One of many top black boxers denied a chance to fight for a championship largely because of racial discrimination, Sam Langford took on every fighter he could, from lightweight to heavyweight, in his 24-year career. He combined great punching power and agility with intelligence and courage. Those who agreed to face Langford often considered him so dangerous they would request assurances that he be merciful in the ring. Because the pool of his potential opponents was so limited, Langford at times held back in hopes of a rematch.
Born in Canada, Langford began his professional boxing career in 1902 at the age of nineteen with a knockout victory over Jack McVicker in Boston. Quickly rising to prominence, Langford defeated Joe Gans in 1903. The next year, he fought to a draw with Joe Walcott. In 1906, though he was outweighed by at least twenty pounds, Langford faced the future heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson. Langford lost the fifteen-round decision and never really had Johnson in trouble although, years later, exaggerated accounts circulated that Langford had nearly beaten Johnson. Once he was champion, Johnson refused to give Langford a title shot.
In 1910, Langford fought a very tough, six-round no-decision bout against the aggressive middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel. Langford scored well in the early rounds, but Ketchel took control towards the end of the fight. Newspaper accounts generally awarded the decision to Ketchel, although the verdict could have gone either way. Langford was never given an opportunity to fight for Ketchel's title. In 1911, Langford made short work of former light heavyweight champion Philadelphia Jack O'Brien with a fifth-round knockout.
Because of his difficulty in finding matches, Langford often fought the same opponents-especially other black fighters in a similar predicament-over and over. Langford and Harry Wills tangled eighteen times. Wills knocked Langford out twice and generally had the better of the series, although it must be noted that the first meeting occurred when Langford was 31 years old. Langford had more than ten fights each against Sam McVey, Joe Jeannette, Jim Barry, Jeff Clark, and Bill Tate.
After almost three hundred recorded bouts, Langford retired at the age of 43. In his last years in the ring, he was troubled by eye problems which eventually resulted in blindness. When he retired at last, he struggled to live comfortably until a sportswriters' fund for his care was established.
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Excerpted with permission from 'The Boxing Register' by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, copyright © 1999 by McBooks Press. All rights reserved.