Sam McVey: The Mike Tyson of His Time

By: Monte Cox

      Sam McVey was one of the great black heavyweights of the nineteen 00's and teens, which included Jack Johnson, Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford, and Harry Wills. McVey possessed a compact, powerful physique and an awesome punch. His height and weight was about the same as Mike Tyson's. McVey weighed about 212-215 pounds at his peak near Mike Tyson’s prime weight, which was 216. At the height of his career Sam McVey was one of the most feared fighters in heavyweight history.

      McVey’s record of 62-14-11 (46 kayo’s) is an outstanding one given the quality of his opposition and the number of times he fought them. McVey fought the great Sam Langford 13 times, the clever Joe Jeannette 5 times, the giant Harry Wills 5 times, and heavyweight contenders Battling Jim Johnson and Jeff Clarke 7 and 6 times respectively. He lost all 3 of his fights to Jack Johnson who simply had his number much like Evander Holyfield had Mike Tyson’s. Despite his high level of opposition and numerous fights against them, his peak run was 35 wins out of 40 fights that included 32 knockouts, which proves his worth as a deadly heavyweight hitter.

      Historian Charley Rose regarded McVey as an all time heavyweight hitter, just as many do Tyson today, ranking Sam # 7 on his all time heavyweight list in 1968. McVey was a short, stocky built puncher like Iron Mike and with similar type punching ability. McVey, like Tyson, also had a lot of success at a young age; he was only 18 when he went 20 rounds with Jack Johnson in their first fight. McVey made his reputation as a fierce puncher knocking out former “colored heavyweight champion” Denver Ed Martin, a slick boxer known to have a good chin and fast footwork in one round. Sam lost a rematch to Martin on a ten round decision, and in a third fight with Martin, Sam knocked him stiff with a right hand in the 4th round. It was considered one of the fastest and fiercest fights seen in a San Diego ring to that time.

      McVey knocked out a lot of leading fighters of his time including Frank Craig, “The Harlem Coffee Cooler” a rough and tumble fighter in 3 rounds. He knocked out top notch heavyweights like Bill Lang in 2, Jack Lester in 8, Al Kubiak in 10, and Jim Stewart in 6. McVey knocked out Sandy Ferguson, who gave Joe Jeannette a very close fight in their first meeting, in 8 rounds, and he knocked out the promising “white hope” Arthur Pelkey in 4 rounds. Sam also held knockouts over highly regarded heavyweights Jim Barry, and Colin Bell.

      Recently a film of McVey has emerged. The film is not too impressive with the film speed making the fighters look ridiculous. Imagine one of Mike Tyson’s fights where 3 of every 4 frames are missing and the film speeded up. Tyson missing a wild punch as filmed by a hand-cranked camera would look hysterical, as do many of these old pre Charlie Chaplin films. One cannot judge the fighters of this period by the poor quality of film that exists. The subtlety of movement is lost, as one cannot see what the fighters are doing most of the time. One must give some weight to the eyewitness accounts of those who saw the fights.

      One such description is of McVey’s best fight against the legendary Sam Langford won by McVey on a 12 round decision in a viscous give and take fight on June 29, 1915 in Boston. The Boston Globe (Jun 30) reported, “At the start McVea got his short left hook working, and he was continually landing it on Langford’s face, jaw and stomach. His right he shot across many times effectively. So fast did McVea work that in one of the rounds he hooked Langford five times to the jaw and face in quick succession, not getting a return.” We marvel at Joe Louis triple left hook on film against Max Baer and here the newspaper account describes “five” “hooks” in “rapid succession.”

      The newspaper account continued, “McVea also use a jolting right uppercut. In one round it brought Langford’s teeth together so hard it sounded as of a bone had been snapped.” Ouch! McVey had Langford on the verge of a knockout in the 8th round after he punched Langford against the ropes with a terrific right to the jaw. Only the ropes kept him from going down. It was one of McVey’s best efforts. His overall record against the great Langford was a losing one 2-5-6, which says a lot about the greatness of the fighters in this period. It is sad that the top fighters of the current age don’t fight each other so often as we are robbed of a lot of great fights.

      One of Sam’s fiercest rivals was Joe Jeannette, a clever boxing master. Head to head Jeannette and McVey are 1-1-2 1 ND which is all even. Their April 1909 match ranks as one of the greatest boxing matches ever contested. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on April 18, 1909 “The greatest fight witnessed in France since John L. Sullivan and Charley Mitchell fought at Chantilly in 1888, Joe Jeannette of New York tonight defeated Sam McVey of California in the fiftieth round of a finish fight.”

      This fight was to establish who was the better of the two rivals. McVey gave Jeanette an awful beating during the first 30 rounds. Sam floored Joe 21 times in the first 19 rounds. After the 17th round bell Jeanette had to be dragged to his corner. There is no way he would have been allowed to continue under modern conditions. We do not let men take that kind of a beating nowadays. In an awesome display of punching power by McVey, Jeanette was downed 27 total times. McVey began to wear down after beating on Jeannette who refused to be counted out, despite the hammering he received. In the 39th round Joe sent a tiring Sam to the canvas for the first time. McVey would hit the canvas 6 more times in the next rounds. Jeannette won when McVey could not come out for the 50th round! Now who was better? The man who dominated most of the fight, displayed superior punching ability and total domination and would have won under modern rules e.g. McVey? Or was it Jeannette who actually won a battle of endurance and wills with his remarkable courage, determination and ability to absorb punishment?

      Consider in a rematch after their thrilling 49-round bout McVey and Jeannette fought to a 20 round “draw” on Dec 11 of the same year, but most spectators thought McVey was robbed as he was the aggressor throughout and landed the more effective punches, a riot followed the decision. If one considers the newspaper accounts then McVey got the better of their series.

      McVey fought the giant Harry Wills five times. The May 20, 1915 New York Herald said of McVey’s second fight against Wills that “McVey punished Wills terrifically most of the way, scoring a clean knockdown in the ninth, with a left to the stomach followed by a right to the jaw. Wills eye was cut in the 4th round and the flow of claret proved an added handicap” and “from the third round on the veteran (McVey) was winning easily.” McVey won the newspaper decision in ten rounds.

      McVey beat the younger, taller and heavier Harry Wills in their first two meetings, winning by 20-round decision in their first fight in New Orleans on December 20, 1914 and winning the Newspaper decision over ten rounds as described above. He then lost the next two by decision in 12 and a knockout in 5, although McVey claimed he was fouled in the latter contest. Their final fight was a 6 round No Contest that was not much more than an exhibition.

      Sam became ill in 1921 with pneumonia. He died on Dec 21 of that year. He would have been buried in a potter’s field if not for former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson stepping up and paying for his funeral.

      Charley Rose, as noted, rated Sam McVey, the # 7 heavyweight of all time in 1968. The Holiday 1998 Ring rated Sam at # 30 among all time heavyweights in the article “The 50 Greatest Heavyweights of All Time.” Cox’s Corner considers him among the 30 best fighters in heavyweight history.