Wednesday 30 March 2011

Book Review: Sam Langford - Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion

The name Sam Langford has loomed large in many constructions of boxing history. From the oral discourses of the old timers to the pictorial digests of the glossy coffee table offerings, Langford’s tale is often summarised by his rivalries with contemporary black fighters Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey, his unrequited hopes of attaining the heavyweight championship of the world –a slender chance rendered impossible by the decisions and indiscretions of Jack Johnson- and his later descent into a private hell of blindness and poverty. 

It is of course true that while historians have consistently alluded to his masterful style and his dexterity of skill, his story nevertheless has tended to be portrayed in short, consumable stanzas –never writ large, and only as a ‘supporting act’ in the often repeated saga of Johnson.

Why this is so is not at all hard to fathom. The writing of history, particularly as it relates to boxing, can often be dictated by the commercial viability of a project. The tried and tested paths of explorations into a select band of personages are comfortable if ultimately stultifying enterprises when over the course of time very little of valuable discovery and enlightened interpretation are the proceeds for the discerning reader.

There have been innumerable projects on Jack Johnson and the era of the ‘white hopes’; Of Jack Dempsey and the ‘roaring twenties’; Of Joe Louis and the breakthrough in American race relations as well as of Muhammad Ali and his career set against an age of tumult.

Yet Langford lived during an age as marked and as interesting as any other in regard to boxing and the wider society. His reputation as a puncher was not far off those of both Dempsey and Louis, his technical proficiency as a boxer rivals that of any other in any chosen age of the sport and his personality, while not skirting on the boundaries of outrage that were the hallmarks of Johnson and Ali, was distinctly colourful.

Clay Moyle’s ‘Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion’ is the first large scale attempt on the life and career of the man famously, or infamously, nicknamed the ‘Boston Tar Baby.’ The moniker itself is as revealing as it is not. 

‘Tar Baby’ alludes to the obsessive zeal with which fighters were dispensed with sub-titles for names and in particular how the sportswriters of the day emphasised what they perceived to be his typical African features and the link that supposedly had to his physical prowess and the ‘primitiveness’ of his being.

The reference to Boston is indicative only of where the first rumblings of his talent was put on display and is not reflective of the peripatetic drift of a career that took him across many cities in North America, Mexico, England, France and Australia.

Langford, who in fact was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, was the descendant of African slaves who opted to fight for Britain against the revolutionary forces of George Washington in return for their freedom. He rarely returned to his hometown of Weymouth Falls and his career, as Moyle tenaciously recalls, was a continuum of movement; an ever restless search for money, the glory of the heavyweight championship and finally, for sanctuary.

As a fighter, the book details his encounters inside and outside of the ring with luminaries such as the original Joe Walcott, Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel, Harry Wills and Tiger Flowers. Coverage is given also to his visits to London for showdowns with the British heavyweight ‘Iron’ Hague and the Australian Bill Lang both of whom he dispatched with consummate ease.

There is also a whole chapter of an extended sojourn in Australia which accommodates recapitulations of his contests with Sam McVey, his testy relationship with the promoter Hugh MacIntosh which led to a confrontation in the courts and the delicate negotiations conducted by MacIntosh with Jack Johnson aimed at getting Johnson to defend his crown against Langford.

Moyle’s work cannot ignore the backdrop of the contemporary attitudes to race. It was a factor which all boxers of African descent contended with in their daily existence as human beings and as fighters. It was all encompassing and not only dictated where they could live, walk and sleep when they travelled, but also defined the manner in which they fought Caucasian opposition.

While the received wisdom of the day postulated the composite black fighter as possessing a hard skull which was immune to pain or sense of feeling, a stomach that was vulnerable to punches as well as a psyche which lacked courage and had a propensity to lose heart once the going got tough, the reality was altogether different. “If ever you hear of a man drawing the color line,” John L. Sullivan once mused, “you can bet your life there is some Negro he is mighty afraid of”.

As one scribe put it: “Like a number of great fighters of his race, Sam had no choice but to put on the brakes occasionally to keep hay in the bar.” 

This needs to be borne in mind when making comparisons of his punching effectiveness with the likes of Dempsey and Louis. There were bigger men no doubt, yet Langford could “stretch a guy out colder” than other heavyweights according to ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn.

He was the giant slayer of the sort which Bob Fitzsimmons was and Mickey Walker would be. The peaks in his career are faithfully covered by Moyle who reconstructs his mastery over Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey, and his victory over the younger, powerful Harry Wills in the second of their encounters before advancing age, and a creeping blindness began the irreparable slide in his effectiveness as a fighter.

He would never ascend to the peak of glory his talents merited. It was a career littered with much in the manner of unrequited hopes: not only would he never get the re-match with Johnson or stab at other heavyweight title holders, he would not get to face Stanley Ketchel for the middleweight title or subsequent middleweight champions who like their heavyweight counterparts, drew the so-called ‘colour line’.

The light heavyweight championship also, remained out of his grasp, being not sufficiently delineated to make a claim. Thus it was that the titles affixed to his name including brief recognition as the champion respectively of England, France, Australia and Mexico as well as the threadbare appellation; 'Coloured Heavyweight Champion' all served as scant consolation for his been denied the opportunity of becoming a world champion.

Nothing of course will resolve the argument as to whether he would have defeated Jack Johnson in a heavyweight battle. Johnson, much the larger man and a wily foe, was the unquestioned victor in their only encounter. Yet, the argument, and a compelling one at that, persists that Langford, at only 20 years of age had yet to reach the peak of his fighting powers.

Langford, as Moyle relates, was a thinking fighter. He was one who ruminated a lot on what he could garner from the likes of Walcott and Gans, and was often strategic in assessing how to confront his opponents, many of whom invariably were taller than he.

It was such admixture of skill and cunning that enabled him to ‘carry’ fighters for the benefit of promoters wishing to give their customers value for money or others who would only meet him in round-limited, ‘no decision’ matches for which newspapers awarded their own verdicts. 

While his physical features –Langford’s head was once described as flat “as the plains of Nebraska”- earned the mocking derision of many white sportswriters of the time, he was apt at eloquently displaying a basic sense of decency, as exemplified by his actions after knocking out an opponent. Langford it is recalled “always stayed around until the poor bum opened his eyes.”

There are also intriguing glimpses into his personal life with his love of fine clothes, automobiles and cigars; his jocular humour and his use of humour as a tool for diffusing combustible situations. At the same time Moyle does not spare the reader the unflattering allegations of domestic abuse and financial irresponsibility.

There is much to commend about this work: the author’s efficient sourcing of his references; his dedicated zeal in collecting and arranging a vast array of varied and interesting photography of Langford -many of which have not before been in the public domain- and his objectivity in highlighting those anecdotes and factual disputes of which a consultation of the records cannot presently provide a definitive resolution. 

All of them are hallmarks of his punctilious attention to detail in what no doubt will remain the definitive biography of Sam Langford for a long time to come.

Adeyinka Makinde (2008)

1 comment:

  1. The best nickname applied to the great Sam Langford by some western scribe was "The Boston Bonecrusher" for he surely was. When Sam, at his peak, decided a guy should go, it was a sure thing.