Sam Langford  
Author:  Paul Hindley

Whilst opinion differs as to where the phrase pound for pound originated, few if any could argue that it was never more appropriate than when applied to the number one in our list, the legendary Sam Langford. Born in Nova Scotia in March 1884 Sam was a boisterous boy who left home at 14. Despite being short of build Sam was physically strong and found work easy to come by, however his desire to travel saw him leave Canada, arriving in Boston in 1901.
Once in the city Sam found work at Joe Woodman’s drug store and gym where Sam’s duties including cleaning and general upkeep of the place. However, perhaps inevitably it was not long before Sam was sparring with the fighters and it soon became apparent Sam was a quick learner and that his power was something truly special. Sam had a very brief amateur career before turning pro in 1902. In his first 26 fights Sam only lost one. His breakout opportunity came next when he got a match up with the great lightweight champion Joe Gans. As Sam was over the limit Gans’ title was not on the line and this was to be something Joe was thankful for as, after taking the first few rounds,  Sam began to work out his vastly more experienced foe. From the fifth on Sam took control of the fight and, whilst the fight was close when the decision was announced, few took umbrage with Sam being announced as the winner. This was a remarkable win for a fighter of only 17 years old and less than 30 fights.  What was even more remarkable was Gans announced pretty much straight after he had no intention of meeting Sam again anytime soon.
One the back of the Gans win Sam found his level of opposition improving and himself being matched against the excellent Dave Holly and Jack Blackburn, who would go on to earn more fame as Joe Louis’ trainer, but was an excellent fighter in his own right during his career. Whilst Sam would not always win during this period he was showing enough form and improvement to prove the Gans win was no fluke. His next named opponent was against the big punching welterweight champion Barbados Joe Walcott, although the official verdict in the fight was a draw most at ringside thought this fortunate to Joe and Sam should have received the nod.
1905 saw Sam continue to fight the usual suspects but it was clear that title shots in the lower weights were not going to be forthcoming.  On the back of this in December of that year Sam took the seemingly foolhardy decision to test his luck in with the heavyweights when he took on the excellent Joe Jeannette. It should be stressed at this point Sam stood little over 5ft 7 and just a year ago had been fighting at welterweight. Although he lost this fight Sam decided he saw enough to encourage him he could compete with the big boys and he was to spend a good amount of the next few years and indeed the rest of his career fighting heavyweight and conceding massive size and weight advantages.
One of the heavyweights faced by Sam during this period was the future world champion and all-time great Jack Johnson. Whilst Johnson deservedly won the fight Sam showed enough form and power that he seems to have seriously spooked Jack because during Johnson’s title reign, by which point Sam had more experience of fighting heavies, countless offers were made for Johnson to defend his title against Sam, all of which were declined.
As Sam entered 1907 he entered what was almost certainly the purple patch of his career as between 1907 and 1912 Sam was to record only two losses from 53 fights, both of which were avenged and one of which, a loss to Sam McVea was also hotly contested. His form during this period is even more impressive when one considers he was fighting regularly against such excellent fighters as Joe Jeannette, Sam McVea, Jim Barry and Jeff Clarke.
Perhaps one of Sam’s most interesting fights during this period was against middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. Sam had an eye on a shot at Stanley’s middleweight champion however in their fight Stanley would only agree to a six round no decision affair. Sam now found himself in a difficult position, he wanted to show enough form to raise interest and financial backing for a title shot but not too much form to send Ketchel running to the hills. According to most reports it appears Sam did this, whilst no decision was issued most newspapers were split over who deserved the nod, with most perhaps leaning to Ketchel, although pretty much all agreed Sam was fighting well within himself. Irrespective of how Sam performed in this fight Ketchel’s untimely death was to end any chances of the two meeting for the title proper.
Sam fought regularly throughout his career around the world taking in fights in France, Australia and the UK and he was always well received on the back of both his exciting fighting style and easy going good nature outside the ring. This inevitably drew him favourable comparisons with the more arrogant and difficult Johnson but did little to get him anywhere nearer a title shot with his nemesis, despite offers being made by promoters in all three of these countries.
Whilst Sam was to remain a valid contender for a good few years on his form began to take a downturn from its imperious peak, this was down to a number of factors, the knowledge that a title shot with Johnson would not happen must surely be a factor as was Sam’s less than stellar approach to his training, but equally as big a factor was the emergence of the excellent Harry Wills. Sam was to fight eighteen fights with the excellent Wills and whilst he won some of their earlier encounters as Harry improved and Sam aged Harry was to have the wood on Sam and replace him as the most likely contender for a title shot.
Sam was to fight on until 1926 despite the fact he was nearly blind at the time and his later fights appear to have been farcical and tragic affairs but even as late in his career in 1922 Sam was capable of showing signs of the old magic beating fighters as good as Tiger Flowers. Proof that irrespective of age and failing eye sight if Sam could connect with one of his honey punches it tended to be the end of any fight.
Tributes to Sam from his rivals and those who saw him in the flesh are almost universal, featherweight great Abe Attell described him as the best ever, even going as far as to say Sam would have known too much for the legendary Joe Louis. Nearly all of Sam’s opponents such as Harry Wills and Fireman Jim Flynn describing Sam as the heaviest hitters they ever faced, with Fireman Jim Flynn describing being hit by Sam as either being hit by a baseball bat or taking ether such were the sleep inducing effects. Even a cursory glance at the records of Wills and Flynn will tell you how high a compliment the endorsement of these two is.
It would be easy to look at Sam’s record and see the occasional losses to the likes of McVea, Johnson and Wills and suspect he was over rated or undeserving of his place atop this list. This for me would be an unfair reading, as what should not be forgotten was Sam by right had no business being in the ring with these guys in the first place being barely above 5ft 7 and perfectly capable of making the middleweight limit. The simple reality is Sam fought the big guys because nobody at his own weight would entertain the idea of meeting Langford, such was his greatness.