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.