Sam Langford: Boxing Career, Racial Discrimination & Life After Blindness

Who is Sam Langford?

Sam Langford is a heavyweight Black Canadian boxer nicknamed Boston Tar Baby, Boston Terror, and Boston Bonecrusher. Boxing historians consider him one of the legendary boxers of the 20th century; however, little is known about him.

He is often referred to as History’s Forgotten Boxer. Sam Langford has fought from lightweight to heavyweight and won bouts. Despite his impressive record, the then racial discrimination did not allow him to compete in the heavyweight title.

Sam Langford is known for his brute strength, determination, and never-give-up attitude.

Quick facts

Full nameSamuel Edgar Langford
Also known as Sam Langford
NicknameBoston Tar Baby, Boston Terror, and Boston Bonecrusher
BirthdayMarch 4, 1883
DeathJanuary 12, 1956
Age72 years
Sun signPisces
TraitsPositive: Flirtatious, charming, romantic, introverted, and emotional
Negative: Sensitive, pessimistic, lazy and money-minded
BirthplaceWeymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, Canadian
Place of deathCambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A
Currently residingNot applicable
ParentsThomas Langford,
Elizabeth Langford
GrandparentsWilliam Langford
SiblingsNo information
Marital statusMarried
SpouseNo information
ChildrenIda Jarvis 
EducationNo information
Height5 feet 7 inches / 171 kg
Reach73 inches (188 cm)
Career stats293 matches (167 – 38 – 37); 117 KOs 
Eye colorBlack
Hair ColorBlack

Interesting facts

  • Sam Langford could not find enough opponents because of his color.
  • The same opponents fought with Langford over and over again. He fought Harry Wills a maximum number of times, eighteen.
  • Sam was 43 years old when he retired due to blindness.
  • He has defeated the lightweight and middleweight world champions without getting the title.
  • Langford is elected as the 7th best heavyweight boxer of all time.


Sam Langford
Sam Langford

Sam Langford was born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, a small community established by former black slaves and black loyalists. One of the people involved in establishing the community was his grandfather, William Langford.

However, hardship and sorrow have always been a part of Langford’s life from his early days. His father was physically abusive; nevertheless, his mother was the one who loved and protected him.

But unfortunately, his mother died when he was twelve, and the physical abuse from his father began to grow. Not coping with his sorrow and abuse, he left his home at a young age.

He wanted to go to Boston, Massachusetts, but the journey from Nova Scotia to Boston was long. So, he worked various jobs on his way to get there. He worked as a logger, ox-driver, and cabin boy on Nova Scotia and New England ships. Then, Sam Langford got to New Hampshire, where he worked on a vast farm.

However, he did not last there long because he got into a fight with his fellow workers. Now, without money and a job, he set on his way to Boston on foot, grabbing any jobs along the way. Afterward, when he reached Boston, Langford was offered a janitor job in a local boxing gym named Lenox Athletic Club. This was where his journey in boxing started.

Sam Langford was a quick learner, and soon he was noticed by Joe Woodman, the gym owner. He could easily spar with professional and established boxers that visited the gym, this impressed Woodman, and he decided to launch his career by becoming his manager.

Soon, in 1901, when he was only 15, he won the featherweight Championship (Amateur) in Boston. Later, his professional career started in 1902.

Professional Career 

Sam Langford vs Bill Lang
Sam Langford vs. Bill Lang

Known for his willingness to fight in different weight classes throughout his 24 years long career, Sam Langford started his professional boxing career as a lightweight. Moreover, he also competed in welterweight, middleweight, and heavyweight.

He was a fierce puncher despite his short stature. He also had a never-give-up attitude and was tough to beat, making him a vicious opponent for any boxer. His professional career began when Sam Langford was 16 years old against Jack McVicker. It was a knockout victory for Sam in his debut match.

Shortly after his professional debut, he had his chance to fight for the lightweight division world champion title against Joe Grans. Joe Grans was the first black man to win a world championship.

The fight lasted for 15 rounds, and finally, Sam was declared the winner. Afterward, it was discovered that he weighed slightly more than the 135 pounds weight limit, disqualifying him.

However, this was one of the many times Sam Langford would be denied a title. As aforementioned, hardship and bad luck followed him throughout his career and remaining life.

Memorable Matches and Series of Relentless Misfortune

Langford vs Wills, 1914
Photo of Sam Langford vs. Wills in 1914

Following the disqualification in the lightweight division, Sam Langford moved up in the weight division to welterweight. On September 5, 1904, he again got to fight with welterweight champion Joe Walcott.

This contest also lasted for 15 rounds; however, it was called a draw, causing sheer dismay in the audience. It was clear that Langford landed numerous punches and out-boxed his opponent.

New York Times News Editor, Arthur Lumley, reported that Sam Langford should have gotten the decision, and the spectators were displeased with the result.

Furthermore, Sam fought Jack Johnson, a popular heavyweight title contender, who outweighed Langford by over 20 lbs. However, this was the most brutal fight that Johnson would face.

The match ended after 15 rounds, and Johnson was declared the winner. Moving on, he went on to win the world championship two years later; nonetheless, he refused to fight Sam Langford again for fear of losing his title to a black man.

Johnson has publicly said he doesn’t want to fight Sam, referring to him as black smoke, because he has a chance to win against anyone. Additionally, Johnson wanted to be the first and last black heavyweight champion.

In addition, Langford’s closest call to a championship title came on April 27, 1910. He fought Stanley Ketchel, although Ketchel refused to put his title on the line for fear of losing to the Canadian.

The entertaining match was a draw, and a rematch was expected. However, just six months after the fight, Ketchel was murdered.

The boxing era when Sam Langford competed was when the promoters of matches believed that the audience would not pay to see two black boxers. Additionally, most white boxing champions refused to put their title on the line and risked losing it to a black opponent.

Racial Barriers in Sam Langford’s Career

Sam Langford the boston bonecrusher
Sam Langford, The Boston Bonecrusher

Nevertheless, these were only subtle racial barriers that a black athlete like Sam Langford faced. Another not-so-subtle racism was in the names given to the black boxers themselves.

Epithets given to black boxers were blatantly racist. ‘Boston Tar Baby,’ given to Langford, was one example of the nickname given to black boxers.

Meanwhile, the white boxers were named by the promoters as ‘Great White Savior,’ while their black counterparts were named as ‘Boston Terror.’ Such names reflect the racial superiority in the sport of boxing.

Significant Achievements of Sam Langford

Although he never retired as a decorated athlete, Langford gained immense respect from critics and peers. The critics praised him as “the man the champions feared,” “the man so good, he was never given a chance to show how good he was,” and even the “Greatest fighter in ring history.”

Sam Langford is listed in the top 10 boxers of all time in the Ring Magazine, even though he never won the world championship. However, he was called “the greatest of them all” and “the man I feared the most” by even the Hall of Famers, Abe Atell, former featherweight champion, and Jack Dempsey, former heavyweight champion, respectively.

The significant awards and honors that Sam Langford received are as follows.

  • Middleweight Champion (Wales)
  • Heavyweight Champion (England, Mexico, Spain)
  • Colored World Heavy Weight Champion (1910)
  • International Boxing Hall of Fame (1990)
  • The Ring Boxing Hall of Fame (1955)
  • Nova Scotia’s Sports Hall of Fame (1955)
  • Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame (1955)
  • Nova Scotia’s top male athlete of the 20th Century (1999)
  • No. 2 on Ring Magazines ‘Top 100 Punchers of all time’
  • Boxer of the Half-century (Canadian Press)

Furthermore, Langford continues to be remembered for all he has achieved in his career, even after his death. In his memory, a plaque was erected in his birthplace Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, in 1972.

Additionally, in 1986, his grave was given a headstone in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Also, a one-hour-long drama was written by Charles Sanders, depicting the life of Sam Langford.   

The tragic end of Sam Langford career due to Blindness

The series of tragic events in the life of Sam Langford continued in his fight with Fred Fulton on June 19, 1917. A punch to the head from Fulton resulted in visual impairment for Langford.

Despite the visual impairment, Sam continued his boxing career. Surprisingly, in 1923, Langford won the Mexican Heavyweight Championship despite needing help to find the ring due to his growing blindness.

However, his visual impairment kept growing over time, but Langford continued his boxing because he needed money. His last match was in 1926, which was called off during the first round because Langford could not see his opponent. After his final fight, Sam Langford left the ring forever and virtually disappeared from the public eye.

Life After Boxing 

It was not until 1944 that the information about the former boxing phenomenon was out. Al Laney, an aspiring journalist, set out to find Langford so the new generation of fans could learn about his story.

Sadly, Sam Langford lived in poverty in Harlem, New York, and was completely blind. However, when Al’s article was published, a trust fund was established, which paid for his eye surgery and provided a source of income for the veteran boxer.

According to the reports, Langford had 20 cents in his pockets when Laney found him. Additionally, a few dollars that he received from a foundation for the blind were his only income. With no relatives or a life partner, Langford spent his time alone in his dark bedroom with only an old radio for company.

Sam became the first non-champion in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955. Afterward, he died aged 70 the following year.


Why did Sam Langford go blind?

Sam Langford suffered an injury during a fight in June 1917, which resulted in damage that left him blind in his left eye.

What did Jack Dempsey say about Sam Langford?

In Jack Dempsey’s biography, he did mention Sam Langford and expressed his apprehension about fighting him. Dempsey stated, “There was one man, he was even smaller than I, I wouldn’t fight because I knew he would flatten me. I was afraid of Sam Langford.”

Did Sam Langford fight Jack Johnson?

Yes, Sam Langford fought Jack Johnson. They faced each other in the ring on April 26, 1906, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. The fight lasted 15 rounds and ended in a no-decision.

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