In an era where fights ended in draws or some other ambiguous fashion about as often as they ended convincingly, a fighter being able to wrangle a significant amount of stoppages or decisive victories was, in itself, impressive. Doing so against fighters that a large percentage of grown men in the sport refused to face made for a more unique feat.
When skin color divided boxing into two separate leagues, the black fighters who found themselves shut out of world title scenarios fought among themselves and produced an elite set of fighters with great records. Their records could have and should have been better and more diverse, but fighters like Joe Gans, Harry Wills, Sam McVey, Battling Jim Johnson, Black Bill, Jack Blackburn, Young Peter Jackson, and Joe Jeannette and Sam Langford, all fought each other as many times as the average fighter has total fights in this era.
Jeannette and Langford fought each other 14 times over a span of 12 years. Langford got the better of their extended series, which tallied 8-2-4 in favor of “The Boston Tar Baby.” It was their first fight, on Christmas Day of 1905, that marked a huge career achievement for Jeannette, and a first for Langford.
Born in North Bergen, N.J., Jeannette worked as an apprentice to his father Benjamin, a blacksmith, until he began driving a truck for New Jersey coal company Jagels & Bellis. As his story goes, in 1904 Jeannette was dared to fight an exhibition bout against journeyman Arthur Dickinson in Jersey City. Though he lost, it apparently tickled Jeannette’s fancy, and he began fighting professionally.
Throughout his career, Jeannette’s name was either misspelled or written wrong altogether. In his public debut against Morris Harris, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that both fighters “mixed it furiously in every round,” but Jeannette’s name was mistakenly written “Panette.” Jeannette lost by decision, and six fights into his professional career, he had a record of 1-5. The losses were to more experienced fighters with skill like Black Bill, George Cole and “colored” heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, but Jeannette needed wins.
Over the last few months of 1905, Jeannette worked his way to a winning record, avenging all defeats but one. His late November win over Johnson came with little fanfare, however, as Johnson was winning for just under two rounds when Jeannette claimed foul and won by disqualification. As titles tended to change hands only by stoppage or clear decision, Johnson kept his championship claim and defeated Jeannette one week later.
A stoppage win over journeyman Walter Johnson in New York set the stage for Jeannette to test himself against a younger, tenacious fighter named Sam Langford, who had made name for himself in the Boston area.
Langford, originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, is said to have run away at age 11 to the Boston area, where he began training at 14-years-old. The first job Langford ever had was a $3 assignment to whitewash a cook house. Decades later, Langford said in an interview with the International News Service, “…while I was doing it, a bucket of lime fell on my head and covered my face. My left eye bothered me, but I didn’t do anything about it at the time.” According to Langford, tests then revealed that his optic nerve had been burned in the incident, and the visibility in that eye was only about 50 percent.
Nonetheless, a man named Joe Woodman who owned a drug store with an upstairs gym took Langford in sometime in his teens, and Langford then familiarized himself with boxing by cleaning up the place and occasionally filling in as a sparring partner. At 19-years-old and weighing in as a lightweight, Langford turned professional with a 5th round knockout over Jack McVicker.
Taking on predictably mediocre opposition in his first 16 fights, Langford was held to some draws and no decision verdicts, but stayed undefeated in his first year or so of scrapping, and stuck around the Boston area in doing so. In June of 1903, Langford stopped experienced journeyman Tim Kearns in two rounds and logged two more fights over as many weeks. At the of June, a middling fighter named Danny Duane scored the only significant win of his career on points in 12 rounds, and became the first beat Langford.
Six more wins followed, and in early December of 1903, Langford defeated lightweight champion Joe Gans on points. The Boston Journal incorrectly hailed Langford as champion, but he had come in two pounds over the agreed upon weight of 138. Additionally, the 3-to-1 underdog Langford, by all accounts, stalled early on and concentrated on defense for much of the bout, making for a relatively unconvincing win.
The win over Gans signaled a sharp increase in the ability of his opposition, though, and over the next year he fought to three draws with tricky veteran and future trainer Jack Blackburn, scored a quick win over faded contender George “Elbows” McFadden, an 0-1-2 series with former Battle Royal competitor Dave Holly, and a draw with welterweight champion Joe Walcott, “The Barbados Demon.”
Walcott, already a respected figure in boxing and likely not far from prime form, couldn’t figure Langford’s rhythm and speed out until halfway through the 15 round fight. When Walcott finally caught up, reports stated he looked amateurish in his attempts to club Langford back to the lightweight ranks; he almost succeeded in the 13th round, but Langford stayed on his feet and fought through the champion’s assault. The Boston Journal thought their adopted son had won the bout, and news wires reported that the crowd of 1,200 felt the same way, regardless of the referee’s decision.
Langford rang in the new year by knocking out one of Holly’s teeth in a revenge win, then got the better of three fights against Young Peter Jackson and two with Blackburn by autumn. In October, Langford again met Blackburn, who was substituting for contender George Cole. After three rounds of non-fighting, the crowd threatened to storm the ring and began tossing objects about. Police gathered and pushed the crowd back, but Langford and Blackburn were essentially chased out of town and not welcome back.
Following a rare few months off, Langford signed to fight the younger, but significantly bigger Joe Jeannette on Christmas day at the Unity Cycle Athletic Club in Lawrence, Mass.
The morning of the fight, the Boston Herald said, “The most important [fight card] perhaps, and certainly nearest to Boston, is the Lawrence organization, which will stage Joe Jeannette and Sam Langford in the feature event. This should be a rattling contest, and if guesses count for anything there will be some mighty hard milling.”
Both men started the bout searching for openings to exploit, but it wouldn’t take long to set decorum aside and rumble. Langford stuck around for exchanges, and both fighters looked to be testing their power and chin. Jeannette’s weight advantage showed up quickly and Langford found himself having to push the larger man off by the end of round 1. Said the Boston Journal, “…Langford looked like he was up against it and seemed to lose all his courage.”
Apparently sensing Langford may not have been up to task, Jeannette smashed the smaller man about with both hands — especially to the body — and managed to rock Langford several times before closing his left eye with a right hand. Langford, lucky to have his good eye as his working one, argued his way through the 3rd round and made it to the bell. As the Baltimore American put it, “Langford was clever in ducking and blocking, and put it over Jeannette in infighting, but Joe was up and coming all the time, and his blows were delivered with telling effect.”
But Langford wasn’t finished, and in round 4 he landed a series of punches punctuated by an uppercut to wobble Jeannette and force him to clinch his way out of trouble. The Baltimore American reported that Jeannette actually took a count as a result of the punch, but the Boston Journal stated the referee was breaking the fighters when Jeannette held on when hurt.
It didn’t matter, as Jeannette rallied toward the end of round 5 to crash home a number of right hands that not only sent Langford to the ropes, but worsened his already broken eye. From that point forward, Langford had no chance and was merely lasting through punishment.
In round 7, Jeannette doubled Langford over repeatedly with body punches, then sent a weary Langford to his corner with a large cut on his left eye and cheek. Exhausted, hurt, out-sized and covered in blood, Langford motioned for his corner to throw up the sponge, and the fight was called off.
The Pawtucket Times said, “Langford showed evidence of the gameness which has placed him out of the class of men at his weight, but Jeannette was by no means lacking in that respect and he had the advantage of about 30 pounds in weight. This proved too great a handicap for the Boston lad but he hung on tenaciously until his physical condition would not longer permit his continuing.”
More dramatically, The Boston Journal reported, “The members of the Unity Cycle Club of this city today witnessed the waterloo of Sam Langford, the dusky welterweight from Boston, when he was forced to throw up the sponge in the seventh round before the wicked blows of Joe Jeannette of New York.”
The career trajectories of both men were similar after this, their first bout. Both were kept from earning universal titles, and often fought over the “colored” version of the heavyweight title.
Langford grew, as did his reputation and tenacity. When Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, Langford followed him to Australia to hound him for a rematch of his 1906 loss to the comparatively huge fighter. He never got it. But off the books, Langford may have fought almost 700 times.
Of the nine times Langford was stopped in a career that spanned 24 years and more than 250 recognized bouts, seven came after he had been a professional for 15 years and had bloated to fight as a permanent heavyweight more often than not.
Jeannette lost 10 times in over 150 pro outings, and was stopped twice: Langford managed it in their 13th fight in 1916, when Jeannette was 36, and Black Bill did it in Jeannette’s third pro fight in 1905. Even then, the first loss was strange. Said the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Bill landed… a hard right to Jeanette’s jaw, but the punch did not seem to have any visible effect. He followed up this advantage and, rushing Jeanette to a clinch, put a right-hander over to the jaw. The blow was only lightly delivered, but Jeanette fell to the floor and stayed down until counted out.”
The greatness Jeannette carved out was certainly similar to that of Langford’s, but less extensive, and in the end less recognized.
Decades later, in an interview published by Boxing Illustrated, Jeannette remarked, “Langford was the greatest fighter who ever lived. Sam would have been champion any time Johnson had given him a fight. And Johnson knew it better than anybody. Man! How that baby could hit. Nobody else could hit like that. Well, maybe Joe Louis could. But don’t forget that Sam only weighed about 160 pounds. Louis was about 195.”
Both men passed away within two years of each other.
Though glamorized, the sport of boxing around the start of the 20th century broke many men. Boxing has always, and will always be a treacherous path for anyone who chooses it as a profession. But in dustier, dimmer pre-Atomic times, the sport was riskier medically, legally and perhaps even morally, perdition looming with every handshake. Still, Jeannette would later say, the intense focus boxing demanded was better than manual labor — and it paid better.
It wasn’t always the pay that drew them in, and the money didn’t last anyway; both fighters died poor of health and wallet. What they accomplished in a squared ring carries on far longer.