Throwback Thursday: Sam Langford Dispatches Fireman Jim Flynn

While Sam Langford waited for a world title shot that would never come, he settled for defeating nearly everyone brave enough to stand in his path. In December of 1908, that meant Fireman Jim Flynn was in line to be crushed.

When boxing was still young in the U.S., the state of California enjoyed a passionate, on-again, off-again love affair with the sport. Prize fighting was declared illegal, banned, re-allowed and compromised upon various times in every major “Golden State” city between 1900 and 1910.

Usually when boxing’s popularity peaked, most fights were scheduled for but a few rounds, and in some jurisdictions decision verdicts weren’t even legal. In others it hinged on what the local police force felt like that day. It simply wasn’t often that 20 round fights were signed and allowed in a large, seemingly lawless city like San Francisco.

It was prime geography for a brisk winter match up, though.

By December of 1908 Sam Langford had ended a months-long fight tour of New York and Boston, during which he stayed undefeated. While Fireman Jim Flynn couldn’t exactly be described as “fresh” after getting stretched by Al Kaufman a few months earlier, Langford sought big fights and none of the fish were biting. That’s where Flynn came in.

A tame newspaper ad for the upcoming Langford-Flynn bout

Langford signed with San Francisco promoter Sam Berger, with the slightly more long-term plan being to match Langford with middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel should he beat Flynn.

Flynn had lost seven times before meeting Langford, and only twice did the losses go the distance. Regardless, Flynn was loud about being mean and spiteful, which drew a crowd and sometimes a few sawbucks: Flynn was to negotiate $2,000 regardless of the result.

Prior to his first bout against Jack Johnson, Flynn was quoted as saying “There isn’t a nigger living who can lick me.” In that fight, he was knocked out in the 11th round, immediately after spitting more hateful venom.

While in training, one of Flynn’s punching bags had Langford’s face painted on it, as depicted here

On the other hand Langford kept his trap shut while sparring with fighters like bantamweight champion Jimmy Walsh and heavyweight Sam Mills at Millet’s Training Quarters in Colma. Whether it was due to the training styles or other factors, Langford opened up a 4-to-1 betting favorite. The odds were even wider in some places.

As the fight drew nearer and the gap in betting odds narrowed, Flynn began to sound more reasonable in interviews. The day before the fight, Flynn said: “I used to think that there wasn’t a colored fighter on earth that could take my measure, but of course, I changed my views after tackling that black giant Jack Johnson… I know [Langford] is a great man with the gloves, but I don’t suppose he figures to be better than Johnson.”

A portrait of Fireman Jim Flynn prior to meeting Langford

Langford’s manager, Joe Woodman, said of the Flynn bout to the Denver Post not long after it was made, “This contest with Flynn is merely a fill in for us. It will serve to show the people of the coast what a wonder this man is, for he will whip Flynn inside of six rounds to a moral certainty. It took Johnson eleven and [Tommy] Burns fourteen to settle the fireman. Sam here will show how it can be done in less than half the time.”

Likewise Langford would say via the Oregonian, “Most of the time I’ve been against men much bigger than I was, and this fight with Flynn looks pretty easy to me.”

Langford was right on both counts: Flynn was out-weighed roughly 175 pounds to 160, and it was the easiest fight in a while for “The Boston Terror.”

Langford whipped Flynn easily in their third encounter as well (pictured)

A news wire out of San Francisco described the fight as follows:

“From the outset it was plainly apparent that Flynn did not have a chance. Langford lost no time in getting into action. No sooner had the men shaken hands than the Boston negro went after the Pueblo fireman hammer and tongs. He swung a hard right to the body and a moment later scored with his left to the face. He gave Flynn no chance. Flynn rushed to close quarters, but found no shelter. Langford followed his advantage by sending his right and left to the body with great force. After two minutes of fighting, Langford feinted with his right. Like a flash he brought his left flush to the fireman’s jaw with an impact that was heard all over the house. Flynn dropped as if hit with a log, his face turned purple and he rolled on his back until the pain from the blow caused him to turn. The count of 10 was tolled off, but Flynn was too far gone to even hear the count. He was insensible for five minutes.”

This loss marked Flynn’s first — but not last — high profile 1st round KO loss was the first of six total meetings between the two men, with the final pairing being almost 16 years later. Flynn won just the second bout, and only because the referee in the No Decision contest said he would have awarded a win to Flynn.

Heavyweight “Fireman” Jim Flynn, a noted racist

Famed sports writer, boxing referee and fight manager E.W. Dickerson said of Langford, “I regard Langford as almost the equal of Jack Johnson as a fighter, and the latter as the greatest heavyweight in the world today when not working under wraps.”

Likewise, W.W. Naughton said that Langford was “thoroughly indifferent to class boundaries and… will tackle anything that walks on two legs and looks like a human.”

While both men fought nearly 20 more years, it was Langford who would construct a fighting reputation that lasted over 100 years. Flynn became the first to stop future heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, sure, but it was Langford that Dempsey would avoid outright.

Sam Langford, as painted by artist Edward Pelkey

“The hell I feared no man!” Dempsey said in the opening pages of his autobiography. “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.”

A chance to prove his mettle against the legendary “Manassa Mauler” would have been better. But as consolations go, an aura of invincibility, a reputation that lasted a lifetime… There are worse fates in the world of boxing.


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