Jack & Sam on Planet Chelsea

By Mike Casey on March 14, 2013
Jack & Sam on Planet Chelsea
“As for Sam Langford dropping Johnson, that’s absurd. Why, he couldn't land on Jack.”

In 1911, at Olympia in London, the remarkable Sam Langford conceded 50 pounds in weight to Australian hopeful Bill Lang, who came in at 210 lbs. and carried a big punch along with his high hopes of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

After taking a sound and painful beating for five rounds, big Bill got himself disqualified in the sixth for hitting Sam on the chin after he had slipped to the canvas. If this was a crafty tactical move on Lang’s part, it was a very smart one. He might well have been decimated if the fight had gone on.

During Sam’s visit to London, he told the great boxing writer Jimmy Butler, “I’m not the champ. Jack Johnson is that guy and he keeps dodging me.”

Butler, who could never find sufficient praise for Sam, subsequently wrote: “That, as a matter of fact, was the plain and unvarnished truth. Johnson did dodge a meeting with the Boston Tar Baby after their terrific clash at Chelsea, Massachusetts.

“Johnson just scraped home on points after fifteen rounds, but I think he learned enough to realize that if he ever got into the same ring with Langford again, those gigantic arms and shoulders would make short work of sweeping him off his throne.”

Maybe and maybe not. The important thing to remember about these long gone days is that distances were huge before air travel and that stories grew in size as they traveled across the vast continent of America before being catapulted on to Britain.

It is highly doubtful that London-based Jimmy Butler was in Chelsea to see the Johnson-Langford fight of 1906. Even Nat Fleischer, the so-called “dean of boxing,” rarely ventured beyond the limits of his native New York to cover fights until he had firmly established The Ring magazine a good number of years later. In the early twentieth century, the boxing hot spots of California, where the likes of Owen Moran, Stanley Ketchel, Battling Nelson and Ad Wolgast were waging tremendous battles, might just as well have been in another country. Reports of those fights had to be trusted as they filtered their way back east.

There is little doubt that Johnson did indeed steer a wide berth of Langford after their one and only confrontation. Another valid point is that Jack beat a very young Sam that day. But did Sam really give Jack such a close call in that Chelsea fight? The rumor persisted for years that Langford had even decked Papa Jack, which offended Johnson greatly and prompted him to issue a series of vehement denials.

In an open letter to The Ring magazine in 1934, Johnson wrote: “I have accounts of the fight from my dear old friend, Tad (legendary sports writer and cartoonist Tad Dorgan) which show how badly Sam Langford was whipped. Please note the account of our fifteen-round fight at Chelsea, Mass., which I am enclosing. The report shows that I gave poor Sam such a severe trimming that he had to find his way into a hospital to recuperate. The records of that fight prove that statement to be correct.

“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.”

To his dying day in 1972, Ring editor Nat Fleischer maintained that Jack Johnson was the greatest of all the heavyweights. Understandably, Nat was eager to get to the bottom of the Johnson-Langford controversy. In his 1958 book, 50 Years at Ringside, Fleischer produced the testimony of his father-in-law, Dad Phillips, who allegedly saw the fight.

Said Phillips: “Jack Johnson decisively defeated Sam Langford. He was complete master of the situation. Jack so far outclassed Langford that for a time, until he purposely eased up on his onslaughts, the fight was one-sided.

“Langford was dropped twice for counts of nine, and he would have been out the first time if referee Martin Flaherty had not slowed up the count. At the end of the fight, Sam had to be taken to a hospital.

“As for Langford dropping Johnson, that’s absurd. Why, he couldn’t land on Jack.”

Sam’s alleged knockdown of Jack continued to bug Nat Fleischer, who had to find the truth from the nearest equivalent of the horse’s mouth. Nat cornered Langford’s former manager Joe Woodman and good-naturedly demanded the true version of events.

According to Fleischer, this was Woodman’s response: “ You’ve got me, Nat. 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.”

All of which brings us back to time, distance, ever evolving stories and the eternally irritating question of knowing who or what to believe. The simple fact is that only the long dead players and supporting cast from that gloriously mystical fight at Chelsea knew what really happened.

The clever men in white coats really do need to shake a leg and invent that time machine.

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).

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  1. Mike Casey 04:38am, 03/16/2013

    Agree on both points, Matt. Probably a good thing that we can’t go back in time and mess up things even more!

  2. Matt McGrain 04:10am, 03/16/2013

    If they invent the time machine, they’ll just want to do boring stuff like visit Jesus and the grassy knoll.  They won’t get around to the fights for centuries, it’s infuriating…as for Langford-Johnson, it was not a close fight.  Johnson dominated by every account i’ve seen.  Langford was a middleweight then.

  3. Eric 02:42pm, 03/14/2013


    teehee. Good one. Big boy there no doubt. Langford is pretty odd shaped also. Langford’s arms appear longer than his legs and his shoulder width is enormous for a man his size. Sam must have been taking PEDs.

  4. Clarence George 02:16pm, 03/14/2013

    Very nicely done.

    Huge Langford fan over here; one of my all-time favorites.

  5. GlennR 01:50pm, 03/14/2013

    Sparring partner perhaps?

  6. the thresher 01:27pm, 03/14/2013

    That chap third from the right is a large lad indeed.

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