous hitter in the Ring at this time; for,
whereas Johnson would not, as a rule, let the heavy stuff fly until he
had worn the man down, Sam always waded right in and immediately let go
punches heavy enough to drop anyone. Of course, he had to work up his
punch to an extent, however, and this he usually did on the giant Negro,
Bob Armstrong, whom he had training with him. As he sparred with
Armstrong, every now and again he would give him a dig "downstairs" that
would have the big fellow gasping, and, to keep moving, he would then
shadow-box for a short time before coming back to resume operations.
There would be a few more exchanges, then whop! In would go another one
to the body, and exclaim, "Oh"! He's got cramp again", Sam would do a
little more shadow-boxing: and so, and so on.”
Clark also marveled at Sam’s quickness, “For
working up speed Langford had Jimmy Walsh, the bantamweight champion of
the world, with him. The pair used to box together lightly, but at a
great pace, and I was surprised to find that even in this sort of work
Sam was every bit as fast and clever as Walsh himself.”
Harry Wills described in the February 1953
Boxing and Wrestling Magazine what his knockout losses to Langford
were like. Wills said he was hit so hard each time that he doesn’t
remember being knocked out! "I was knocked out three times in my career,
twice by Langford and in my last fight by Paulino Uzcudun. I still don't
know, except from hearsay, what punches Sam used to knock me out. The
first time it happened was 1914. We were supposed to go twenty rounds,
when the fourteenth began I was going easy. Sam was in a bad way. I
backed him around the ring trying to set him up for a one punch finish.
His eye was bleeding and the last thing I remember was having him
against the ropes just about five feet from his corner. It must have
happened right then.” The Nov 27 San Francisco Chronicle reported
that it was “a left hook to the jaw” that “turned the trick.”
“Two years later,” continued Wills, “we were
scheduled for another twenty rounder. In the eighteenth Sam was in a
peck of trouble and once again I tried to set him up for a quick
knockout. He finished the round okay and when the bell sounded for the
start of the nineteenth I was after him again. I figured if I could get
him in a corner I could finish the fight. That was all I could remember.
He must have caught me as I rushed in." The Feb 13, 1916 New Orleans
Times-Picayune said it was "Langford's mighty left hook." Wills
stated, "I don't know how long I was unconscious but it must have been
quite a while. He was marvelous as a fighting man, I'd venture to say
unbeatable in his prime."
In comparison to modern fighters Sam was
similar to the experienced heavyweight version of James Toney in size,
boxing skill and in his ability to take a punch. Sam also fought very
relaxed like Toney did at his peak, but Sam had greater speed. In terms
of punching power Sam approached that of Tyson. Imagine Toney with power
coming close to that of Tyson and one has Sam Langford!
Sam story began when he left home in Nova
Scotia, Canada, at an early age to escape an abusive father. At age 14
he was living as a tramp traveling from job to job when in Boston he
walked into a small drug store and asked if he could get some work as he
hadn't eaten for two days. Joe Woodman, the owner, fed him and gave him
a job as janitor in the boxing gymnasium at the Lenox Athletic Club that
he operated on the side. Sam watched the professional boxers train and
studied their styles. Sam began to work as a sparring partner for some
of the pro’s in the gym. Sam won the amateur featherweight championship
of Boston at age 15 and turned pro the same year. He grew quickly and
from age 16 he was a welterweight. Within a couple of years he was ready
for the big time.
One can see how great a fighter Sam was by
looking at his fights when he came in contact with world champions. In
each account Sam won or was considered to be better. It is little wonder
that no world champion wanted to face him.
Against the marvelous lightweight champion Joe
Gans, Langford who had already grown into a welterweight, managed to
catch the more experienced veteran champion fighting his second day in a
row in different cities. Gans had to travel by train from Philadelphia
to make the fight against Sam in Boston. Gans started off strong landing
with a triple hook and a smashing right in the first round that stunned
Sam. After that Langford showed strong defense blocking his opponent’s
leads and countering. After five rounds the great champion began to slow
from lag and Sam came on and won a 15 round decision. This fight is
considered to be the only fight the real Gans lost in a period of more
than 10 years.
The following year Sam got his chance at
welterweight champion Joe Walcott, the Barbados Demon. The Sept 24,
National Police Gazette reported, “Although the mill went the limit
and was called a draw there were plenty present who thought Langford
won. Up to the seventh round Walcott was unable to do anything with
Langford. The latter (Langford) got away from his opponents leads and
punched back with him. One of the swings, which caught Walcott on the
jaw, almost put Joe out. In the tenth round Walcott, who was nettled
because he could not catch Langford, began to slug. Langford though, was
willing to mix it up and gave Walcott plenty to do, at the same time
outboxing him.” Arthur Lumley, sports editor of the New York
Illustrated News wrote, "My personal opinion is that Langford was
entitled to the verdict, and should have been awarded the world's
title." The 15 round “draw” was the only title shot Sam would ever get.
His only meaningful loss was to future
heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1906. Langford was only a
light-middleweight at the time against heavyweight Johnson. Langford
would later admit that Jack “handed me the only real beating I ever
took” (Fleischer p 141). Johnson floored Sam twice in winning a 15 round
decision. Later as Sam grew in size, reputation, and experience and
became a real threat to his heavyweight championship, Johnson refused to
give Sam a shot at the title.
Langford was at his peak at middleweight when
Stanley Ketchel was the world middleweight champion. Nat Fleischer
wrote, “One hesitates to say that Ketchel, reknowned deservedly for his
gameness, was afraid of Langford. But the fact remains that Stanley had
refused several offers to meet Langford in a distance bout.”
They did finally meet in a 6 round no decision
affair. The April 28, 1910 Philadelphia Bulletin reported “Sam
Langford, of Boston, defeated Stanley Ketchel of Grand Rapids, Mich., in
a 6 round bout at the National Club last night.” Langford established a
superior jab in the first two rounds. In the third he “shook Ketchel
badly with swings to the head.” In the fourth he “twice shook Ketchel
with jaw punches and brought the blood from the mouth and nose with well
timed jabs.” Langford let up in the last two rounds. “To sum it up,
Langford was much the stronger and cleverer and his jabs had a
disconcerting effect on Ketchel…the colored man looked to be in pretty
good shape at the close, but Ketchel was tired and wild and the sound of
the bell was a welcome interruption.” The newspaper verdict, contrary to
some later published reports, was in favor of Langford.
Against light-heavyweight champion Philadelphia
Jack O’Brien on Aug 15, 1911 Langford easily defeated the clever
champion on a fifth round knockout. The New York Herald reported
“Sam Langford, working on 3rd speed for most of the way, knocked out
Jack O’Brien last night at the Twentieth Century A.C. in the first
minute of the fifth round. The Negro was kind to the Philadelphia
dancing master in permitting him to stay as long as he did, for he
showed both by his power and his speed that if he cared to put on the
accelerator the white man would have been lucky to have lasted more than
the first round.” The Herald described the end, “After feinting
and dancing with his rival for a time the Negro plunged a terrific right
into the pit of the white man’s stomach and the latter howled from the
pain of it. The Negro gave him a hard pounding and all the skill that he
could marshal could not avail him…when O’Brien was bending over from the
result of the impact the Negro dropped over a short left hook to the jaw
and it was farewell for O’Brien. He went down on his haunches half-way
through the ropes and then rolled over.” The referee didn’t need to
finish the count.
Langford sometimes called the round on his
opponents. In 1910 a sports writer, Beany Walker, wrote that Langford
had, in his opinion, lost a previous match to heavyweight "white hope"
Fireman Jim Flynn and predicted that the American would defeat him in a
rematch. Langford however sometimes carried opponents to secure interest
in a rematch for financial reasons. In the second fight when Sam had
Flynn all set up, he shouted to Mr. Walker, who sat in the first row,
"Hey, Mr. Walker! Here comes your champion" and Langford blasted him
clear out of the ring and right into Walker's lap!
From 1910 and throughout the teens, Langford's
rare power accounted for nearly every top heavyweight of the period.
During this decade Langford kayo’d heavyweights Klondike Haynes, Jeff
Clark, Gunboat Smith, Fireman Jim Flynn, Big Bill Tate, Battling Jim
Johnson, Kid Norfolk and John Lester Johnson. He fought numerous bouts
against the other highly avoided black heavyweights of this time. He
fought Joe Jeanette 13 times, Sam McVey 13 times, and Harry Wills 18
times. He scored knockout victories over each man at least once. He has
a plus record against both Jeanette and McVey. Only Wills got the better
of their series, but their first fight did not occur until Langford was
31 years old.
A great example of Sam’s ability can be seen in
Fleischer’s description of his bout with arch-rival Joe Jeannette,
“Sam’s crowning triumph, the one that proved beyond a doubt that he was
Joe’s master was on May 12, 1916 at Hoboken, NJ when he put Jeannette
down for a clean knockout in the seventh round of a hurricane battle.
Jeannette was lightning fast the first three rounds, his lefts
continually flicking his opponent’s features, and again and again he
dodged Langford’s wicked swings. But in the fourth, Sam slammed a
terrific right to the stomach that made Jeannette bend over with a
distinct gasp. The body punch seemed to have taken most of the steam out
of Joe’s blows, and he never really recovered from its effects. In the
seventh, Langford let go a right hand feint for the body. Joe fell into
the trap and dropped his guard. Like a flash, Sam sent over a vicious
left hook that landed flush on the point of the chin. Jeannette fell
heavily, face forward. He rolled over and and was vainly trying to
regain his feet when referee Cawley counted him out.”
In trying to determine when and how Sam went
blind one can venture a guess that he suffered from a detached retina
which is the most common way for blindness to occur from injury for a
fighter. One may recall that Sugar Ray Leonard had surgery for a
detached retina in 1982. Unfortunately for Sam the medical science of
the early 20th century held little hope for him. According to the Nov.
22, 1935 Digby Weekly Courier, "Langford has been virtually blind
since he fought Fred Fulton in 1917." This is when the first eye injury
occured. The June 20, 1917 Boston Globe reported that Sam quit
due to injury failing to come out for the seventh round and noted that
"When Sam quit his eye was closed tightly." It was Sam's left eye that
was injured first. This is astonishing, since he would have trouble
seeing right hands ever after.
On June 5, 1922, at age 39, he fought future
Middleweight champion Tiger Flowers. In this fight Sam was blinded in
his remaining good right eye. He looked for Flowers but couldn't see
him. Everything before him was blurred. The ring floor, the referee and
his opponent weren't there! "There was something the matter for the
moment with my eyes." Sam kept cool "I'll let Flowers come and get me."
Flowers obliged and when in close, Sam put all he had behind one punch.
He heard a gasp and then a thud, Flowers was flat on his back! (Boston
Terror Website). The Atlanta Constitution Jun. 6, 1922, reported,
"The fatal clout was a right chop that travelled something more than six
inches." It was a second round knockout victory for the blind fighter.
The doctors warned Sam that the optic nerve had been severely injured
that one eye was blind and the other so badly damaged that If he didn't
stop fighting he would lose the sight of that one, also. But Langford
was broke and continued fighting.
"I went down to Mexico in 1922 with this here
left eye completely gone and the right just seeing shadows. It was a
cataract. They matched me up with Kid Savage for the title. I was
bluffing through that I could see but I gave myself away. They bet awful
heavy on the kid when the word got round. I just felt my way around and
then, wham, I got home. He forgot to duck and so I was heavy weight
champion of Mexico." (Weymouth Courier, Friday May 3, 1935).
Sam's left eye injury and cataract in his right eye left him almost
completely blind the last years of his fighting career.
In 1924, at age 41, "Sam was taken to French
Hospital and one Dr Smith operated to draw together a muscular fold in
the retina of this 'good' right eye. The operation was believed a
success. But over the next eleven years Sam's seeing' eye again lost its
sight." Weymouth Courier, Friday Apr 5, 1935. He retired from the
ring for good at age 43. Sam eventually went totally blind.
Sam was living destitute in Harlem when
newspaperman Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune tracked him
down and wrote a short series of stories on him in 1944. A
sportswriter’s fund was established for Sam that cared for him until his
death at the age of 72 on Jan. 12, 1956.
Sam was rated as the # 7 heavyweight of all
time in 1958 by Nat Fleischer. Charley Rose, who saw Sam fight and
greatly admired him, ranked him as his # 1 all time heavyweight. Herbert
Goldman, in his 1987 ratings rated Langford # 2 at light-heavyweight.
Cox's Corner considers him the # 1 all time light-heavyweight.
Record provided by Barry Deskins based on
research by Tim Leone.
Thanks also to Bruce Gordon who provided
some research materials for this article.