On­stage trib­ute to N.S. boxer

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - Lsaxberg@post­

Q I imag­ine I’m like many Cana­di­ans in that I’d never heard of Sam Lang­ford. How did you find out about him?

A I come from a long line of box­ing fans. My grand­fa­ther on my fa­ther’s side fought a lit­tle bit in the Navy, and I grew up watch­ing box­ing. When I de­cided I wanted to write a show, it started as a one-per­son show, and I wanted to write about ath­let­ics be­cause I used to play foot­ball grow­ing up. You don’t of­ten see ath­let­ics on stage, so I thought that would be a great place to start.

I started look­ing into some of the great ath­letes from Nova Sco­tia, and there have been quite a few great box­ers. I started with Ge­orge Dixon and, through read­ing about him, the name Sam Lang­ford kept pop­ping up. I found a book by Clay Moyle called Box­ing’s Great­est Un­crowned Cham­pion and it was all about Sam’s life. It was a phe­nom­e­nal book. Once I read the book, that was it. That’s who I was go­ing to write this play about.

Q What grabbed you about his story?

A In my mind, it has ev­ery­thing you could ever want in a play, and more we couldn’t get into. Sam fought some of the great­est fighters in his­tory and made vast amounts of money, which was un­heard of for peo­ple of colour at the time. He fought a num­ber of fights that’s un­heard of to­day. Con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mates give Sam 250 fights. Other es­ti­mates put it close to 400, whereas box­ers nowa­days fight 50 fights to­tal in their whole ca­reers. Sam had a very long ca­reer. His mind was never af­fected. He was quite the sto­ry­teller, and at the end of his ca­reer he fought pretty much blind. He was com­pletely blind in one eye, half blind in the other, but he was such a tough fighter, a good fighter, he’d get in nice and close to have lots of knock­out power so he still won fights, even at 47 and pretty much blind. When you read a story like that, it’s hard not to be cap­ti­vated. I re­ally wanted to bring that to the stage.

Q Was racism a fac­tor in Sam’s ca­reer?

A Yeah, a big rea­son that Sam never got the recog­ni­tion that other fighters of the time had was some­thing called the colour line in which white fighters could choose whether or not they wanted to fight black fighters. Be­cause Sam was as good as he was, many fighters re­fused to fight him. And so a lot of other great black fighters of the time had to fight each other over and over.

Q Sam was not a big guy. What made him so tough?

A Hon­estly, when you come from a small town any­where in Canada, you’re go­ing to find some tough char­ac­ters, both men and women. There’s a real re­silience to Cana­di­ans, and like my coach here says, no one goes into box­ing who comes from a happy af­flu­ent life. No one chooses the life of fight­ing to keep food on the ta­ble. It kind of chooses them. And so I think just be­ing from Wey­mouth Falls, N.S., and work­ing in the woods from an early age made him tough.

Q You play Sam. Had you been in the ring be­fore?

A No, I had never been in the ring. I tried when I was 13 and my mother found out and im­me­di­ately pulled me out. She gave me a hel­met and said I could play foot­ball. So I never stepped in the ring. I found a great coach at East Coast Box­ing, and he showed me what I needed to know to look like I knew what I was do­ing. I do not con­sider my­self a boxer by any scope of the word. I very much ad­mire box­ers and ad­mire the sport. There’s a rea­son they call it the sweet sci­ence, be­cause it is one of the most com­plex sports I have ever tried to learn. Even the small steps I’ve taken in the last two years have been slow go­ing. But it was an ab­so­lute in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence and I got to spar just a lit­tle bit.

Q What does your mother think now?

A (Laughs) I’m not tak­ing too many hits to the face so she’s happy about that.

Q Is the play con­nect­ing more with sports fans or the the­atre crowd?

A I’d like to think a lit­tle bit of every­body. The artsy the­atre crowd know we have ex­pe­ri­ence in the­atre, and we know how to cre­ate a good show. And sports fans def­i­nitely con­nect. There were quite a few times when we were pro­duc­ing it in Parrs­boro where a lot of older fel­lows would pull me aside on the street and say, ‘I don’t nor­mally go to plays but I had to go and see the fight show.’ They were ab­so­lutely blown away, and re­ally touched be­cause a lot of them used to box. So I know box­ing fans ap­pre­ci­ate it.

Q What do you hope au­di­ences are tak­ing away from it?

A I think for­give­ness is a big com­po­nent, and just keep­ing your chin up in the face of ad­ver­sity. Not let­ting it de­stroy you com­pletely. Sam does get dragged down in the show but in the end he’s still stand­ing and he’s still fight­ing and he still has a smile on his face. Those el­e­ments of toxic mas­culin­ity and racism are in there, be­cause you can’t es­cape that, and they’re very much rel­e­vant to­day. One of the best pieces of ad­vice I had from a pro­fes­sor was to show the hu­man side of Sam. Just glo­ri­fy­ing peo­ple is get­ting us into more and more trou­ble in to­day’s world. Sam was a great man and a great ath­lete but he had his flaws and it was im­por­tant for us to show that, and it was im­por­tant to his fam­ily for us to show that.

Ja­cob Samp­son wrote and per­forms in his award-win­ning play Chas­ing Cham­pi­ons: The Sam Lang­ford Story, re­count­ing the tale of a Wey­mouth Falls, Nova Sco­tia boxer who still won fights at age 47 when he was al­most blind.

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