When we compare the great champions of past and present, inevitably we draw a distinction between the true warrior and the mere athlete. At that point we realize the boxers of decades past have a clear advantage over those of recent years when it comes to deciding who is, or is not, a “real fighter.” Before the existence of meddling sanctioning bodies, before our modern day understanding of the medical risks, before television, the best boxers really did take on all comers. The nature of the sport dictated that the best fought the best and on a regular basis; the true champions wanted it no other way. Needless to say, times change.
So what is a “real fighter”? Who best fulfills the definition? There exists a plethora of possible candidates, but for this writer, the epitome of a true gladiator is a boxer who never won a world title, and whose name, outside of hardcore fight fans, has become largely forgotten. I write of “The Boston Bonecrusher,” boxing’s greatest uncrowned champion, Sam Langford. He never won a world championship, never achieved great fame or fortune, but he didn’t judge himself on those terms. Ultimately, all he cared about was fighting, taking on the best opponents for the sheer thrill of battle. The fact the champions of the day were afraid to face him only confirms he was ahead of his time. And too good for his own good.
Langford was born on March 4, 1883 in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia. At an early age he struck out on his own, reportedly to escape an abusive father, and pursued a vagrant’s life, roaming the east coast and taking work where he could get it. He ended up in Boston where he got a job swabbing the floors in a local athletic club. Sam became fascinated with the boxers who trained there and it wasn’t long before he started sparring with them. At the age of 15 he won a state amateur championship and promptly turned pro as a welterweight. Over the years he became known as “The Boston Bonecrusher,” “The Boston Terror,” or by the racial moniker, “The Boston Tar Baby.”
Early in his career he took on the legendary Joe Gans, a.k.a., “The Old Master,” one of the first true masters and all-time greats of the prize-ring. Langford confirmed his exceptional talent and potential by dealing Gans a rare decision defeat, though no world title was on the line. The following year Langford received his only true title shot against welterweight champ Joe Walcott. “The Barbados Demon,” accepted Sam’s challenge only to regret doing so after 15 hard-fought and punishing rounds. Unaccountably, the bout was ruled a draw, but a number of newspaper reports indicate Langford deserved the win. The New York Illustrated News declared: “Langford was entitled to the verdict and should have been awarded the world title.”
Sam had started his career at welterweight, but his wide, stocky frame and long arms allowed him to develop massive back and shoulder muscles, in turn enabling him to compete in the heavier weight classes. Standing only 5’7″, he often gave away huge advantages in terms of height and weight, but that never discouraged him and rarely prevented him from winning. He was happy to fight any size opponent, even though in his prime he rarely weighed above 165 pounds. With his crushing power, he could take on the big men and win.
Incredibly tough and almost never off his feet, Langford knew all the tricks and was a master at feinting, blocking, body punching and finding unexpected ways to set up the knockout shot. Decades before a young Cassius Clay made the practice famous, he often successfully predicted the round in which he would end a fight. One story has Langford offering to touch gloves before the start of an early round and his mystified opponent asking, “What’s going on, Sam? It ain’t the last round.” “T’is for you, son,” replied Langford. And indeed it was.
In 1906, future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, outweighing Langford by 30 pounds, gave Sam what he called “the only real beating I ever took.” Two years later Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion of the world, but as Langford had grown during the interim in both size and reputation, Johnson refused to give him a shot at the title. Sadly, this would be a recurring theme in Langford’s career. Sam was, without a doubt, the most feared fighter of his time. Of course, part of why he never received the opportunities he deserved also had to do with his being black. Like Harry Wills, Joe Jeannette and Sam McVea, Langford was conveniently avoided by white fighters on the basis of the repugnant “colour line.” Langford did manage to get into the ring with white champions such as Stanley Ketchel and Jack O’Brien, but never with a title at stake. In fact, he defeated both Ketchel and O’Brien with little difficulty, Ketchel surviving a six round battle, O’Brien left moaning in agony on the canvas in five.
But while Langford never won a world title, those in the fight game knew how good he was. Joe Jeanette and Harry Wills both rated Langford the best they ever fought. “Fireman” Jim Flynn, who faced off against Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Gunboat Smith, and many others said, “The hardest hitter I ever faced was Langford.” Charley Rose, old time fight manager, rated Langford as the best heavyweight of all-time, while another well-known manager who saw Langford in action, Dan Morgan, said, “Sam would finish Joe Louis in about six or seven rounds.” Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon quoted Jack Dempsey as saying, “Sam probably would have knocked me out.” Author Mike Silver, who wrote The Ring Boxing Almanac, stated that Langford was, “Quite possibly the greatest fighter who ever lived … [his] every move embodied the technique of a studied master boxer.” Trainer Teddy Atlas rates Langford as, pound-for-pound, the fifth best boxer of all time.
For Langford, boxing was his vocation and he would fight thirty times or more in a single year, not counting sparring or exhibitions. Eventually he paid a steep price for this brutal schedule in the form of eye trouble. By the time he was 38, he fought despite his left eye being completely blind. In fact, he temporarily lost the sight in his remaining good eye in the midst of his bout with the legendary Tiger Flowers in 1922. Sam managed to stay calm and waited for Flowers to come to him, catching him with a perfectly timed, though blindly thrown, right hand. “The fatal clout was a right that traveled something more than six inches,” reported The Atlanta Constitution. Afterwards, doctors told Langford if he didn’t retire, complete and permanent blindness was a certainty. But Sam was a fighter; what else could he do? Besides, he was broke.
Later that same year he traveled to Mexico. As Sam told it, “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 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 and then, wham, I got home.” Sam, while almost completely blind, won by a first round knockout. Incredibly, he would go on to have another 30 fights, winning 23 of them, before finally calling it a career.
Langford retired when he was 43 years old. By that point the old gladiator had been boxing for an astonishing 27 years. His final record, as far as it can be documented and including newspaper decisions, stands at 207 wins against 46 losses and 57 draws. Decades later, in 1944, sportswriter Al Laney went searching for Langford in New York City and found him in a squalid room in Harlem, penniless, blind and alone. Laney’s subsequent articles rendered Langford a tragic figure, inspiring gifts from the public and the establishment of a charitable fund to aid the old battler.
But Sam, while grateful for the help, didn’t feel the least bit bitter or sorry for himself. He was no pathetic victim of the most brutal of sports. “I fought maybe three, four hundred fights,” he told Laney, “and every one was a pleasure.” Needless to say, Sam had experienced his share of hard times and disappointment, but nothing could get him down for long. Even destitute and blind, his spirit was unbroken. Some time after Laney published his stories on Langford, he visited the old fighter one Christmas Eve. “I got a geetar,” said Sam, “and a bottle of gin, and money in my pocket to buy Christmas dinner. No millionaire in the world got more than that, or anyhow they can’t use more.”
That was Sam Langford, the true “ultimate warrior.” – Michael Carbert