At the turn of the 20th century four of the greatest boxers to ever set foot in the ring came to be known as “The Black Foursome of the Teens.” Those four fighters will forever be remembered at the height of pugilistic history. The four fighters are heavyweights Joe Jennette, Jack Johnson, Sam McVey and the greatest of the four, Sam Langford.
Sam Langford is considered one of the greatest fighters to ever set foot in the ring. He fought successfully against fighters in every weight class from lightweight to heavyweight. Like so many other great black fighters that happened to be born at that time, very few were given the chance to fight for a title. Langford was no exception.
He was born on March 4, 1883 in Nova Scotia. Standing a mere five feet eight inches tall, in his 21 year boxing career Langford fluctuated in weight between 139 and 204 pounds. In his more than 290 pro bouts he would fight anyone at any weight, sometimes being outweighed by as much as 50 pounds or more.
Within 18 months of his first professional fight, Langford beat lightweight world champion Joe Gans. Two weeks later Langford fought welterweight champion Jack Blackburn at a “Catch-Weight” of 142 pounds. The catch-weight was so that even if Langford won the fight there would be no chance of him winning Blackburn’s title.
On December 25, 1905 Langford fought the first of thirteen fights against heavyweight Joe Jennette. Losing the first bout by an 8th round TKO, the two men went on to fight to several draws until finally in December of 1913, Langford beat Jennette in a 20 round decision.
Langford also fought heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in 1906. It took Johnson 15 rounds to beat his much smaller adversary. After the fight Johnson said it would be the last time he would fight Langford, “It was too hard and took to long to get this title to take a chance of losing it to Langford.”
Jack Johnson fought for fourteen years before he was given a chance to fight for the heavyweight title. Having pursued the current heavyweight champion at the time, Tommy Burns, literally around the world, Johnson finally got his chance to fight Burns on December 26, 1908. Johnson caught up with Burns in Australia. The heavyweight championship fight was held at Rushcutter’s Bay in Sydney, Australia.
Johnson went on to give Burns a beating for fourteen rounds until the police stepped in to stop the fight. It was that day in Australia, December 26, 1908 that the first black heavyweight champion of the world was crowned. The title belonged to Johnson and every promoter in the U.S. was looking for “The Great White Hope” to get the title back into the hands of a white man. Johnson earned his title fighting many of the all time greats.
Among those he fought were, Sam Langford, Joe Jennette, and he kayoed the great Bob Fitzsimmons in 2 rounds. When he won the title from Burns he defended it against Philadelphia Jack O’ Brien, Stanley Ketchel and the great James J. Jefferies, who came out of a six year retirement and lost over 100 pounds to get in shape to fight Johnson for the title. None of the above was successful at taking the title from Johnson.
Finally in April of 1915, after 26 rounds in the brutal heat of Havana, Cuba, Jess Willard knocked Jack Johnson out to win the heavyweight title. Supposedly Johnson was knocked unconscious in the 26th round. Rumor has it that Johnson threw the fight. The last picture of the fight shows Johnson flat on his back, shielding his eyes from the sun—hardly the act of a man who was knocked unconscious.
As I mentioned before, if you were born black in the era these fighters fought, the chances of getting a title fight were slim to none. Many of these fighters fought each other repeatedly just to get a fight in order to make enough money to support their families. This was the situation for the third member of “The Black Foursome of the Teens,” Joe Jennette. Just like the fighter he most admired, Sam Langford, Jennette was allowed to fight title holders, but usually written into their contract was a clause barring them from winning a title. Jennette was a typical example of one of the many great black fighters having to fight one another. He fought Sam Langford fifteen times and Sam McVey (another one of the great foursome) five times. He also had several fights with ring greats, Morris Harris (4), Black Bill (10), Battling Jim Johnson (9), and Hall-of-Fame fighter, Harry Wills 3 times.
Many of these fighters went to Europe to fight where they had a much better chance of being treated fair financially. Of the five fights Joe Jennette fought Sam McVey, two took place in Paris. In February of 1909, they met for the second time, according to most records. In that fight the two gave what came to be called a lackluster performance as the fans made their opinion known after the fight by throwing programs and other garbage into the ring. Both fighters decided to give the fans another bout two months later.
The two fighters agreed to fight a ring battle with no round limits. The resulting fight turned out to be one of the greatest boxing marathons in pugilistic history. McVey scored a total of 27 knockdowns in the fight. Jennette made a miraculous comeback in the 19th round and seized control of the fight. As the fight reached the 40 round mark, Jennette clearly controlled the fight but still wasn’t able to finish off McVey. Finally, after 49 grueling rounds, McVey couldn’t continue and Jennette won the fight.
The fourth member of “The Black Foursome” was Sam McVey. As a heavyweight fighter, McVey was a strong, durable fighter who possessed considerable brute strength. McVey fought mostly “Name” black fighters during his 19 year career. McVey did win what was called the “Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World.” He won the title by beating Jack Johnson in 1903, before Johnson won the legitimate heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in 1908.
McVey was born on 1884 in Waelder, Texas. He stood just shy of six feet tall and weighed right around 205-215 pounds. McVey, not unlike other black fighters of his era, was limited to fighting only other black athletes. McVey, like the other three, repetitiously fought the same men over and over. Having fought the best of the group, Sam Langford no less than 15 times, he also fought in marathon fights, some up to 50 rounds.
As I conclude this story of four of the greatest boxers in the history of the sport, one can only imagine how far such great athletes might have gone in their sport if they had been born in a different era. These were four of the greatest boxers in any era of the sport.