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When Sam Langford came to the UK

Sam Langford
Mile Templeton looks back at when the ‘Boston Tar Baby,’ Sam Langford fought in Britain

I WATCHED Dave Allen with interest in his losing bout with David Price recently. Allen is the latest in a line of decent heavyweights who have come from the Conisbrough area. Just a few miles up the road towards Doncaster lies Balby, the birthplace of Bruce Woodcock, and three miles in the other direction lies Mexborough, the birthplace of Iron Hague. Woodcock and Hague both became British heavyweight champion 40 years apart. Hague is best remembered for the brave fight he put up against Sam Langford in 1909.

Langford boxed in Britain on four occasions. Along with Harry Wills, he is often cited as one of the best heavyweights never to win the world title. His nickname was the “Boston Tar Baby” and, although he stood only a little over 5ft 7ins, he had a devastating punch and was greatly feared, and avoided, by the leading heavyweights of the day. He first came to Britain in 1907 when he beat Tiger Smith and Geoff Thorne inside the distance. He liked the way he was treated in London and was keen to return. When he did so, two years later, it was to fulfil a contractual obligation to fight Jack Johnson at the National Sporting Club for the world title. As Johnson refused to carry out his end of the bargain, Hague was brought in as a substitute. The Yorkshireman fought very bravely but was sent down for the count after being caught cleanly on the chin by a hard right cross in the fourth round. At the end of the contest, Langford, his left eye partially closed, congratulated Hague on his performance.

Sam’s last appearance on these shores took place in 1911 when he fought the Australian champion, Bill Lang, at the Olympia Grand Hall. Once again, Langford proved to be a big hit with the British fans, and he was approachable and accommodating throughout the preparations for the bout. He trained at the Norfolk Arms in Wembley and he made the occasional trip down to Kensington where the public could pay the equivalent of 5p to watch him train at the Olympia Annexe. Lang’s training quarters were at the Old Bull and Bush in Hampstead. Interestingly, both of these pubs, and the fight venue, are all still in existence. If anyone pops into the Norfolk Arms for a quick pint these days then they can reflect on Sam’s presence there over 100 years ago.

Sam Langford

The fight proved to be something of a fiasco. Lang was in superb condition, but he was not in the same class as the great man. Critics stated that his only real chance of winning would come about if he boxed behind a stiff jab and used his extra height, reach and weight to boss the contest. If he ever meant to execute this plan, then he failed abysmally. Instead, he got drawn into a punch-up, and he was decked on four occasions within the first five rounds.   Coming up for the sixth, Lang looked bedraggled. Nevertheless, he started to try to match Langford toe to toe and, for the first time in the bout, he began to meet with some success. Despite landing a few low blows, which Langford complained about to the referee, Lang eventually connected with a short right and Langford fell to the canvas. Whilst Langford waited, on one knee and ready to rise, Lang hit him with a left hand and was immediately disqualified. The promoter, Hugh D. McIntosh, already had the signature of Jack Johnson to meet the winner in London. Once again, Johnson reneged on this commitment and so it was that Langford, the winner of all four of his UK contests, was let down by the champion for a second time. Sam never did get to meet Johnson in the ring for the title. They only met once, in 1906, with Johnson the victor on points. Langford ended his days as a blind man, poor in a financial sense, but rich in memories. Those memories will have included the many happy days he spent in Britain.

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