Tales of Langford and McVea

By Daniel Attias on September 30, 2015
Tales of Langford and McVea
“I saw the whole firmament of stars, planets and the moon when our heads bumped.”

Despite a controversial verdict the fight itself was proclaimed by most as one of the best fights staged in the history of Australian prize rings…

The Key

Sam McVea, dressed like a sporting man of the time, walking stick in hand, saunters along inside the French railway station known as the Gare du Nord. He’s there to meet the man he is to face in the prize ring at Cirque de Paris in a few weeks time, his namesake, Sam Langford.

Langford, upon seeing McVea, quickly turns to his companion and sparring partner John “Liver” Davis and says, “That’s him; where’s my key?”

The particular significance of the key began when a friend of Langford’s gave it to him with the instruction that should he meet a man he deemed more ugly than himself he was to pass it on.

Langford, big grin on his face, forces the giant key into the hands of a perplexed McVea before saying, “Golly McVea, you’ll have some trouble getting rid of that key.”

McVea is informed of the history of the key and a sudden reality kicks in. “Holy smoke, Mrs. McVea’s son Sammy ain’t never won any beauty competitions and I guess he’ll carry that piece of ironmongery to the grave.”

So begins the tale of the two Sams, Langford and McVea, two greats of the prize ring who would be so closely linked during their long and storied careers.


The Vancouver mail steamer ‘Zealandia’ sails through the heads of Sydney Harbor on the morning of the 26th of November 1911, on board is none other than fistic sensation Sam Langford. All those on board marvel at the beauty of the harbor, everyone that is, except Langford.

Sam Langford has often been described as fearless in the ring but the sight of Sydney’s harbor is enough to send shivers down his spine. 

“It’s certainly fine, but, oh those sharks” remarks Langford. Those on board are aware of Langford’s fears for he has told many stories during the voyage, tales of the “awful man-eating and boat swallowing” Sydney harbor sharks.

A school of porpoises appears in close proximity to the ship and Langford yells, “There they go, those sharks I told you about!”

Langford paces up and down the length of the steamer’s deck until finally it arrives and docks at the wharf. Former heavyweight world champion Tommy Burns is there to greet Langford and quickly surmises that something isn’t quite right with Sam, remarking to a nearby reporter, “Say, something is amiss with Sam. He seems in a mighty big hurry to quit that boat.”

Sam practically runs down the gangway the moment it is placed into position and upon seeing Burns remarks, “Hello Tommy, I’m mighty glad I’ve escaped.”

Burns, bemused by the comment replies, “escaped what?” “Why, them awful sharks,” replies Langford.

Langford never did fear any “great white hope” but a great white shark was clearly something he had no intention of meeting.

The Fight

Langford had travelled to Australia under the engagement of promoter Hugh D. McIntosh to take part in five bouts, the first of which was to be against fellow American heavyweight Sam McVea for what was being billed as the heavyweight championship of the world. Jack Johnson hadn’t defended his title since the “Battle of the Century” against Jim Jeffries some 16 months earlier and rumors of his apparent impending retirement were abundant. Many in the boxing fraternity had taken it upon themselves to attempt to crown his successor and a new heavyweight world champion.

A reception fit for a king was given to Langford on the docks, with fans and well wishers numbering thousands on hand to see “The Boston Terror” in the flesh.

Langford showed his fondness for such a welcome and for the Australian people when he spoke at a public welcome meeting at Bateman’s Hotel on George Street.

“Gentleman, I thank you very much for the applause I received and again to-day. This is my first visit to Australia, and I never expected to see such a hearty bunch of gentlemen in my life. I have been in England, France and America, but what I have seen of the Australian gentlemen up to the present fills me with delight. It makes me think that I am going to have a real good time here. I thank you again.”

The first of Langford’s ring appearances occurred a few days after his arrival on November 29th when he took part in a three-round spar with Australian middleweight Dave Smith at a benefit performance aimed at raising funds for victims of the Rosedale and Macleay shipping disasters. Perhaps it was the nature of the ‘spar’ that had The Sydney Morning Herald praising Langford as ‘the most chivalrous of opponents’ but either way it was clear right then and there that Langford was to be a popular man on Australian shores.

Sam McVea had arrived a little over two months earlier than Langford but was greeted with no less of a reception as 3000 people showed up to greet the man who had battled heavyweight kingpin Jack Johnson on three occasions.

The rousing reception and glowing praise for McVea soured a little however when news came to light that McVea’s manager, William McLaine, had assaulted a barkeeper on the steamer Argyllshire, en route to Australia. McLaine had come across two stowaways on the ship and was hanging them by various limbs to a post when the barkeep, Robert Hunter, made a remark about the behavior of McLaine. The manager of McVea then struck Hunter on the mouth.

Despite the minor public relations setback McVea proved to be a big hit with his first fight in the country, a fight for the Australian heavyweight title, which drew a crowd of 20 thousand odd people. His opponent, Jack Lester, a great white hope from America was outclassed and lost on points after 20 rounds against the superior McVea.

He backed the win up with a second round knockout of Big Bill Lang and then knocked out Lester in a rematch before facing Langford on December 26 of 1911.

Langford and McVea were no strangers to each other, there was the business of the passing of the key, of which both men had done with no malice, and they had fought twenty rounds to a draw in Paris in April of 1911. The return match was eagerly anticipated.

Both men spoke to Sydney newspaper reporter William Corbett — who was writing under the pseudonym of “The Amateur” — just days before the fight and both were of the opinion that they had won the first battle in Paris.

“We met in Paris a few months ago, and, according to referee, Mr. Eugene Corri, fought a draw, though I thought I won, and still think so,” said McVea.

Langford, like McVea, thought he deserved the victory in Paris. “I certainly had it over him in Paris, and should have got the decision, but there’s no use in talking that way now; we’ve got to get to it and prove the better man.”

This fight was to differ from the one the two men fought in Paris earlier that year, with the gloves weighing six ounces, changed from the three and a half ounce gloves used in Paris and there was to be a clean break rule, which restricted infighting, two things which would surely favor McVea.

From 4 am on the morning of December 26 people lined up outside the Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay and at 6 am when the gates opened there was a great rush to get inside, such was the appeal of the bout. By 10 o’clock the stadium had reached its capacity of 20,000 and the two combatants began their 20-round battle under the scorching summer sun.

As the referee was giving his final instructions, Langford, known for his jovial nature, quipped “By the holy Lord, Sambo, I ain’t made no mistake with that key.”

The fight itself showed the difference in style of the two combatants. McVea used his long left jab masterfully while Langford landed some powerful hooks to the body and head. It was a seesawing affair, McVea landing enough jabs to close the right eye of Langford late in the bout whilst Langford looked to be on the verge of knocking out the bigger man during the sixteenth round. The general consensus however was that Langford took the fight to McVea and was more deserving of the decision.

Referee “Snowy” Baker declared McVea the victor at the conclusion of the 20-round affair and the crowd were also quick to voice their disapproval, booing and hooting the decision.

Sydney’s Referee newspaper, the leading boxing publication of the time, was as vocal as the crowd that night in surmising the perceived wrongful decision: “The pity of it that so great and generously waged a contest should have been marred by such a glaringly wrong decision as the verdict in Sam McVea’s favor. I can not recall more than a few cases when a ring ruling had so little justification.”

McVea himself seemed uncertain of his victory following the bout: “Langford is a good one, and I guess he showed it all the way. I filled his eye with a succession of left jolts, and injured my right thumb in the seventh round, otherwise I might have placed the issue beyond doubt. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Langford on other other hand felt as though he had done enough to be given the verdict: “I thought, and I’m sure, that I had it easy. Why, when did he score anything over me? I’m not blowing the referee any; he sure did what he considered the right thing. Those lefts? Does McVea say he put my eye up? I thought I saw the whole firmament of stars, planets and the moon when our heads bumped.”

Despite a controversial verdict the fight itself was proclaimed by most as one of the best fights staged in the history of Australian prize rings. The two men would go on to fight each other a further five times in Australia, three of those occurring in the harbor city, Langford more than proved his superiority over his foe McVea, winning four of the five, with the other a draw. Furthermore, the two men wound up fighting an amazing fifteen times when all was said and done.

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  1. peter 11:46am, 10/04/2015

    Thank you. Good article.

  2. oldschool 07:50am, 09/30/2015

    Very informative. I agree with Nicolas about Australia’s progressive attitude with respect to black fighters.

  3. nicolas 07:19am, 09/30/2015

    Great article. Strange to think though, if it had not been for Australia, would Jack Johnson, or any other black person even had gotten a chance for a world title fight.

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