Tough Guy, Huh?

By Clarence George on March 22, 2013
Tough Guy, Huh?
Dempsey, who never pulled his punches, made it plain: "I was afraid of Sam Langford."

Jack Johnson, who once had the honor of beating Langford, said that he was “the toughest little son of a bitch that ever lived.” He sure was…

“Some people have youth, some have beauty—I have menace.”

Mommy kissing David Haye’s right pinky toe, broken while training, didn’t make it all better. His loss to Wladimir Klitschko by unanimous decision back in 2011 was a direct result of the injury. Anyway, that’s Haye’s story and he’s sticking to it. Where’s Roby Lakatos and his violin when you need him? As Lennox Lewis said, “You don’t worry about anything like that.” No, you don’t, not if you’re one of the five toughest heavyweights of all time. But then…“Hayemaker” isn’t.

5. John L. Sullivan (1879-1892; 38-1-1, 32 KOs)

Impossible not to include the best of those who fought round and after round, and without benefit of bitch mittens. True, “The Boston Strong Boy” never had to struggle with the unimaginable agony of a broken pinky toe. But he did manage to fight Patsy Cardiff to a six-round draw despite breaking his left arm in the first. Also notable was his two-hour match in blistering heat against Jake Kilrain, Sullivan winning when his opponent’s corner threw in the sponge…in the 75th round. This Colossus of the Sweet Science very much lived up to his famous boast that he “could lick any man in the house.” Save for the draw against Cardiff and his championship loss to James J. Corbett…that’s exactly what he did.

Those tempted to sneer at Sullivan’s “mere” 41 fights (including a no contest against Paddy Ryan) should keep uppermost in mind that “BoxRec does not include bouts under the rules of the London Prize Ring in its database.” A bit toffee-nosed, but there you have it. 

4. Tony Galento (1931-1944; 80-26-5, 57 KOs)

“Galento looked like a guy 50 different men in the arena could knock out.” That may be what he looked like, but “Two Ton” Tony fought on until the seventh in his bout with Buddy Baer despite breaking his left hand in the first. Shortly before his match with Buddy’s brother Max, Galento got into an altercation with his own brother, Russell, who wanted a free ticket to the bout. Galento was notoriously mean about money—“tighter than a rain-swollen desk drawer”—and told his brother to stand in line like everybody else. Russell threw a beer bottle, opening a three-inch gash on his brother’s chin. The stitches were removed just prior to the fight, and Galento’s face was a theater of blood even before the echoes of the opening bell faded at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium. Loss by first-round TKO? Second? Uh-uh—the fat little bartender held out, finally losing by eighth-round TKO.

Galento often disdained the use of a mouthguard and once paid the stomach-churning price of having his tongue half severed. He finished the bout, went to the hospital, and received 25 stitches. Refusing to stay overnight, “Two Ton” engaged in one of his legendary drinking and eating binges. The stitches of course loosened, and Galento summoned a doctor to repair the damage—at whatever tavern, perhaps his own, he was cosseting his capacious tummy. The fat man refused an anesthetic, taking without so much as a grunt the kind of pain that is the stuff of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch fantasies. The doctor was stunned by Galento’s stoicism. He shouldn’t have been. Galento was no more concerned about pain than is the beer barrel he so closely resembled.

3. Joe Frazier (1965-1981; 32-4-1, 27 KOs)

When was Smokin’ Joe not tough? When he didn’t lead with his head. He always led with his head.

The most burnished emblem of Frazier’s fighting spirit is the grace under pressure demonstrated in the third and final bout with Muhammad Ali—“The Thrilla in Manila.” 

“They said you were through,” said Ali to Frazier. “They lied, pretty boy.” Indeed they did. Short of sticking Ali in a time machine to deal with Rocky Marciano’s “Suzie Q”, the right hand that deboned Jersey Joe Walcott, “The Greatest” couldn’t have had it rougher. The “closest thing to dying that I know of,” said Ali after retiring Frazier in the 14th. What’s this, Smokin’ Joe calling it a day? Yeah, like he’d quit if they put him in the ring with a curmudgeonly rhinoceros. No, it was manager and trainer Eddie Futch who wouldn’t allow Frazier to come out for the 15th.

“Joe,” said Futch, “I’m going to stop it.”

“No, Eddie,” said Frazier, rising from his stool. “You can’t do that to me.”

“You couldn’t see in the last two rounds. What makes you think you’re going to see in the 15th?”

“I want him, boss.”

“Sit down, son,” said Futch, gently squeezing Frazier’s shoulder. “It’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”

2. George Chuvalo (1956-1978; 73-18-2, 64 KOs)

“Scientific boxing is not part of Chuvalo’s equipment,” said Nat Fleischer. But a chin of iron and no end of guts were.

Twenty-two years and 93 fights against the likes of Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Oscar Bonavena, Jerry Quarry, Cleveland Williams, and George Foreman, as well as Frazier and Ali, who called him “the toughest guy” he ever fought, and not once was Chuvalo knocked down. Not by Frazier, who hit as though felling trees, and not by Foreman, who stripped Smokin’ Joe of the Heavyweight Championship of the World by knocking him down six times in the first two rounds as easy as blowing on a dandelion.

Chuvalo was stopped twice, first by Frazier, who broke the Canadian’s cheekbone, and then by Foreman, who broke his nose. When referee Arthur Mercante stopped the Foreman fight in the third, Chuvalo expressed his dismay with a “What are you, nuts?”

Who wasn’t nuts was Henry Cooper, who refused to give Chuvalo a shot at his British Empire (now Commonwealth) championship. Said Cooper manager Jim Wicks: “Henry won’t even meet him socially.”

1. Sam Langford (1902-1926; 179-30-40, 128 KOs)

Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta fought each other six times, did they? Pikers! Langford fought Battling Jim Johnson 12 times, winning 10, had 14 bouts with Joe Jeannette, winning eight, fought Sam McVea 15 times, scoring seven, and had 17 matches with Harry Wills. Langford lost more than he won against “The Black Panther.” Hardly surprising, given that he had the eyesight of a mole. Still, Wills was gracious enough to say of his 17-time opponent: “I still don’t know, except from hearsay, what punches Sam used to knock me out… He was marvelous as a fighting man. I’d venture to say unbeatable in his prime.”

Said Philadelphia Jack O’Brien of Langford: “When he appeared upon the scene of combat, you knew you were cooked.” Jack Dempsey certainly knew it. When “The Boston Tar Baby” sought to challenge him for the Heavyweight Championship of the World, Dempsey manager Jack Kearns demurred: “Sam, we were looking for somebody easier.” This despite the fact that both Dempsey and Kearns knew that Langford was half blind. Dempsey, who never pulled his punches, made it plain: “I was afraid of Sam Langford.”

Jack Johnson, who once had the honor of beating Langford, said that he was “the toughest little son of a bitch that ever lived.” He sure was. It was in his bout with Fred Fulton in 1917 that Langford lost all sight in one eye. “The Boston Bonecrusher” fought for another nine years, despite deteriorating vision. His handlers had to guide him to the ring and to his corner because he just couldn’t see. But he could, and did, fight.

Langford was stopped by first-round TKO in his last match. He literally couldn’t see his opponent, Brad Simmons. He was 43, blind, and destitute.

“Don’t nobody need to feel sorry for old Sam,” said Langford. “I had plenty of good times. I been all over the world. I fought maybe 600 fights, and every one was a pleasure.”

Our pleasure, Champ…for champion you are.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

In This Corner - John L Sullivan

Merrie Melodies Cartoon 1934- Jake Kilrain- John L. Sullivan

"The Way It Was" Joe Louis-Tony Galento (Documentary)

Tony "Two-Ton" Galento -vs- Jackie Gleason | as told to Rocky Marciano (16mm Transfer)

"Sporting Greats - Joe Frazier" (Documentary)

Joe Frazier on Dick Cavett Show (1973)

George Chuvalo explains his great chin....

George Chuvalo - Life and Times Tribute Pt. 1

Sam Langford vs. Fireman Jim Flynn III

Rare Sam Langford Footage!!

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  1. Clarence George 05:25am, 03/28/2013

    Completely agree.  For the want of a modicum of seriousness…

  2. Mike Casey 05:19am, 03/28/2013

    Yes, comical! You know, I still look at Max Baer and wonder what could have been if he had possessed Dempsey’s desire and mental strength. We know how great Schmeling was - yet Baer manhandles him in that classic fight of theirs - and that was before Schmeling upset Louis. Baer took shots from Louis that would have poleaxed most others before he finally took the count.

  3. Clarence George 05:10am, 03/28/2013

    “Two Ton” wasn’t known for his…subtlety.  Yet another reason to love him.

    By the way, Mike, did you see when Joe Louis stands up?  He just keeps going and going.  The top of Lou Costello’s head is no higher than Louis’ breastbone.

  4. Mike Casey 05:00am, 03/28/2013

    Great seeing this again, Clarence. Tony didn’t waste time feeling the other guy out!

  5. Clarence George 09:23am, 03/27/2013

    Courtesy of The Fight Film Collector.  Outstanding and complete footage of the bout between Tony Galento and Max Baer, including a post-fight interview with Baer conducted by Lou Costello, and at which Joe Louis was present.

  6. Clarence George 09:12am, 03/24/2013

    Both lightweights.

  7. didier 09:08am, 03/24/2013

    What about Ad Wolgast and Battling Nelson,they were truly the toughest
    boxers of the modern era.
    There was something wrong with their nervous system and therefore had
    a higher pain level.

  8. Clarence George 01:53am, 03/24/2013

    Quite right, Nicolas.  While I hold Corbett in high regard, and though he beat the great John L., I think Sullivan was much more impressive.  And I appreciate your remembering my comparison of Sullivan-Corbett with Dempsey-Tunney.

    As for the “negro” remark—Sullivan, like all of us, was very much a product of his time.

  9. Clarence George 01:40am, 03/24/2013

    Eric:  Excellent post, thank you.  Gotta confess that I have no recollection of “Scrap Iron.”  And Duane Bobick!  That name hasn’t entered my consciousness in at least 30 years.

    Agree that some of the guys you mentioned—such as Basilio, Fullmer, LaMotta, Walker, and Greb—are among the toughest.  And there’s one you didn’t name:  Marcel Cerdan.  But none, as you know, were heavyweights.

  10. nicolas 12:29am, 03/24/2013

    Clarence made some very good points about John L Sullivan being underated by many, comparing his loss to Jim Corbett in the same vein as Dempsey’s loss to Tunney, and making me more so feel that a prime Sullivan might have beaten Corbett. However, I remember the line attributed to him, “I have never fought a negro, and I never will”. Still of course a tough guy though.

  11. Eric 07:59pm, 03/23/2013

    One name that won’t ring a bell with many particularly the younger fans would Seventies trial horse George Scrap Iron Johnson. Scrap Iron would go the distance in losing fights to Joe Frazer, Joe Bugner, Jerry Quarry, and draw with Scott Ledoux. He would also take Boone Kirkman and Leroy Jones the distance. Scrap Iron would fight everyone from Duane Bobick to Thad Spencer to Ron Lyle to Manuel Ramos to Henry Clark. Only 5’9” the stocky Johnson would take both George Foreman and Sonny Liston 7 rounds before these two huge monsters could put away the Scrap Iron. Scrap Iron lost more than he won, however, he fought a lot of big names as he settled into the position of a tough trial horse for all up and comers. Gene Fullmer and Carmen Basilio would be two tough SOBs in there, Jake Lamotta, Vito Antuofermo, and Mustapha Hamsho round out a fearsome fivesome of hard nosed fighters who could take enormous punishment and still keep coming forward with their relentless styles and aggressiveness. Another heavy from the Frazier-Chuvalo era that can’t be dismissed is Oscar Bonavena. Strong as an ox, an explosive temperament, with a mauling, brawling style that just simply wore down weaker men. Joe Frazier described Bonavena as an animal. Bonavena would fight Joe twice and go the distance in both fights, actually flooring Frazier twice in the first fight, a fight which many felt Bonavena actually won. Bonavena would go on and fight fellow “tough guy” Chuvalo in a relatively boring fight but would floor Chuvalo with what was determined as a push and not a punch. Never saw full fight but that is what I heard. Chuvalo was never officially knocked down, so his record of not having been knocked down remained intact. And Mickey Walker and Harry Greb had to both be some tough little SOBs conceding all that size to heavies and actually beating some decent much larger fighters.

  12. Clarence George 08:28am, 03/23/2013

    Completely agree, Mike.

  13. Mike Casey 08:01am, 03/23/2013

    Eric is quite correct about Sailor Tom Sharkey too, Clarence. The Sailor was astonishingly tough. He took a brutal pounding from Jeffries in their Coney Island return, but lasted the distance and gave Jeff an epic battle.

  14. Clarence George 07:43am, 03/23/2013

    Welcome aboard, Eric!

  15. Eric 07:31am, 03/23/2013

    The more I learn about Galento the more I admire him. Fearless, and tough as nails. I’m on board with the good ship Galento.

  16. Clarence George 03:10am, 03/23/2013

    So glad you liked it, Mike.

    Sorry to hear that Chuvalo suffered yet another family loss.  The guy’s like Job!  A disgrace, by the way, that he has yet to be inducted into the IBHOF.

    Delighted you’re on board the good ship Galento.  He was a terrific brawler and had a sweet-as-pie left hook.

  17. Mike Casey 02:08am, 03/23/2013

    Always heartening to see these great men getting their just credit, Clarence. I learned only this week that George Chuvalo has suffered another loss in his family, yet he keeps on ticking and remains in great physical and mental shape. A true, one-off toughie! As for your man Galento, it is too often forgotten by many others that Tony beat some very good guys along the way. His record deserves closer scrutiny by some of his critics.

  18. Clarence George 06:47pm, 03/22/2013

    So glad you like it, NYI.  Yeah, didn’t Robert do a great job with his video selection?  I choked up, I ain’t ashamed to say, watching that last one of Langford.

  19. NYIrish 06:29pm, 03/22/2013

    Great piece, great video. Thanks !

  20. Clarence George 05:30pm, 03/22/2013

    Excellent choices, Eric.  It’s deserving of deeper thought, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I went with Sharkey and Jeffries as sixth and seventh, respectively.  Not sure where I’d place Marciano, but his toughness is beyond the slightest doubt.

  21. Eric 03:01pm, 03/22/2013

    I would say that Sailor Tom Sharkey was a pretty tough fighter and his conqueror Jim Jeffries was no slouch either. I really can’t think of too many fighters that were tougher than Rocky Marciano either.

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