Sam Langford, known as the “Boston Terror” or the more popular nickname of "The Boston Tar Baby," is considerd to be the greatest fighter to never win a world boxing championship. The reason is simple. He was the most avoided fighter in the illustrious history of boxing. Despite often being outweighed by 20 to 50 pounds in many of his fights, he scored more knockouts than George Foreman and Mike Tyson combined. Fighting from lightweight to heavyweight Sam Langford took on all the best fighters of the first two decades of 20th century. He spent the last years of his fighting career virtually blind where the bulk of his losses occurred, although he still won a number of fights impressively by knockout. He was an amazing fighter. His record was 214-46-44 16 ND 3NC with 138 Kayo's, according to research by historian Tim Leone.
Sam was powerfully built. His measurements were 5’6 ½’ with a 17” neck, 15” biceps, a 42 ½” inch chest and a 73” reach. He spent much of his prime career at middleweight, with his best weight about 165 pounds, by age 27 he was a small heavyweight weighing around 180 pounds. If he were fighting today he would have contended for titles from welterweight to light-heavyweight. He eventually weighed around 190 pounds and may have challenged heavyweights as he did in his own time.
Langford was a short, stocky, long armed and powerful puncher. He had huge shoulders and massive back muscles. He was known for his quick hands, debilitating left jab, crushing hook, powerful right cross, smashing uppercut and devastating body punches. He was equally adept at punching from long range or short punches at close range. When he had his opponent hurt he was a deadly finisher.
He was master at the art of feinting. His ability as a feinter is easily described in his knockout over the “white hope” Gunboat Smith. The Oct. 21, 1914 Boston Globe reported, “A couple of stiff jabs on Smith’s chin sent him to the ropes. Langford kept forcing Smith about the ring and when the gunner was near his own corner Langford feinted and Smith dropped his guard, Sam then shooting the right under Smith’s ear.”
Sam was also an outstanding defensive fighter; a master at blocking an opponents leads with an open glove with the rear hand in proper position, a master glove blocker and counter puncher as well as a fighter who would duck and counter putting his whole body into his blows. Sam had the perfect balance, timing and leverage of a great puncher. He also had an outstanding chin and was able to absorb the punishing blows of much larger men. A terror on offense and a master of defense Sam could do it all.
Al Laney wrote, "This is the man competent critics said was the greatest fighter in ring history, the man the champions feared and would not fight, the man who was so good he was never given a chance to show how good he really was."
Mike Silver stated, that Sam was "Quite possibly the greatest fighter who ever lived, Langford mastered every punch. His short hook on the inside and his right cross and uppercut were particularly deadly. His punishing jab was also one of the best. He was a strategist who knew how to maneuver, with the ability to explode out of an offensive or defensive position. He could instantly stop when retreating, revert to the offensive, and in the blink of an eye render an opponent unconscious with trip-hammer blows thrown in four and five punch combinations. Langford's every move embodied the technique of a studied master boxer. During his prime he was rarely outfought, out-thought, or out-punched."
William Detloff wrote, "Langford wasn't simply an all out slugger. He was smart and crafty and knew how to out-think guys in the ring. He could fight inside or outside and was impossibly strong. He was decades ahead of his time."
Ring founder Nat Fleischer reported, in Black Dynamite Vol 4, “Langford was as quick and slippery as an eel in action, highly intelligent and made up of surprising dodges from head to heels. Sam used his bulky shoulders and clever blocking arms to avoid blows and his potent punching power stayed with him until the end of his career.”
Gilbert Odd penned, “Langford with his massive pair of shoulders and long arms was a danger to anyone. Although only a middleweight he gave weight and a beating to many heavyweights.”
R. Stockton stated, "Langford had all the attributes of a great fighter, speed, punching power, an amazingly elusive defense, the ability to absorb punishment, and unlimited endurance."
W. Diamond wrote, “Sam Langford was a great fighter in an age of great fighters. In proportion to his height and weight there never was a greater fighting man."
Norman Clark who saw Sam fight on his tour of England wrote,All in the Game 1935, “On the whole, I think Langford was the most tremendous hitter in the Ring at this time; for, whereas Johnson would not, as a rule, let the heavy stuff fly until he had worn the man down, Sam always waded right in and immediately let go punches heavy enough to drop anyone. Of course, he had to work up his punch to an extent, however, and this he usually did on the giant Negro, Bob Armstrong, whom he had training with him. As he sparred with Armstrong, every now and again he would give him a dig "downstairs" that would have the big fellow gasping, and, to keep moving, he would then shadow-box for a short time before coming back to resume operations. There would be a few more exchanges, then whop! In would go another one to the body, and exclaim, "Oh"! He's got cramp again", Sam would do a little more shadow-boxing: and so, and so on.”
Clark also marveled at Sam’s quickness, “For working up speed Langford had Jimmy Walsh, the bantamweight champion of the world, with him. The pair used to box together lightly, but at a great pace, and I was surprised to find that even in this sort of work Sam was every bit as fast and clever as Walsh himself.”
Harry Wills described in the February 1953 Boxing and Wrestling Magazine what his knockout losses to Langford were like. Wills said he was hit so hard each time that he doesn’t remember being knocked out! "I was knocked out three times in my career, twice by Langford and in my last fight by Paulino Uzcudun. I still don't know, except from hearsay, what punches Sam used to knock me out. The first time it happened was 1914. We were supposed to go twenty rounds, when the fourteenth began I was going easy. Sam was in a bad way. I backed him around the ring trying to set him up for a one punch finish. His eye was bleeding and the last thing I remember was having him against the ropes just about five feet from his corner. It must have happened right then.” The Nov 27 San Francisco Chronicle reported that it was “a left hook to the jaw” that “turned the trick.”
“Two years later,” continued Wills, “we were scheduled for another twenty rounder. In the eighteenth Sam was in a peck of trouble and once again I tried to set him up for a quick knockout. He finished the round okay and when the bell sounded for the start of the nineteenth I was after him again. I figured if I could get him in a corner I could finish the fight. That was all I could remember. He must have caught me as I rushed in." The Feb 13, 1916 New Orleans Times-Picayune said it was "Langford's mighty left hook." Wills stated, "I don't know how long I was unconscious but it must have been quite a while. He was marvelous as a fighting man, I'd venture to say unbeatable in his prime."
In comparison to modern fighters Sam was similar to the experienced heavyweight version of James Toney in size, boxing skill and in his ability to take a punch. Sam also fought very relaxed like Toney did at his peak, but Sam had greater speed. In terms of punching power Sam approached that of Tyson. Imagine Toney with power coming close to that of Tyson and one has Sam Langford!
Sam story began when he left home in Nova Scotia, Canada, at an early age to escape an abusive father. At age 14 he was living as a tramp traveling from job to job when in Boston he walked into a small drug store and asked if he could get some work as he hadn't eaten for two days. Joe Woodman, the owner, fed him and gave him a job as janitor in the boxing gymnasium at the Lenox Athletic Club that he operated on the side. Sam watched the professional boxers train and studied their styles. Sam began to work as a sparring partner for some of the pro’s in the gym. Sam won the amateur featherweight championship of Boston at age 15 and turned pro the same year. He grew quickly and from age 16 he was a welterweight. Within a couple of years he was ready for the big time.
One can see how great a fighter Sam was by looking at his fights when he came in contact with world champions. In each account Sam won or was considered to be better. It is little wonder that no world champion wanted to face him.
Against the marvelous lightweight champion Joe Gans, Langford who had already grown into a welterweight, managed to catch the more experienced veteran champion fighting his second day in a row in different cities. Gans had to travel by train from Philadelphia to make the fight against Sam in Boston. Gans started off strong landing with a triple hook and a smashing right in the first round that stunned Sam. After that Langford showed strong defense blocking his opponent’s leads and countering. After five rounds the great champion began to slow from lag and Sam came on and won a 15 round decision. This fight is considered to be the only fight the real Gans lost in a period of more than 10 years.
The following year Sam got his chance at welterweight champion Joe Walcott, the Barbados Demon. The Sept 24, National Police Gazette reported, “Although the mill went the limit and was called a draw there were plenty present who thought Langford won. Up to the seventh round Walcott was unable to do anything with Langford. The latter (Langford) got away from his opponents leads and punched back with him. One of the swings, which caught Walcott on the jaw, almost put Joe out. In the tenth round Walcott, who was nettled because he could not catch Langford, began to slug. Langford though, was willing to mix it up and gave Walcott plenty to do, at the same time outboxing him.” Arthur Lumley, sports editor of the New York Illustrated News wrote, "My personal opinion is that Langford was entitled to the verdict, and should have been awarded the world's title." The 15 round “draw” was the only title shot Sam would ever get.
His only meaningful loss was to future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1906. Langford was only a light-middleweight at the time against heavyweight Johnson. Langford would later admit that Jack “handed me the only real beating I ever took” (Fleischer p 141). Johnson floored Sam twice in winning a 15 round decision. Later as Sam grew in size, reputation, and experience and became a real threat to his heavyweight championship, Johnson refused to give Sam a shot at the title.
Langford was at his peak at middleweight when Stanley Ketchel was the world middleweight champion. Nat Fleischer wrote, “One hesitates to say that Ketchel, reknowned deservedly for his gameness, was afraid of Langford. But the fact remains that Stanley had refused several offers to meet Langford in a distance bout.”
They did finally meet in a 6 round no decision affair. The April 28, 1910 Philadelphia Bulletin reported “Sam Langford, of Boston, defeated Stanley Ketchel of Grand Rapids, Mich., in a 6 round bout at the National Club last night.” Langford established a superior jab in the first two rounds. In the third he “shook Ketchel badly with swings to the head.” In the fourth he “twice shook Ketchel with jaw punches and brought the blood from the mouth and nose with well timed jabs.” Langford let up in the last two rounds. “To sum it up, Langford was much the stronger and cleverer and his jabs had a disconcerting effect on Ketchel…the colored man looked to be in pretty good shape at the close, but Ketchel was tired and wild and the sound of the bell was a welcome interruption.” The newspaper verdict, contrary to some later published reports, was in favor of Langford.
Against light-heavyweight champion Philadelphia Jack O’Brien on Aug 15, 1911 Langford easily defeated the clever champion on a fifth round knockout. The New York Herald reported “Sam Langford, working on 3rd speed for most of the way, knocked out Jack O’Brien last night at the Twentieth Century A.C. in the first minute of the fifth round. The Negro was kind to the Philadelphia dancing master in permitting him to stay as long as he did, for he showed both by his power and his speed that if he cared to put on the accelerator the white man would have been lucky to have lasted more than the first round.” The Herald described the end, “After feinting and dancing with his rival for a time the Negro plunged a terrific right into the pit of the white man’s stomach and the latter howled from the pain of it. The Negro gave him a hard pounding and all the skill that he could marshal could not avail him…when O’Brien was bending over from the result of the impact the Negro dropped over a short left hook to the jaw and it was farewell for O’Brien. He went down on his haunches half-way through the ropes and then rolled over.” The referee didn’t need to finish the count.
Langford sometimes called the round on his opponents. In 1910 a sports writer, Beany Walker, wrote that Langford had, in his opinion, lost a previous match to heavyweight "white hope" Fireman Jim Flynn and predicted that the American would defeat him in a rematch. Langford however sometimes carried opponents to secure interest in a rematch for financial reasons. In the second fight when Sam had Flynn all set up, he shouted to Mr. Walker, who sat in the first row, "Hey, Mr. Walker! Here comes your champion" and Langford blasted him clear out of the ring and right into Walker's lap!
From 1910 and throughout the teens, Langford's rare power accounted for nearly every top heavyweight of the period. During this decade Langford kayo’d heavyweights Klondike Haynes, Jeff Clark, Gunboat Smith, Fireman Jim Flynn, Big Bill Tate, Battling Jim Johnson, Kid Norfolk and John Lester Johnson. He fought numerous bouts against the other highly avoided black heavyweights of this time. He fought Joe Jeanette 13 times, Sam McVey 13 times, and Harry Wills 18 times. He scored knockout victories over each man at least once. He has a plus record against both Jeanette and McVey. Only Wills got the better of their series, but their first fight did not occur until Langford was 31 years old.
A great example of Sam’s ability can be seen in Fleischer’s description of his bout with arch-rival Joe Jeannette, “Sam’s crowning triumph, the one that proved beyond a doubt that he was Joe’s master was on May 12, 1916 at Hoboken, NJ when he put Jeannette down for a clean knockout in the seventh round of a hurricane battle. Jeannette was lightning fast the first three rounds, his lefts continually flicking his opponent’s features, and again and again he dodged Langford’s wicked swings. But in the fourth, Sam slammed a terrific right to the stomach that made Jeannette bend over with a distinct gasp. The body punch seemed to have taken most of the steam out of Joe’s blows, and he never really recovered from its effects. In the seventh, Langford let go a right hand feint for the body. Joe fell into the trap and dropped his guard. Like a flash, Sam sent over a vicious left hook that landed flush on the point of the chin. Jeannette fell heavily, face forward. He rolled over and and was vainly trying to regain his feet when referee Cawley counted him out.”
In trying to determine when and how Sam went blind one can venture a guess that he suffered from a detached retina which is the most common way for blindness to occur from injury for a fighter. One may recall that Sugar Ray Leonard had surgery for a detached retina in 1982. Unfortunately for Sam the medical science of the early 20th century held little hope for him. According to the Nov. 22, 1935 Digby Weekly Courier, "Langford has been virtually blind since he fought Fred Fulton in 1917." This is when the first eye injury occured. The June 20, 1917 Boston Globe reported that Sam quit due to injury failing to come out for the seventh round and noted that "When Sam quit his eye was closed tightly." It was Sam's left eye that was injured first. This is astonishing, since he would have trouble seeing right hands ever after.
On June 5, 1922, at age 39, he fought future Middleweight champion Tiger Flowers. In this fight Sam was blinded in his remaining good right eye. He looked for Flowers but couldn't see him. Everything before him was blurred. The ring floor, the referee and his opponent weren't there! "There was something the matter for the moment with my eyes." Sam kept cool "I'll let Flowers come and get me." Flowers obliged and when in close, Sam put all he had behind one punch. He heard a gasp and then a thud, Flowers was flat on his back! (Boston Terror Website). The Atlanta Constitution Jun. 6, 1922, reported, "The fatal clout was a right chop that travelled something more than six inches." It was a second round knockout victory for the blind fighter. The doctors warned Sam that the optic nerve had been severely injured that one eye was blind and the other so badly damaged that If he didn't stop fighting he would lose the sight of that one, also. But Langford was broke and continued fighting.
"I went down to Mexico in 1922 with this here left eye completely gone and the right just seeing shadows. It was a cataract. They matched me up with Kid Savage for the title. I was bluffing through that I could see but I gave myself away. They bet awful heavy on the kid when the word got round. I just felt my way around and then, wham, I got home. He forgot to duck and so I was heavy weight champion of Mexico." (Weymouth Courier, Friday May 3, 1935). Sam's left eye injury and cataract in his right eye left him almost completely blind the last years of his fighting career.
In 1924, at age 41, "Sam was taken to French Hospital and one Dr Smith operated to draw together a muscular fold in the retina of this 'good' right eye. The operation was believed a success. But over the next eleven years Sam's seeing' eye again lost its sight." Weymouth Courier, Friday Apr 5, 1935. He retired from the ring for good at age 43. Sam eventually went totally blind.
Sam was living destitute in Harlem when newspaperman Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune tracked him down and wrote a short series of stories on him in 1944. A sportswriter’s fund was established for Sam that cared for him until his death at the age of 72 on Jan. 12, 1956.
Sam was rated as the # 7 heavyweight of all time in 1958 by Nat Fleischer. Charley Rose, who saw Sam fight and greatly admired him, ranked him as his # 1 all time heavyweight. Herbert Goldman, in his 1987 ratings rated Langford # 2 at light-heavyweight. Cox's Corner considers him the # 1 all time light-heavyweight.
Record provided by Barry Deskins based on research by Tim Leone.
Thanks also to Bruce Gordon who provided some research materials for this article.
Sam Langford, The Boston Terror Video