Chronicle Herald Review of Pulling No Punches

Sam Langford was only five-foot-seven, but he hit like a sledgehammer. In 2003, a century after his storied career began, The Ring magazine rated the Weymouth Falls native the second-greatest puncher in history, behind only Joe Louis.

Langford, who fought from 1902 to 1926 in every weight class from lightweight to heavyweight, is widely regarded as the greatest boxer to have never held a world title, and he may have been the best his sport has ever seen.

The overt racism of his era allowed heavyweight champs to reject his title challenges out of hand, but his skill also worked against his championship quest. Some white boxers would fight a black man — but not one who could hit like Langford. In 1923, Jack Dempsey’s manager turned down a challenge from a visually-impaired, 40-year-old Langford, saying “we were looking for someone easier.”

In Pulling No Punches, Steven Laffoley tells a classic story — young man overcomes racism and poverty to become a contender — in an unusual way, but he tells it well. Laffoley fashions this book as a memoir by Langford that plays out as the old, blind boxer recalls his career while listening to a radio broadcast of the 1955 world welterweight title fight between Carmen Basilio and Tony DeMarco. While that scene is fabricated, it’s a justifiable contrivance that allows Laffoley to tie together the sketchy details of what’s known about a man who disappeared from public view nine decades ago. The author assures us that all words attributed to Langford are taken from newspaper reports, interviews or other solid sources.

This is primarily the story of Langford the boxer, not so much of Sam the man. But Laffoley is able to show us something of his early days, of a beloved mother who died when he was young and a violent father who beat him. We learn that Langford worked in the lumber camps of Nova Scotia and New England and knew some hungry days while trying to get established in Boston. We also get a few glimpses of his married life.

Laffoley skilfully describes Langford’s key fights and populates the book with a lively gallery of the Runyonesque rogues and battle-scarred warriors he crossed paths with in the always murky world of boxing.

Langford was a marvellous talent with some bad luck. Early in his career, in 1903, he beat lightweight champ Joe Gans but couldn’t claim the title because he missed the weight limit by ounces. The next year, he fought welterweight champion Barbados Joe Walcott to a draw in a fight that most reporters said Langford clearly won.

And misfortune caused him to miss a lucrative payday against a big-name white boxer after a decision in 1910 over the great middleweight Stanley Ketchel created a lot of interest in a planned rematch fated to never happen. In that case, the bad luck was Ketchel’s because, in the immortal words of John Lardner: “Stanley Ketchel was twenty-four years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

Langford’s reminiscences propel this story and they are haunted by an immense spectre. That would be the Galveston Giant, Jack Johnson, who outweighed a young Langford by about 40 pounds when he beat him in a 15-round decision in 1906. Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champ two years later but repeatedly refused to offer Langford a title shot during his seven-year reign. In fact, the only black man Johnson defended his title against was a palooka regularly beaten by Langford and other top black fighters such as Joe Jeanette and Sam McVea.

The biggest, and unanswerable, question about Langford’s career is whether he could have beaten Johnson in a title fight. We can only speculate but Langford by this time was in his prime, a heavier and stronger fighter than in their first encounter and he was also five years younger and quicker than Johnson, who was 37 when he lost the title to Jess Willard in 1915.

After Willard’s victory, the colour barrier was bolted back in place and it would be two decades before a black man would again fight for the heavyweight title.

Denied a shot at boxing’s richest prize, Langford fought too often for relatively small purses. In later years, he suffered damage to his optic nerve but kept boxing and even won the Mexican heavyweight title when all he could see was shadows. But, unable to defend properly, he suffered some terrible beatings before he fought his last fight in 1926.

Boxing is a brutal sport that devours many of its greatest stars and, as Laffoley shows, Langford fell on grim times. He lived for years in poverty and blindness until a sportswriter tracked him down in Harlem in 1944 and wrote about his plight. Offers to help poured in and a trust fund was created that paid for surgery that restored some vision for a while and gave him a small monthly stipend, allowing him to live in a bit of meagre comfort until his death in 1956.

Ed MacLellan is an editor with The Chronicle Herald.

Review of Pulling No Punches in Atlantic Books Today

There is a remarkable story in Sam Langford, the Weymouth Fall, NS, pugilist who lived and fought in the breaking years of the 20th century. It’s a story about ferocious ambition, extraordinary skill (none other than Jack Dempsey called him “the greatest”), winning and losing.

Fortunately, Steven Laffoley tells the tale well. In the hand of a lesser writer, this could have been a sentimental journey — fraught with narrative hand-wringing and cliched conclusions about the boxer’s metaphorical locations in the violent Zeitgeist of modern times. Instead this is a beautifully crafted, exquisitely nuanced account of one man’s journey through life, brimming with the kind of truth that only the ring, an opponent and the bell produce.

As Laffoley reports from others, ‘Langford had the fatal gift of being too good, and that’s why he often had to give away weight in the early days.’ Whatever weight the protagonist shed in life, his author has more than returned, in the broad shadow of this fine account.

By Alec Bruce
(Atlantic Books Today)

Shadowboxing wins the 2013 Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award!

Saturday, September 21, 2013 – 9:50pm

Halifax, NS – September 21, 2013

$29,000 in prizes presented to Russell Wangersky, Lesley Choyce, and Steven Laffoley at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s 2013 WFNS Literary Awards.

The Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, valued at $25,000, was presented to Newfoundland’s Russell Wangersky for Whirl Away (Dundurn) at a ceremony hosted by the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) on Saturday, September 21, 2013 at the Institute of Applied Creativity at NSCAD in Halifax.

In addition, The Evelyn Richardson Memorial Non-Fiction Award was presented to Steven Laffoley of Halifax, NS for Shadowboxing: The Rise and Fall of George Dixon (Pottersfield Press), and the Atlantic Poetry Prize was awarded to Lesley Choyce of Halifax, NS for I’m Alive. I Believe in Everything. (Breton Books).

Invisible Publishing author and CBC Radio host Stephanie Domet presided over the ceremony and prizes were presented by Sarah Emsley and Ryan Turner of the WFNS Board of Directors.

The shortlists for the WFNS Literary Awards were released in June, with nominated writers appearing throughout the region in the immediate run-up to the September 21 announcement. Now in its 23rd year, The Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award has been administered by WFNS since its inception in 1990. The Evelyn Richardson Memorial Award for Non-Fiction was established in 1978, and the Atlantic Poetry Prize was first awarded in 1998.

Shortlisted nominees for each prize also included:
Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award: Keir Lowther for Dirty Bird (Tightrope Books) and Donna Morrissey for The Deception of Livvy Higgs (Penguin Group).

Evelyn Richardson Memorial Award for Non-Fiction: Jerry Lockett for The Discovery of Weather (Formac Lorimer Books) and Herb MacDonald for Cape Breton Railways: An Illustrated History (Cape Breton University Press)

Atlantic Poetry Prize: Carole Glasser Langille for Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems (Pedlar Press) and George Murray for Whiteout (ECW Press)

About the winning titles:

Shadowboxing: The Rise and Fall of George Dixon by Steven Laffoley (Pottersfield Press)
Before all the great black boxing champions of every age and every weight class, there was George Dixon. He was the first. He was the greatest. And this is his story. Steven Laffoley is the author of Hunting Halifax: In Search of History, Mystery and MurderDeath Ship of Halifax HarbourThe Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; and Pulling No Punches: The Sam Longford Story.

I’m Alive. I Believe In Everything. by Lesley Choyce (Breton Books)
It perhaps comes as no surprise that a book with this title covers a wide range of subjects: war, peace, surfing, organic gardening, aging, seaweed, Halifax, Saskatoon, Glasgow, outhouses, cement mixers, crows, watermelons, mushrooms, geese, truth, lies, and madness – to name a few. Lesley Choyce runs Pottersfield Press and has published over 70 books for adults and kids. His recent novel, Cold Clear Morning, is currently being developed as a feature length movie.

Whirl Away: Stories by Russell Wangersky (Dundurn)
These stories look at what happens when characters safe in the world of self-deception or even self-delusion, [are] forced to face the fact that their main line of defence has become their greatest weakness. This latest collection of short stories by Russell Wangersky’s was shortlisted for the 2012 ScotiaBank Giller Prize. His most recent novel is The Glass Harmonica. His previous book, Burning Down the House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myselfwon Canada’s largest non-fiction prize, the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the Rogers Communications Newfoundland and Labrador Non-Fiction Book Award, and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.

Click for Richardson Award Winners – 1978-2013

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“Shadowboxing” nominated for Nova Scotia’s prestigious Evelyn Richardson Memorial Nonfiction Award

 

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia Press Release:

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) is proud to announce the shortlist for the 2013 WFNS Literary Awards. During the inaugural Fighting Words! The Fed’s Literary Trivia Challenge, WFNS president Sylvia Gunnery revealed the names of authors in the running for the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Atlantic Poetry Prize, and the Evelyn Richardson Memorial Non-Fiction Award.

The WFNS Literary Awards celebrate and promote excellence in writing fromCanada’s Atlantic region. Award jurors deliberated 68 submitted titles to select the nine finalists (two fromNewfoundland, one fromPEI, and the six fromNova Scotia) for the three awards. “Each year, the success of our Awards program is a testament to the diversity and quality of writing from our region,” said Gunnery. “This year’s finalists introduce local, national, and international readers to remarkable works written by Atlantic Canadians and published in 2012.”

The shortlist for all three awards is included in this release and can be viewed at www.writers.ns.ca.

Winners will be announced and awards presented at the WFNS Literary Awards Ceremony inHalifaxon September 21, following a day of public events and readings celebrating the awards. Shortlisted writers will also appear atHalifax’s Word on the Street Book and Magazine Festival the following day.

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia was formed in 1976 to foster creative writing and the profession of writing inNova Scotia. WFNS works to provide advice and assistance to writers at all stages of their careers; to encourage greater public recognition of writers and their achievements; and to enhance the literary arts in our regional and national culture.

 

2013 WFNS Literary Awards Shortlist

The Atlantic Poetry Prize:

Lesley Choyce for I’m Alive. I Believe in Everything. (Breton Books)

Carole Glasser Langille for Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems (Pedlar Press)

George Murray for Whiteout (ECW Press)

 

The Evelyn Richardson Memorial Non-Fiction Award:

Steven Laffoley for Shadowboxing (Pottersfield Press)

Jerry Lockett for The Discovery of Weather (Formac Lorimer Books)

Herb MacDonald for CapeBreton Railways: An Illustrated History (CapeBretonUniversity Press)

 

The Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award

Keir Lowther for Dirty Bird (Tightrope Books)

Donna Morrissey for The Deception of Livvy Higgs (Penguin Group)

Russell Wangersky for Whirl Away (Thomas Allen & Son)

 

New book for Summer 2013…

Heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey called him “the greatest fighter we’ve ever had.” And champion Jack Johnson said he “was the toughest little son-of-a-bitch that ever lived.” So too celebrated New York boxing writer Hype Igoe said he was “the greatest fighter, pound for pound, who ever lived.” While New York sports writer Joe Williams said he “was probably the best the ring ever saw.” He was so good that many boxers refused to fight him, so good that he took bouts with bigger men just to get a match, so good that he once fought the greatest boxer of his age, Jack Johnson, when he was forty pounds lighter and a good foot shorter – and, still, he went the distance.

Yet, for all the ferocity of his talent, he could not outbox fistic fate. From his first bout in 1902 until his last a quarter century later, he battled boxing’s ugly colour line, a line that kept him from being world champion in three different weight classes. Still, he refused to be knocked down and relentlessly pursued a title shot until he was nearly forty years old. When, in 1923, he approached Jack Kearns, the manager of then heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, for championship bout, the wily Kearns looked over the nearly blind, well past-his-prime boxer, and shook his head. “We were looking for someone easier,” he sighed. He was just that good.

When he could no longer get his title shot, he retired from the ring in 1926 and soon faded from the public mind – until something unanticipated happened. The serious compilers of lists that recognize boxing’s all-time greatest began including his name, and he found himself becoming a boxing legend.

Now, more than half a century after his death, with his legend only continuing to grow, one wonders: who was this man who fought and won as a featherweight, a middleweight, and a heavyweight? And who was this man who, despite having never having won a world championship title, became a boxing legend, seen by some as the best there ever was? And how much of this man’s legend – the speed of his hands, the power of his punch, and the prowess of his skill over other fighters – was real? And how much of it was just fanciful bravado and bluster?

His official record says he fought 250 bouts, but he remembered fighting more than 500. And he loved to talk about them all, loved the stories that shaped the contours of his life and loved the absolute truth and less-than-certain tales that wove themselves into his boxing legend. Of course, this was as it should have been, because for him, great boxing was as much about the battles’ tales as it was about the battles themselves.

This is the story of Sam Langford.

 

Pulling No Punches: The Sam Langford Story

Coming Summer 2013…

Early Reviews for Shadowboxing

Shadowboxing #2 this week on Halifax’s Bestsellers List.

Some early reviews for “Shadowboxing: the rise and fall of George Dixon”:

“This is a book with obvious appeal to those who love boxing and are interested in the history of blacks in boxing. But you don’t have to like or love boxing to appreciate this book; it is definitely a story with universal appeal.” – Atlantic Books Today

“The story of Dixon’s life and times has long needed to be told. In Shadowboxing, Laffoley tells it well.” – Charles R. Saunders, author of ‘Sweat and Soul: The Saga of Black Boxers in the Maritimes from the Halifax Forum to Caesars Palace’

“Why it’s taken so long for someone to produce a biography about this great little fighter is a mystery to me but thankfully Steven Laffoley has stepped in and filled the void…Dixon’s story was very well written and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.” – Clay Moyle, author of ‘Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion’

#1Bestseller

Shadowboxing hits number one and number two on the Halifax Bookmark Bestsellers list and the Nova Scotia Bestsellers list!

Shadowboxing: the rise and fall of George Dixon

George Dixon (1870-1908) was the finest boxer of his generation and arguably among the finest boxers ever. His accomplishments in the ring were extraordinary: the first black boxing champion, the first champion of multiple weight classes, and the first champion to lose and regain the title. He defended his title more than any other champion and fought in an unprecedented 800 bouts. Making these achievements even more astonishing, George Dixon publicly fought and beat hundreds of white boxers in an age when black men were murdered for simply being black.
Sam Austin, the larger-than-life sports editor at America’s first tabloid newspaper, the Police Gazette, described George Dixon as “The Fighter Without Flaw.” Said Austin, “The fact cannot be disputed that the greatest fistic fighter, big or little, that the world has ever known is George Dixon.”
Yet, despite these extraordinary accomplishments and this effusive adulation, George Dixon died a beggar, in the alcoholic ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital, alone and forgotten.
So who was George Dixon? What motivated this genuinely modest man, born in Africville, Nova Scotia, to achieve what no other black man had achieved before him? What strength of character earned him true greatness? And what made him lose it all?
Before Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis, before Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Johnson, before Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard, before all the great black boxing champions of every age and every weight class, there was George Dixon. He was the first. He was the greatest.
And this is his story.

“Shadowboxing shares an intriguing story of ‘the fighter without flaw’ and will appeal to even non-boxing fans.” – from Michelle Brunet’s review in The Coast

“This is a book with obvious appeal to those who love boxing and are interested in the history of blacks in boxing. But you don’t have to like or love boxing to appreciate this book; it is definitely a story with universal appeal.” – Atlantic Books Today

“The story of Dixon’s life and times has long needed to be told. In Shadowboxing, Laffoley tells it well.” – Charles R. Saunders, author of ‘Sweat and Soul: The Saga of Black Boxers in the Maritimes from the Halifax Forum to Caesars Palace’
“Why it’s taken so long for someone to produce a biography about this great little fighter is a mystery to me but thankfully Steven Laffoley has stepped in and filled the void…Dixon’s story was very well written and I thoroughly enjoyed the read.” – Clay Moyle, author of ‘Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion’