|"Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion" - Author Clay Moyle
Intreview by Bob Carroll, Doghouse Boxing (Mar 19, 2009) DoghouseBoxing.com
Sam Langford has been described by ESPN as "The Greatest Fighter You Never Knew". Sam Langford, 201-45-46 (116), was a fighter during the early 1900's. Considered by most of the people in that era, as one of the best fighters in the world, Langford fought, and won fights in weight classes from lightweight to heavyweight and back down again. Langford won the heavyweight championship titles of England, Australia, Canada and in 1924, Langford won the Mexican Heavyweight Championship despite the fact that his sight was so poor, he had to be led to and from the ring. Langford was truly a man and fighter whose greatness was realized, but for some reason forgotten.
Writer Clay Moyle took note of this fighter, doing research on boxing history. The interest turned in a book about this forgotten fighter, Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion". Recently, Clay sat down with Doghouse Boxing to discuss his book and the life of Sam Langford.
Bob Carroll: Clay give our readers a background into your writing career.
Clay Moyle: (Laughs) My writing career, ah, well, this is the first book I've actually ever written. Any writing I've done in the past has strictly been related to business writing and so forth, you know, for my job.
BC: How did you come to write about Sam Langford?
CM: I always wanted to write a book and when I started really researching the history of boxing between 1890-1930, which is the period of time that is the greatest interest for me, I came across bits and pieces about Sam Langford and he really intrigued me. He was a great fighter and I really liked his sense of humor and the kind of spirit he had, in terms of how he persevered despite the odds that were against him. When I realized that no one had ever written a book about him, I just thought it was a shame, and that this guy was largely forgotten, and I thought his life story would make for an interesting read.
BC: When you first started writing this book, how tough was it to find the people that were involved with Sam Langford, or to find out Langford's history?
CM: Well, it was very difficult to find people who were involved with him of course, because he died in 1956, so there was really no one around that I could talk to, that knew him personally, other than at the end of my research efforts I found a great granddaughter that I did not know of at the start the project. I did get to speak to her a bit about her memories of him, but she was only 5-6 years old at the time that she would see him, when he visited his daughter. So she was a very little girl and had very few memories of him. So in terms of people who knew him and so forth, I had to draw from what I could gleam from old newspapers, microfilm and other old books that had first hand accounts of him from different people who had written books that had met him when he was in England fighting. Things like memoirs of certain people. There was a trainer over in Australia, a guy named Duke Mullins who trained Jack Johnson when he was in Australia preparing for his title fight with Tommy Burns. When Sam went over there for a year and a half, Mullins was also Sam’s trainer, so in the early 20's, when he wrote some of his memoirs, and those were published in an Australian newspaper. I got a lot of first hand accounts from him, in terms of his memories of Sam.
BC: Langford fought in weight divisions ranging from lightweight up to heavyweight. What were some of the bigger bouts he had won?
CM: Well, at lightweight he defeated the reigning lightweight champion, Joe Gans in 1903. He didn’t win the title from Gans because Sam weighed in 3-4 lbs over the weight limit. Sam was only a 17 year old at the time, so that was pretty incredible to defeat Gans. The next year, he moved up to welterweight and fought the original Joe Walcott. That bout was ruled a draw, but there was quite a bit of press and people who were at ringside, including a pretty well known boxing reporter at the time named Arthur Lumley, and the majority of them maintained that Sam deserved the decision. So in the 2nd and 3rd years of his career, and at a very young age, under different circumstances Sam might have very easily been recognized as the world champion of both the lightweight and welterweight divisions. He moved up to middleweight eventually and one of the folks he defeated while he was at that weight was the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. There is mixed feelings about who took the six round bout between Sam and Ketchel, at Philadelphia in 1910. It was more of an exhibition really, the title was not up for grabs, but supposedly it was a precursor to a longer title fight out on the west coast, to be held later in the year. Some folks thought Ketchel got the better of it, but the majority seemed to think that Langford did, and that he also carried Ketchel in that contest, in hopes that it would entice Ketchel and his management group into the longer title fight on the west coast, later in 1910. Ketchel wound up being assassinated, and that contest never took place. Sam fought his first heavyweight in 1905 against a great black heavyweight contender named Joe Jeannette. He lost the first contest against Jeanette, but later that year Langford fought him again and won the decision. That win lead to a match between he and Jack Johnson. In April of 1906, Johnson was a leading heavyweight contender. He and Langford met up, with Langford losing that bout, actually getting a bad beating. In that fight, Langford was only 20 years old, anywhere from 140-155 lbs and Johnson was 28 years old, a good 4 inches taller and 40-45 lbs heavier. Sam ended up losing a decision, but ended up receiving a lot of accolades for just being able to last the distance with Jack Johnson. Johnson refused to give him another match in the future when Sam had completed his physical maturation. He also fought and beat light heavyweights Philadelphia Jack O'Brien, Young Peter Jackson, and Kid Norfolk, and numerous heavyweights including men like "Fireman" Jim Flynn, "Battling" Jim Johnson and "Gunboat" Smith, Harry Wills, Sam McVey, and many, many others.
BC: Most boxing fans know the name Jack Johnson, and you just spoke about the history between Johnson and Langford. Could you tell our readers how Johnson may have hurt Langford's career?
CM: Yeah, sure. Obviously the antics that Johnson exhibited when he became champion. He flaunted his relationships with white women in the public during a period of time that that was completely unacceptable. He also liked to taunt his opponents. At that time there were some states that did not allow mixed bouts between races, but here was this black heavyweight champion that was out cavorting with white women, and beating up white heavyweights, and basically throwing that in the face of the public. Johnson was very unpopular with the majority of caucasian boxing fans and as a result of that, they was a huge effort to find the “great white hope”, to take that title back. When Jess Willard won the title in 1915, those in charge of boxing made sure another black man wouldn’t have a chance to fight for that title any time soon. In fact, a black fighter was not given a chance until Joe Louis got a chance to fight for the title in the 1930's
BC: Langford had 22 fights with Harry Wills. Was this because white fighters in that era basically refused to fight black fighters?
CM: Yeah, partly. I actually have him down as having seventeen fights with Wills, but it would not surprise me if there were more. But yes, there were a number of black fighters at that time, who had difficulty getting fights with white fighters The white fighters also felt the black fighters were too dangerous to fight. There were men like Wills, who Langford fought at least seventeen times, Sam McVey, another great black heavyweight contender Sam fought fifteen times, Joe Jeanette fourteen times, “Battling” Jim Johnson twelve times. It was almost like these guys had their own division, where they were forced to fight each other over and over in different cities to continue to make a living.
BC: Langford fought his last bout in August of 1926, when he was blind in one eye and reportedly age 43. What kept returning him to the ring?
CM: On the issue of how old Sam was at the time of his last bout, there’s a lot of confusion and debate over that, and I finally settled on August 4, 1886 as his date of birth, which would have made him 40 years old at the time of his last fight. He was advised by his manager Joe Woodman to quit as early as 1917. Over time, Woodman and Langford did split due to that particular issue, with Woodman worried that Langford would go blind if he continued to fight. Langford obviously knew that was a real possibility, but he just felt like he had no other way to make a living, and that was the only way he knew how to make a living. In hindsight, as we look back on that, it doesn’t seem like that makes a lot of sense because you would think he would have been able to make a living, although much more modestly, as a trainer. He was a very well known boxer and pretty famous at that time. I really don’t know, it’s hard to say why he just couldn’t give it up, especially when his eye sight was in question.
BC: What was life after boxing like for Langford?
CM: Pretty dismal, because eventually he did lose his sight in his second eye as well. There was a period of time that he was getting by on hand outs and there was a couple of years that he was living in a pretty dingy Harlem hotel. I’ve got records of him being in situations where he would basically be living in a run down hotel room like that, and all he would have in there was a radio. During that time, a local guy who owned a bar would provide him with meals and all the beer he could drink in exchange for him coming to the bar every day to sit in the bar and entertain the patrons with stories of his boxing career as they came in the bar. The owner would send over a couple of young boys who would basically take him for a walk a couple of times a day, then bring him over to the bar to regal the customers with his stories, get his meals and then take him back home later in the evening. So, there were a few benefits were given for him on behalf of boxing associations and other boxers over the years. As a result of those efforts, a very small annuity was set-up so that at least he had enough money coming in on a monthly basis, that he could pay for a pretty modest place to live and some meals, but not much else. Towards the very end of his life, he ended up in a private nursing home in Boston, which was basically a home that had maybe, three or four bedrooms, and there was an older woman that took care of the folks there at the home. He spent the last few years of his life at that home. He did have family and that is why his great granddaughter remembers him as a five or six year old. He would still, on occasion, go to visit his only child, his daughter and they would of course, come to see him. I know of at least one grandson that would come and visit, with the great granddaughter.
BC: How do you think a fighter like Sam Langford would fare in todays boxing world?
CM: I think he would do very well. If he were fighting today, he would have the advantage of modern training and nutrition methods. He was a little bit of a freak physically in terms of his build. He was very barrel chested, had a tremendous set of shoulders and long arms on him and I think his style, he would adjust to the style of fighters today, but I think his style would translate very well to modern bouts. He was a very skilled fighter, he was very good in terms of feinting fighters out of position. He had a tremendous knockout punch in both hands. I can’t remember off the top of my head, what his total knockout figure was, but I think he is up among the top five boxers in terms of total knockouts (Writers note: Sam Langford is ranked #4 overall with 116 KO’s documented).
BC: Were would you place Sam Langford in the greatest pound for pound of fighters?
CM: You know, a strong case could be made for Harry Greb and Sam Langford to be considered the best pound for pound fighter of all time, right up there with “Sugar” Ray Robinson. Certainly, I think, both of these two men were within the top five. Both Langford and Greb fought, almost the last third of their careers with one eye. Both men suffered detached retinas, and in Langford’s case, that occurred as a result of a 1917 bout with Fred Fulton. So he had at least 107 professional fights with one eye and towards the latter part of his career with limited vision in the other. That just astounds me that those two guys fought that long and against the quality of opposition that they fought, with one eye.
BC: Clay, we touched on some of Sam Langford's life, but you cover much more in your book. How can people purchase "Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion"?
CM: Well, there are a couple of different ways, and it is available on Amazon. I also have a personal website that’s set up, it’s Samlangford.com, that folks can use to order books, signed copies, directly from me.
I’d like to thank Clay Moyle for taking time out of his day to speak with Doghouse Boxing. For more information on Clay’s book, "Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion" or to order the book, go to samlangford.com. For more on the story of Sam Langford, listen to Bob Carroll, Butch and "THE Big Dog" Benny Henderson Jr. every Wednesday night from 8-9pm EST on Fightin' Words Radio Show. To listen live via the internet, go to http://1490wwpr.com and look for the "listen here" tab. Don't forget to check out the Fightin' Words Radio Show website, fightinwordsonline.com
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