Did Langford Really Carry Ketchel in 1910 Superfight?
Was Sam trying his best or was he protecting his San Francisco investment? Probably a bit of both, since Mr. Ketchel was nobody’s mug…
It was the Hagler-Hearns clash of its day and the sense of anticipation that swept the boxing world was tremendous. Slammin’ Sam Langford and Michigan Assassin Stanley Ketchel were two of the biggest draws in boxing and two of the sport’s most devastating hitters. Now the titans would fight each other in a curious six-round ‘exhibition’ at the National Athletic Club in Philadelphia.
But why this precursor? Why the hors d’oeuvre before the main course? It was an open secret in many quarters that Stanley and Sam were slated to fight a scheduled 45-round battle for Ketchel’s middleweight championship in San Francisco in the near future. What a prospect that was!
However, one thing that has never changed in boxing is its complicated politics. As the bargaining gets tougher, the negotiations become more entangled and enmeshed in the perennial root of all evil. While California promoter Jim Coffroth’s $30,000 bid for the San Francisco match remained valid, it had been turned into a protracted poker game by two shrewd businessmen.
Forty-five years later in the summer of 1955, Langford’s manager Joe Woodman, still prowling the gyms at the age of eighty-three, gave his bitter recollections of the Ketchel-Langford saga. Said Joe: “Wilson Mizner and Hype Igoe, who co-managed Ketchel at the time, decided to keep Coffroth guessing in hopes he would raise his bid to $40,000, which was the figure they set for a dangerous threat like my Sam.
“Igoe told me he would take the $30,000 if Coffroth held out, but that he wouldn’t accept unless I agreed to the Philadelphia six-rounder. Of course, I was dead against it. We had nothing to gain except a few thousand dollars and we were risking the big opportunity if anything went wrong. But I had no alternative. Mizner and Igoe held all the trumps, they had the title. All I had was Sam, the greatest fighting man who ever sucked a breath.
“Langford never won a world championship because he never got the chance. Had not time been wasted fooling around in Philadelphia and Coffroth’s proposition accepted immediately, Sam would have been middleweight champion of the world. He could have knocked out Ketchel seven nights a week.”
The City of Brotherly Love would never be remembered with great affection by Joe Woodman. “Philadelphia, that night of April 27, 1910, was the last place Sam and I wanted to be,” Woodman said. “But it would have been just plain stupid to be anywhere else.
“We wanted the San Francisco fight, with Ketchel’s title riding on the line and our hunk of Coffroth’s $30,000.”
The poison of the Philadelphia affair never drained from Sam Langford’s system either. Asked in 1950 for his opinion of Ketchel, Sam replied: “Ketchel was nothing, not nearly the man they made him out to be.”
Writer Damon Runyon always insisted that the Assassin was ‘carried’ by Langford that night and that Hype Igoe was instrumental in negotiating an easier ride for Stanley than he might otherwise have had.
Well, dear reader, there are multiple accounts of what happened when Stanley met Sam in Philadelphia, all as varied as multiple lists of our ten greatest middleweights. There is additionally the question of how many reports of the fight were actual eyewitness accounts or creatively distorted impressions designed to add spice to the reader’s enjoyment. Was Sam trying his best or was he protecting his San Francisco investment? Probably a bit of both, since Mr. Ketchel was nobody’s mug.
People came from all over the country for the Ketchel-Langford set-to at Philly’s National Athletic Club. 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.
In an otherwise quiet opening round, an event allegedly occurred that set the more experienced observers twitching with suspicion and roused newspaper sub-editors into producing some unflattering headlines the following morning. It is said by some that Stan was more than a foot out of Sam’s range when Langford let go with a roundhouse right. The blow didn’t seem to have a hope of hitting the target, but then Ketchel moved into range and got hit flush on the cheekbone.
According to one source, the punch brought the Assassin to a staggering halt and his hands dropped to his sides. More than a few people noticed the anxious look on Sam’s face. Unwittingly, he had put his San Francisco investment in jeopardy. What apparently followed was an uncharacteristic act of compassion on the part of one of the ring’s most efficient killers. Langford hurried forward and held Ketchel up. It was some embrace too. Sam didn’t let go until he was satisfied that Stanley had regained his bearings. Joe Woodman described the incident as akin to a mother bird protecting her baby.
But was this really the story of the first round? The New York Times report of the contest, which was very favorable to Sam, carried no reference to such a punch by Langford or of Ketchel being out on his feet and propped up by his opponent. Here is the newspaper’s account of that opening round: “Langford looked to weigh easily ten pounds more than his white opponent, though the latter had the advantage of height and reach.
“For an instant they fiddled after the gong announced the start and then they broke for each other, coming to a clinch. Langford boxed and Ketchel took a chance, literally throwing his left in. It fell short but he tried again, always to be blocked by his clever opponent. Langford feinted and got home a half left swing to the body. More sparring, with Ketchel boring in. A slight let-up in the going and Langford went in with both arms working. He landed a left and right on the body lightly. Ketchel got away with a left on the Negro’s stomach as the round ended.”
From the second round, Sam and Stan upped the pace. Ketchel attacked Langford’s body with ripping hooks, only to be met by sledgehammer jabs and powerful right uppercuts. The action wasn’t sensational, but the boys weren’t exactly waltzing either. Yet an account in the old Boxing and Wrestling magazine tells us that jeers in the opening round led to catcalls and finally a rain of cigar butts and newspapers being tossed into the ring at the end of the third. All those protests and all that debris were strangely absent in other reports of the fight.
According to the New York Times, there had been some hissing at the slow pace of the fight in the opening round, but thereafter the crowd was more than happy with what they were seeing. Their only displeasure was the six-round limit, because they were eager to see more. Both men showed a great willingness to fight. Indeed the crowd ‘cheered wildly’ and ‘yelled like Indians’ as Stanley and Sam tested each other’s mettle.
A hard uppercut from Sam in the third round had brought blood streaming from Stan’s nose, angering the Michigan Assassin and causing him to swing wildly. When he went back to his corner in a temper, Wilson Mizner is said to have told the Assassin: “Take it easy, boy. Take it easy, don’t blow up. Keep throwing your left but take it easy with the right.”
It would seem from that advice that Ketchel too was being dissuaded from trying too hard. Not that Stanley was ever too good at pulling his punches.
The action livened 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. In the sixth and final round, Langford slowed quite noticeably and allowed Ketchel to take the initiative and finish the bout strongly. Was this a ploy on Sam’s part or was he simply unable to do any more in the face of Ketchel’s relentless punching? Stanley kept coming on, although he seemed to be slowing too at the finish as his nose bled heavily and stained his body crimson.
Here is the New York Times version of the sixth round action: “Ketchel started furiously and had Langford backing away, dodging and side-stepping to keep out of the road of the slamming Ketchel had ordered for him. It was the sort of a finish that the average crowd likes to see in a limited round go, because it was so full of action.
“Ketchel was showy, but he was not effective. About the middle of the round, Langford stepped in and shoved over a left and right that landed beautifully. Ketchel staggered but was back after the little Negro like a bull.
“Sam kept his hands quieter and Ketchel thought he saw a chance to slip one over. Langford immediately woke up and countered hard enough to crack an inch board. He didn’t follow up, however, in the manner his friends knew he could. Ketchel kept hard at it and was trying like a demon as the bell rang. The crowd cheered him to the roof.”
The New York Times didn’t entirely buy into the theory that Langford’s lethargic finish was intentional as he looked ahead to the riches of the San Francisco match: “Langford was the finished boxer and landed clean and hard on the white man, who was all willingness and determined to finish the black man in short order. Langford lost a clear title to the fight by his slowing up in the last part of the last round.
“He was entitled to a draw, however, and the doubt still remains whether or not he is Ketchel’s master. Up to the last round he demonstrated that fact, but his slowness in the last round took a lot of credit from him. Many thought he was stalling, but only he could tell with any certainty.”
Had Langford carried Ketchel or was it a case of both men applying the brakes in that clever way that top professionals are able to do? Could even a man of Sam Langford’s outstanding talent have carried a fighter of Ketchel’s exceptional thunder and fury? One has to doubt it. For a few rounds, maybe. Possibly even for six rounds if Stanley was half playing along. But nobody carried or toyed with Ketchel for longer than that.
Langford’s position as one of the greatest boxers of all time is almost sacrosanct, although thoroughly deserved. Yet men of such special talent – Muhammad Ali being another classic example – are just as adept at blinding their doting ‘critics’ with bluff as they are at blinding their opponents with science. When Ali got shook up, it was assumed he was bluffing. When he lost a fight on points, it was because the judges had failed to see the genius of his more subtle work.
There is a tendency by many to overcompensate men like Langford and Charley Burley for the injustices they suffered. Langford undoubtedly had ‘the handcuffs on’ in many fights that he could have won but didn’t. But Sam, even during his best years, lost a good few other bouts on the square and not always to great fighters. He wasn’t a superman. Nor was Ketchel. No fighter is ever that.
As for the testimony of Joe Woodman, Sam’s ever faithful manager, we must remember that Joe was a master of PR back in the days when tall stories were hard to disprove. Joe maintained for years that Langford decked Jack Johnson in their famous Chelsea fight of 1906, forcing Jack to fight for his very life. Many people fell for this yarn, including seasoned reporters who really should have left the bar a little earlier and done some more digging.
Johnson gave Langford a terrible lacing at Chelsea, although it should be remembered that Sam was still a young and learning fighter at the time. In a letter to The Ring editor Nat Fleischer years later, Jack wrote: “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.”
Was Johnson exaggerating? It seems not. When Fleischer pushed Woodman for the truth, Joe replied: “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.”
The likely conclusion of that odd little fight between Langford and Ketchel in Philadelphia is that both men were doing a bit of sensible business. Why knock themselves silly in Philly for six rounds when they could do it over forty-five rounds in San Francisco for a far greater financial reward? Ketchel tried a little harder because Ketchel could never help it. He shouldn’t have decked Jack Johnson – that line wasn’t in the original script - but Jack’s inviting chin was just too much to resist.
In the end, none of it mattered. Six months and three fights later, the Michigan Assassin died from the bullet of another assassin, farmhand Walter Dipley, who came in through the back door at Pete Dickerson’s ranch in Conway, Missouri.
Sam Langford never did get his title shot. The great dream of San Francisco faded away like the Bay City fog.
Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).