Thursday, March 20, 2014

Throwback Thursday - Gunboat Smith Outpoints Sam Langford

The names Sam Langford and Ed "Gunboat" Smith are two that would be enough to pen an entire shelf-full of books. While one is often considered one of the greatest fighters to ever smash his mitts into a pair of gloves, the other is largely lost to the wake and smoke trails of history. 

They fought twice, though, highlighting massive social issues of the time, and underlining what exactly it might take to craft a truly great fighter.

Smith and Langford had already been scheduled to meet in New York, but the city's ban on "mixed race" bouts snuffed out the idea. In early October, when it became apparent that the fight would be rescheduled for November 17 or thereabouts, Sheriff Julius Harburger issued the following statement: "From the days when Abraham Lincoln issued his pronunciamento and proposition making colored men free and equal, which was ratified by the Fourteenth Amendment and received and lived up to in fourty-eight states and territories, no board in the city, known as a boxing commission, can adopt rules in violation of the principles of our constitution and governmental affairs."  

In essence, a white sheriff stuck his neck out to not only support the rights of a black fighter to prove his worth against a white counterpart, but to thumb his nose at a hypocritical and misguided system that wouldn't come crashing down until decades later. 

Gloves helped build the system, and over time, gloves would tear that system to pieces. 


Jim Coffroth, one of the first notable and adventurous boxing promoters, aided in matching Smith against Langford against the backdrop of the Thanksgiving season. However, multiple media outlets warned against pitting the men against one another to determine a likely successor to the heavyweight championship, citing racial tensions and violence stemming from the 1910 Jack Johnson vs. Jamed Jeffries bout. 

Johnny McGann, matchmaker for Boston's Atlas Athletic Association, took credit for pushing the bout forward despite public outcry over matching black and white fighters.

Smith prepared for the fight at a gym in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y., while Langford trained in a roadhouse he was known to frequent in Revere Beach, Boston. Al Kubiak, Michigan big man, reportedly helped Smith get into proper shape for the scrap.

Two fights prior, Smith's sub-par performance against Kentucky heavyweight Carl Morris had pundits like W.W. Naughton questioning his worthiness against the likes of Langford. Prior to Smith's DQ win in five rounds, Morris had taken the fight to Smith, apparently having his way, more or less. There were doubts surrounding Langford's conditioning, though; a 5'7" heavyweight with fine endurance has never been a common sight, and this instance was thought of as no exception. 

But Langford's defeat of Michigan heavyweight Jack Lester in five rounds in late October left an impression on Lester, as about one week later he would say to a Times-Picayune reporter, "I've been in fourty-nine fights and the toughest of them all was with that nigger Langford. Anybody that says Langford has gone back is mistaken. He is better than he ever was. You remember I licked Sam McVey in twenty rounds, and you may recollect that McVey conquered Langford. Well, Langford was just twice as hard as McVey."

Langford was referred to in the pre-fight promotion as "the white hope annihilator" by Peter Kelley of the Boston Journal. 

In fact, the term "white hope" was repeated throughout the promotion, and it became clear that through all the respect and adulation of a figure like Sam Langford, white press and fans craved another white heavyweight champion, and Langford stood in the way. 

As was often the case during this era, certain venues would recycle officials in fight after fight, which Smith's manager Jim Buckley opposed. Eventually outside referee was Dick Fleming was brought in, which helped to finalize matters and give the Atlas Athletic Association its first world class match up. Buckley expressed concern over the size of the ring, though, suggesting he didn't like Smith's chances against Langford's hellish body attack and output.

Langford's defense was subtle and likely unappreciated early in the fight, though even a news wire via the Anaconda Standard said, "Langford did not seem to be bothered by long range blows, turning away many without great effort and standing up to others without defense." Rolling with and parrying punches was a style that simply wasn't popular nor totally familiar yet, and the art of proper inside fighting fell on blind eyes most of the time. 

This time, a crowd of about 6,000 was somehow able to appreciate Langford's patience, though he took more punches than most were used to seeing. Still, Langford was fine with eating a jab or five to wear down Smith downstairs. 

Said the Boston Herald, "In the fifth round Langford boxed with desperation. One of his wild flings caught Smith over the left eye and closed it, and a few seconds later another in the same spot opened up a cut and allowed Smith a return of sight to the optic." Langford's unlucky assault allowed Smith the opportunity he needed to get back to work, probing from a distance and scoring while Langford concentrated on Smith's ribs and bread basket. 

Again from the Boston Herald: "In the eighth round Sam tossed science and defense to the winds and waded into Smith, swinging almost blindly in his attempts to land. Smith took a number of crushing blows to the head and jaw and a volley of rapid punches to the body forced him to clinch. It was the first of a second series of spurts Langford showed in which he had the best of it, but they were short lived."

Despite clearly showing signs of life and giving Smith cause for concern, Langford's lack of conditioning may have indeed betrayed him, as he was only able to muster another flurry in the 11th round. 

When Smith was handed the decision, those in attendance were surprised that Langford wasn't given the benefit of the doubt, being that he was both the local man and the fighter who appeared to close more strongly. And Smith may have won, but he reportedly had little interest in a return, wearing the greatness of Langford all over his expression afterward. 

His instinct proved legitimate; Sam Langford pummeled Gunboat Smith in three rounds just under one year later, avenging a defeat that seemed out of place, even given Langford's portliness.

Conversely, Smith briefly carried with him the "white heavyweight championship," which he would attempt to use as a marketing tool in the following years. Nonetheless, the results couldn't lie, and his chin, restraint and quality all proved to be less than satisfactory. He would occasionally pull off a solid win afterward, but was usually throttled back to the reality of a developing heavyweight division constantly working under the influence of evolution.

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