The extraordinary career of the greatest boxer to never win a world title, robbed of his chance by the egregious “colour line”.
Every now and then, a certain fighter will come along who is too talented for his own good. While I have previously stated my belief that boxing is the best sport in the world, the layout can cause issues. Unlike many other sports, its open format often enables boxers to avoid an opponent.
When you consider the current politics of boxing, and combine it with the extreme racism of the early 20th Century, opportunities for Black boxers were very limited. Several fighters fell victim to this ‘colour line’, often drawn by white champions, but perhaps no one suffered more than Sam Langford.
“If you multiplied the number of fighters that avoided a boxer by the number of quality fighters he obliterated, then Sam Langford would win by a landslide.” – Ted Spoon
Born in Canada, Langford would make his way south to Boston when he was only fifteen to escape his abusive father. It was in Boston where, after acquiring a job as a janitor in an athletics club, he would learn his early trade as a pugilist.
He began his career as a lightweight and faced quality opposition from the start when he was matched with the great Joe Gans (the first Black man to win a world title) in 1903. Despite being only 17, Langford dominated the lightweight champion, taking a decision victory after 15 rounds. However, Gans’ lightweight title was not on the line so Langford was not crowned champion.
A few months after his bout with Gans, Langford would get his first and only shot at a world title when he fought another great, Barbados Joe Walcott, this time for the welterweight crown.
Over 15 rounds, Langford once again dominated his opponent and was certain that he would be granted the decision. But to his and the crowd’s dismay, the bout was declared a draw and Walcott remained champion. Langford had once again been denied his championship.
Langford continued to test himself against some of the greats of the day, such as Jack Blackburn, Young Peter Jackson, and Dave Holly, who all helped aid his progress.
Despite only being 5’7” and weighing 155lbs, Langford decided to challenge Jack Johnson for the world ‘coloured’ heavyweight title in 1906. Johnson, who was 6’0” and 190lbs, dwarfed the young Langford.
Langford made a good account of himself going the distance but lost a wide decision. Two years later, Johnson would defeat Tommy Burns to become the first Black man to win the world heavyweight title, a topic that will be revisited later.
The defeat was a great lesson for the young Langford, whose body had not yet reached the middleweight limit. When his body finished its development, Langford became one of the most powerful fighters the sport has ever seen.
Between 1908 and 1914, Langford entered his physical prime. In 1908 he had the first of his six-fight series with white boxer Fireman Jim Flynn, which he would win via first-round KO, despite Flynn’s 15lb weight advantage. Langford went on to win their six-fight series 5-1 and Flynn would go on to beat future Heavyweight World Champion Jack Dempsey in 1917.
In 1910, Langford would again find himself fighting a current world champion, once again with the belt not available, this time against World Middleweight Champion Stanley Ketchel. Langford outclassed Ketchel over a short six-round bout, made to determine whether Langford was worthy of challenging for the title.
Following the outcome, it seemed certain that Langford would get his shot at the middleweight crown against Ketchel, but this time it was fate that intervened, as Ketchel was murdered on his farm later that year.
Another former champion would taste the destructive power of Langford in 1911 when Philadelphia Jack O’Brien fell in five rounds. Langford was proving himself to be one of the most formidable fighters on the planet, and he had his eyes set on a rematch with Johnson for the world heavyweight title.
One would think that once a Black man became heavyweight world champion, the ‘colour line’ would be wiped away, but this was not the case. When Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight world champion, he himself drew the ‘colour line’.
“No attention will be paid to Sam Langford’s challenge by me. I do not consider he could give me a fight that could sell.” – Jack Johnson, 1910.
Johnson’s motives for refusing to fight Black fighters while champion was financial rather than racial, but nonetheless, he prevented many talented Black fighters from securing a title shot.
Langford found himself part of a quartet of Black heavyweights who were all routinely denied a title shot, collectively known as “Black Dynamite.”
The other three members of the unfortunate quartet were Sam McVea, Joe Jennette, and Harry Wills. All four were refused title shots and so entered an extraordinary four-way rivalry that saw Langford fight Jenette 14 times (7-3-4), McVea 15 times (7-2-6) and Wills 17 times (2-13-2). Between them, the quartet traded the world ‘coloured’ heavyweight title throughout a truly extraordinary series of bouts.
Despite being considerably smaller than his fellow ostracised fighters, giving away height, reach and often an excess of 30lbs, Langford held positive records against all of them except Wills. Wills himself was an exceptional Heavyweight who, at 6’2”, towered over Langford. However, Langford’s vicious power was able to KO Wills twice, with the majority of Lanford’s losses to Wills occurring as his vision began to wane.
In 1917, Langford’s career began to take a turn for the worse, when in a fight with Fred Fulton he severed one of his optic nerves resulting in a loss of vision in his left eye. In desperate need of money, Langford’s career would continue despite his partial loss of vision.
In 1922 Langford would gain another world title scalp when he knocked out Tiger Flowers in two rounds, Flowers would go on to win the world middleweight title from Harry Greb in 1926.
Despite being completely blind in his left eye and with his vision in the right eye beginning to fade, Langford pushed for a title shot against Jack Dempsey. However, Dempsey’s manager refused Langford the fight, stating that “we were looking for someone easier.”
While he was a formidable puncher, Langford was far from just a powerful slugger. His bouts in his early career helped to mould him into a complete fighter with fantastic movement, a great sense of distance, feints, and counterpunching. Langford could do it all.
Langford was almost completely blind for the majority of his bouts in the 1920s. By the end of his career, losses were coming against lesser opponents, and his health was getting worse. There would be no fairy-tale ending for Langford as he retired penniless and sightless, having never been granted his shot at the heavyweight title.
Despite losing his sight and suffering many injustices throughout his career, Langford remained in high spirits throughout the rest of his life, and was never bitter about the obstacles faced in his career.
There would be a silver lining in 1944, when an article was published depicting his plight and over $10,000 was donated to Langford. Eventually, funding was acquired for eye surgery, and in 1955 he was inducted into the Ring Magazine Hall of Fame.
It is believed that had he been granted title shots, Langford may well have ended his career as a five-weight world champion fighting all the way from lightweight to heavyweight.
Sam Langford had over 300 fights, with over 200 wins, and over 100 KOs. But was never rewarded with a world title.
Boxing has long been an avenue for Black athletes to challenge the racism in society, and while those who were successful such as Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, etc. are rightly heralded, those who failed to break past the ‘colour line’ are often forgotten.
In a world where history tends to forget those great athletes who were left behind, I think it is our duty as sports fans to come together and remember their great feats, and perhaps none are more deserving than the great Sam Langford.