When Jacob Sampson set out to write a play about a champion athlete, Sam Langford didn’t spring to mind. In fact, he’d never heard of the early 20th-century boxer who ESPN once called the “greatest fighter almost nobody knows.”
But as Sampson nosed around for a subject for his inaugural run at playwriting and a show in which he planned to star, Langford’s name cropped up.
“I come from a family of boxing fans,” he says. “So I asked my father and grandfather if they’d ever heard of Sam Langford, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, Sam’s great. Look him up.’”
When he did, by reading Clay Moyle’s Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion, he was blown away by the black athlete who, like Sampson, was from Nova Scotia.
“The story is amazing,” says Sampson. “When Sam left home at 14, it was on a fishing boat in the Bay of Fundy. It capsized and the whole crew almost drowned. Then he walks down to Boston as a 15-year-old kid. When a story starts like that, when there’s a shipwreck in the first three chapters, I’m in. What else is going to happen in this guy’s life?”
Sampson’s award-winning Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story, which premiered in 2016 and opens shortly at the National Arts Centre, retraces Langford’s story.
It’s a tale about resilience, forgiveness and perseverance, says the playwright. It’s also about our failure to sufficiently recognize the stories of black Canadians.
Langford was born in 1883 and lived most of his life in the U.S., dying in 1956 at the age of 72. He went from lightweight to heavyweight over his career, and thanks to his agility and a ferocious punch won 85 of 87 fights during his prime.
Some have said he was the best boxer to ever enter a ring. So good was he that others refused to fight him, fearing they would lose. That included World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson, who beat Langford once but refused to ever fight him again despite Langford’s years-long pursuit of him.
Langford did win the World Coloured Heavyweight Championship several times, but refusals by other fighters to engage with him, and the colour bar, prevented him from ever having a shot at the World Heavyweight Championship that whites, and he, held in such esteem. And that lack of a shot kept him below most peoples’ radar.
Blind and impoverished toward the end of his life, he would likely have died in abject misery had a sports writer’s column not inspired donations that gave him a small income during his final years.
In 1955, a year before his death, he was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
This trajectory convinced Sampson that Langford’s story was stage-worthy. He could also visualize how active the story might be. “There’s lots of room for not just standing and delivering but for a moving piece. I thought the story could really live on the stage.”
Although Sampson had been an athlete himself (football was his sport), he had never boxed.
He had to learn the art of pugilism for the show and calls it the most complex sport he’s ever learned. He says the entire body has to work together, and boxing can take years to learn.
He also learned something else. As his coach told him, nobody who comes from a wealthy, comfortable and happy background goes into the sport. “Boxing kind of finds people who had it rough and came from hard times,” says Sampson. “I’m drawn to those kinds of stories because they often come with strife, people fighting not just against an opponent in the ring but against other factors in their lives.”
That lifelong battle was very much Langford’s story, according to Sampson. Wanting to be the best consumed the fighter, for better and for worse. He could smell, taste, almost touch that world boxing championship, and being denied a shot at it again and again was what drove him to keep fighting.
Sampson stresses that while Langford was a great athlete, he was also human. “He was a flawed man and a happy man and a sad man and an angry man … (In the play) we see the faults, the triumphs, the tribulations. It’s important to not just glorify people but to see them as humans. There are lessons to be learned from Sam’s story.”
Chasing Champions: The Sam Langford Story is in the Azrieli Studio Nov. 13-24 (previews, Nov. 13 and 14; opening night, Nov. 15). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca