THE FIGHTS OF HIS LIFE
Onstage tribute to N.S. boxer
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.