Sam Langford was born on March 4, 1883 in Weymouth Fall, Nova Scotia, Canada. He was known as the "Boston Bonecrusher", "Boston Terror," and infamous "Boston Tar Baby.” Standing only 5 ft. 7 inches and weighing 185 lbs, he fought greats from the lightweight division right up to the heavyweights, beating many champions in the process. However, he was never able to secure a world title for himself and is regarded by many as the greatest titleless boxer of all-time. He was enshrined in the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, and Ring magazine founder Nat Fleischer rated Langford as one of the ten best heavyweights of all-time.
At an early age Langford escaped home and his abusive father to pursue a vagrant’s life. Desperation and starvation eventually led him to a small Boston drug store in search of work. Luckily he had found an accommodating soul in Joe Woodman who fed him and provided him with employment as a janitor in the boxing gymnasium at Lenox Athletic Club. This was the first broad brushstroke on Langford’s unmarked future. Here he lost himself in the study and analysis of fighting technique and latterly began sparring. At 15 years of age, Langford had won the amateur featherweight championship of Boston and turned professional. By age 16 his weight was increasing with ability and he stepped up to the welterweight division.
Langford was powerfully built. His measurements were a 17” neck, 15” biceps, and a 42 ½” inch chest with a 73” reach. He had huge shoulders and massive back muscles and was renowned for his quick hands, debilitating left jab, crushing hook, powerful right cross, and smashing uppercut. He spent much of his prime career at middleweight, with his best weight at 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.
In 1903, Langford’s phenomenal talent was brought to light against the marvellous Lightweight Champion, Joe Gans. He was a bonafide welterweight by this stage and secured the bought with the experienced of a veteran champion. This was his second fight in as many days but in different cities. Gans ignited the fight in ferocious style stunning his inexperienced foe within the first round. Langford responded with guile and composure, strong defence and countering skills. As the fight progressed, the cunning and resilience of Langford proved too high a hurdle for Gans and he lost a 15 round decision. This fight is considered to be the most emphatic domination over Gans in a period of more than 10 years.
The following year in 1904 Langford got his chance at Welterweight Champion, Joe Walcott, the “Barbados Demon.” This was Langford’s first and only title shot and with analysis of various reports, it is clear he was done an injustice. Langford proved too illusive for his opponent and when drawn into a dogfight he also had initiative. The fight was ruled a draw but as reported by The National Police Gazette, “There were plenty present who thought Langford won.” Langford dominated the first seven rounds and remained untouchable with his calculated style and by the latter stages of the bout Walcott’s desperation left flaws in his roughhouse approach, which Langford willingly exposed. The New York Illustrated News commented, “Langford was entitled to the verdict, and should have been awarded the world title."
Langford’s only meaningful loss was to future Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson in 1906. Langford was only a light-middleweight at the time fighting an almost unbeatable “Galveston Giant.” Langford would later admit, “Jack handed me the only real beating I ever took”. Floored twice, he lost a 15 round decision. With time Langford grew in stature, reputation, and experience and became a real threat to Johnson’s Title. The wirely maverick realised this and would refund to give Langford another chance.
It appears Johnson was not the only man wary of the threat posed by Langford. When Stanley Ketchel was in his prime as the reigning Middleweight Champion of the World he refused several offers to meet the “Boston Terror” in a distance bout. This is remarkable considering Ketchel was renowned for his bravery, but he was genuinely intimidated by Langford. Eventually Ketchel reluctantly succumbed to the request and they met in Boston in 1910 for a six round half hearted affair. Six rounds would give Ketchel little time to be exposed, or so they thought. Regardless of the time limit, Langford proved stronger and cleverer according to the Philadelphia Bulletin. Not all reports were consistent with this but Langford’s superior jab left the popular Ketchel notably the more marked man and the bout was dubiously called a No Contest.
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!
In 1911, Langford gave another previous world title champion a contemptuous thumping. The intelligent dancing master “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien was dismantled and disposed of via a fifth round knockout. The New York Herald reported that Langford even coasting in third gear was kind to ‘Philadelphia’ in permitting him to stay as long as he did. Even in the light-heavyweight division Langford’s speed and power was all consuming for O’Brien and the Philadelphian’s cries of pain were tribute to Langford’s destructive power. The referee didn’t need to finish the count.
From 1910 and throughout the teens, Langford's rare power accounted for nearly every top heavyweight of the period. During this decade Langford kayoed 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 and these personal battles will remain his most numerous and most memorable fighting encounters. Only Wills got the better of their series, but their first fight did not occur until Langford was 31 years old.
The gruelling fighting schedule that Langford set himself was not to pass without a cost. It is generally accepted that he suffered from a detached retina but unfortunately the medical science of the early 20th century was limited with its capabilities in this department. According to the Digby Weekly Courier, "Langford has been virtually blind since he fought Fred Fulton in 1917." This is when the first eye injury occurred. The 1917 Boston Globe reported that Langford retired from injury and left with a tightly closed eye.
1922, at age 39, he fought future Middleweight Champion, Tiger Flowers. This fight disabled Langford’s remaining good right eye. Well aware of his extreme handicap, Langford remarkably boxed blind and waited for Flowers to approach within distance and once his presence was felt, Langford unleashed a windmill, fortuitously but courageously flooring his perpetrator. The Atlanta Constitution reported that doctors warned Langford of the severe injury to his optic nerve causing blindness in one of his eyes and seriously impairing the other. At this stage he was told persisting with his boxing career would lead him to a bleak and uncertain future, but Langford was broke thus continued.
Langford later reminisced in The Weymouth Courier in 1935 about his situation in 1922. "I went down to Mexico 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,” said Langford. Langford’s left eye injury and cataract in his right eye left him almost completely blind the last years of his fighting career. Langford had ended an era in boxing along with capturing the Mexican title, as this was the last ever ‘Fight to the Finish.'
In 1924 at 41 years of age, Langford was taken to a French Hospital and was operated on to draw together a muscular fold in the retina of his good right eye. The operation was believed a success but his sight continued to deteriorate and Langford retired from the ring in 1926 ate the age of 43. He eventually went totally blind. He had spent the last years of his fighting career virtually blind where the bulk of his losses occurred, although he still won a number of the fights impressively by knockout. His final record was 214-46-44. 19 more were non-contests with 138 KOS. With regard to the other unrecorded amateur bouts, Langford had an excess of 300 bouts.
Despite his illustrious career, Langford ended up destitute in Harlem. His colourful ring life, however, was not to escape the imagination of the future generations, and in 1944 journalist Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune tracked him down and wrote a short series of stories on him. A sportswriter’s fund was established that cared for him until his death at the age of 72, on Jan. 12, 1956, in Massachusetts, where he had been living with his daughter’s family.
Laney was to write of Langford and 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 who wrote the Ring Boxing Almanac commented that Langford 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."
A revolutionist, a man ahead of his times, Langford’s skill was testament to the fact that he was often outweighed by 20 to 50 pounds. He scored more knockouts than George Foreman and Mike Tyson combined. One story characterizing his career involved Langford walking out for the 8th round and touching gloves with his opponent. "What's the matter, Sam, it ain't the last round!" said his mystified opponent. "Tis for you son," said Langford, who promptly knocked his opponent out.
That was Sam Langford, one of the greatest fighters to ever lace them up.
Written By: Samuel Pinnington
PROFESSIONAL BOXING RECORD