Slugging with Sam Langford
In 1906 I’m still only a middleweight but not afraid of big smoke Jack Johnson, the colored heavyweight champion. Damn right…
I’m a skinny teenager in Nova Scotia but strong and tough. Have to be. My daddy likes to beat people so I leave home and get a job on a farm but lose that for fighting and get fired a couple other places the same reason. When I’m about seventeen a man in Boston hires me as a substitute bartender. Pretty soon the toughest guy in the neighborhood comes in, drinks a few beers, and tries to walk out without paying. When I demand money he calls me a scab and swings. I only weigh about a hundred twenty-five but put him on the floor. The boss likes that but business soon slides and they let me go and I have to sleep outside in ragged clothes.
A gentleman named Joe Woodman owns a drugstore with a fight club upstairs. He hires me to clean the place, lets me sleep there at night, and tells me to keep an eye on things. Sometimes I get to be a substitute sparring partner. Joe says, you can be better than these guys, Sam. Fight a few amateurs then turn pro and I’ll manage you. Right after my nineteenth birthday, that’s what I do. And I’ll admit right here, I was born in 1883. We usually say three years later. Younger you are, the better.
I take on guys consecutive nights my second and third fights, and fight twenty-seven times in 1903, my first full year, and keep getting better. In December I face legendary lightweight Joe Gans, the only negro who’s won a world title. I’m nervous but learn pretty early his punches can’t knock me out, and when I grab I can bull him around, and then nail the point of his chin. Joe’s people have told him I’m just a kid and not to worry, go ahead and fight another guy the night before and drink on the train afterward. He shoulda saved himself. I punished him. He survives but I win. Wish they’d give me the title, too, but I’m a few pounds over the limit. I don’t worry about that.
I go shopping. After getting paid I often buy new suits and now add yellow shoes, a pink shirt, suspenders, a cane, and crown myself with a derby hat. All fixed up I like to go out drinking with friends and tell stories and buy everyone drinks. Look right here in the newspaper, gentlemen, here’s the truth, I say, puffing my cigar. I “tattoo” and bloody welterweight champ Joe Walcott. He’s great but everyone knows I win, even the referee who calls it a draw.
I don’t have time for little guys like Walcott. I marry pretty dressmaker Martha who loves muscles getting bigger on my long arms and notices people often get nervous when I take off my shirt. You’re the biggest five-foot-seven man I’ve ever seen, many tell me. Damn right. I’m ready to punch heavyweights in the face. In 1906 I’m still only a middleweight but not afraid of big smoke Jack Johnson, the colored heavyweight champion. I don’t mind Johnson’s six inches taller, has a foot more reach, and is thirty pounds heavier. I go right after him but catch jabs and crosses to the face. I’m still determined to get inside and punish his body. In the sixth he decks me with a right uppercut. I get up but go down again. One eye’s closed and my face is swelling. A left floors me in the eighth and so does a combination. Johnson presses to finish me. He’s bet five hundred bucks to my two-fifty he can. Instead, I hurt him with a left hook to the body in the ninth and the jaw in the tenth. My other eye’s closing now, my nose’s bleeding, and still I’m chasing that big smoke. I don’t get the decision but win that bet. And I’ll fight him again. I’ll fight him many times. Negroes often only have each other.
I usually like whites and enjoy drinking with them, but when the gloves go on many of them would rather be somewhere else. Jack Johnson has to chase little Tommy Burns around the world before he catches and stops him in Australia in 1908. At last we have a heavyweight champion, and big smoke will give his brothers a chance. We hope he will. Why’s he suddenly avoiding us? I try to be where Johnson will. Sometimes he’s there and others he isn’t. He’s more interested in talking than fighting. I talk too. I tell Johnson, I tell the press, I tell people everywhere the heavyweight champ knows Sam Langford can beat him. I’m bigger and stronger than I was. Johnson can’t ignore my victories, and he can’t hide from my knockout power, unless he’s stays out of any ring I’m in.
I go down to Australia and hope Johnson will too. There’s money for him. I have a championship, the colored heavyweight title, same one Johnson had before he decided to ignore negroes. I lose my title to Sam McVea in 1911 but there’s no one else profitable for him to fight in Australia, so I beat him later that year and three times, twice by knockout, in 1912. I can’t get out of the country because of debts from entertaining and buying clothes, and big smoke won’t come down to fight me, claiming I can’t raise the thirty grand he requires. That’s a lie. Promoters are ready any time. But what Johnson really wants is little guys like middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, who I also beat, and Philadelphia Jack O’Brien who he draws with and I knock out, and Fireman Jim Flynn who I stop three times, and Battling Jim Johnson, the only negro Johnson ever gives a title fight, who never beats me.
Amazing how many times I fight tough guys who’re much bigger. You got the record? Read it to me, please. Joe Jeannette fourteen times. Always a battle, and I win eight of them. Battling Jim Johnson twelve times. Sam McVea fifteen fights. I know this sounds crazy but we gotta eat. You seen photos of McVea? He scares most people. I smile and tell him he’s ugliest man I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t argue and despite being heavier knows he’s got to back up. I beat him six times and only lose two with seven draws. I know who’s next. Big Harry Wills. Lordy. Seventeen times. I don’t like excuses but don’t mind facts. I’m about thirty-one and still dangerous when we start fighting, and knock him out twice. In 1914 and 1916, right? But the big fella, about six-foot-two, beats me fourteen times, each usually less difficult than the last.
I’ll tell you why. In 1917 I’m fighting another tall boxer, Fred Fulton, who throws a right at my jaw. I duck but don’t get down far enough and am hit on my temple near the left eye. Back in the corner I tell the guys, hurry and open up that eye.
There’s no swelling, Sam, the eye’s wide open.
Can’t see a thing, I say. Soon my right eye closes and I have to stop. Can’t see at all for a week. Thankfully, the right eye sort of comes back. Manager Joe Woodman says, Sam you’ve had about two hundred fights and you’re almost blind. You gotta retire.
No sir, I’m a fighter.
I’ll always be your friend, Sam, but I’ll never manage you again. Don’t do this.
Do what? The only thing I can.
At home Martha tells me I’m drinkin too much. And she’s drunk when she tells me.
Quiet down. You’ll disturb our little girl.
She keeps talking so I quiet her and she calls the police. Before long we’re separated and she’s got all three houses, and my thirty thousand dollars are gone, lots in her purse.
See. I gotta fight. I gotta keep gettin in there and slug with Joe Jeannette and Harry Wills, who’s best in the world now that Jack Johnson’s aged and drunk himself out of the title, and Fred Fulton again, and Harry Wills some more. Once in a while I take it easy. I extend my arms and touch some guy’s gloves to start the eighth round.
What’re you doin, he says, this ain’t the last round.
‘Tis for you, sir. And it was.
I’ve still got some thunder. In 1920 I beat Sam McVea but he’s not in good health either and dies a year later. Doctors remove a cataract from my right eye in 1922 and, it’s amazing, I can see. They tell me never to fight again. I smile, and take on quick and talented young middleweight Tiger Flowers. He thinks he’s cute but I throw a right hand maybe six inches that puts Tiger to sleep on the canvas. People say he’s just a little guy and that Sam’s losing it.
Okay, I’m blind in my left eye and the right’s starting to fade again. And it’s true, I drink and smoke cigars. But believe Sam Langford, you take a long early morning run and you can blow out booze and cigars. But running won’t give you back what women take away. I head to Mexico in late 1922 and start knocking out guys I haven’t heard off and in many cases you’d beat too. I may not be a world heavyweight contender anymore, but in 1923 I win the Mexico heavyweight title against a guy who’s lost nine more than he’s won. And I defend my title a few times before a fighter with a bad record stops me in the thirteenth round. I stay on in Mexico and beat most opponents until early 1924 and then return to the United States and mostly swing at shadows and noises but still win all but a few. My last bout’s in 1926. After twenty-three years in the ring and about three hundred fights, I have no money or eyesight.
I know this old Harlem hotel room’s not much. Used to live in better homes. Really doesn’t matter, though, never seen this place. Don’t need to. I’m happy here long as my radio works and I get enough to eat, which I usually do. If not, I sit on the sidewalk and earn a little money, giving autographs and telling stories. I appreciate people helping me during the Great Depression. But I don’t get many visitors anymore. I got a kid who leads me around cold streets so we can pick up whatever food and clothes he sees. I’m also thankful some reporters put on a benefit for me when they find out I’m not dead.
In the early 1950s I ask my old manager Joe Woodman to help me move back home, to Boston. He does, and I stay in another old hotel room I can’t see but love. I don’t live with my daughter because Martha already stays there, but I can visit. I’ve got two grandkids and some great grandkids who laugh when my daughter says she’s pinching her nose so it doesn’t flatten like mine. Don’t worry, Charlotte, it won’t, I say, unless you have a few hundred professional fights.
Across the street from my hotel there’s bar with a sign outside saying Sam Langford’s here, come on in. The bar owner gives me lunch and dinner and all I want to drink as well as ten bucks a week, and I tell customers about real fighters instead of the dancers today. I’m honest and admit, nobody ever cut Jack Johnson, barely bruised him. That big smoke was the best champion ever, but I might’ve busted him if he’d given me a chance.
Source: Sam Langford, Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion
George Thomas Clark is the author of Uppercuts, a collection of boxing stories available as an eBook at Amazon.com and other Digital Stores. His short story collection, The Bold Investor, is also available. See the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.