Resting Places For: Sam Langford, Joe Jennette, Tony Galento



Resting Places For: Sam Langford, Joe Jennette, Tony Galento
Photos by Andrew Rihn

In his collection Leaves of Grass, the poet Walt Whitman is asked by a child, What is the grass?

The grass, says Whitman, is many things. It is the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

When I posted my photos of the graves of John L. Sullivan and George Dixon, I was impressed by the positive reaction they received on social media.

A. J. Liebling’s  observation that boxing is “joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder” apparently remains as true today as when he wrote it three quarters of a century ago.

So I asked: Who were some other Massachusetts fighters people were interested in.

One name came up more than others: Sam Langford.

I was familiar with Langford.

He fought in the first quarter of the 20th century, and was known as The Boston Terror, or sometimes as the Boston Bonecrusher or racially-motivated Boston Tar Baby. His incredible ring record was matched by equally incredible life story.

Like George Dixon, Langford was born in Nova Scotia but relocated to Boston for work.

In the Bay State, Langford began working at a boxing gym and soon picked up the sport himself. He amassed a nearly unparalleled record with over two hundred documented fights, and perhaps another two hundred that went unrecorded.

Langford was a small man who stood about 5’ 6 ½”. But he fought in weight classes ranging from lightweight to heavyweight, unafraid to give up size and weight to much bigger men.

His record reads like a who’s who of that time.

Fireman Jim Flynn. Tiger Flowers. Larry Gains. George Godfrey. Sam McVea. Jeff Clark. Harry Wills. Joe Jennette. Fred Fulton. Gunboat Smith. Stanley Ketchel. Young Peter Jackson. Jack Johnson. Joe Walcott. Joe Gans.

It’s an impressive list, but it comes with one unfortunate caveat – for all his skill and power, and for all the quality of his opposition, Sam Langford never won a world title.

He did battle the “Barbados Demon” Joe Walcott in 1904 for his welterweight title, but their 15 round fight was ruled a controversial draw, with many newspapers claiming Langford the rightful winner.

Two years later, in 1906, Langford faced Jack Johnson, a rising star but not yet the heavyweight champion. Johnson won the night, but after winning the title, the Galveston Giant would refuse to ever grant Langford a rematch.

Sam Langford is considered by many the greatest fighter to never hold a championship belt.

Denied the opportunity to fight champions like Johnson, Langford regularly fought other Black fighters whose careers were similarly sidelined. He fought Harry wills 22 times; Sam McVea 15 times; and Joe Jennette 14 times.

Langford continued to fight until he went nearly blind. In his final fights, he used his outstretched hands to locate his opponent. And still he won.

In retirement, Langford slipped into obscurity and poverty.

Two decades later,  in 1944, a journalist tracked him down in New York City. A series of articles about him brought Langford back into the boxing public’s mind, and fans raised funds to pay for reparative eye surgery.

The Boston Terror passed in 1956. ESPN later dubbed him the “greatest fighter nobody knows.”

Buried in Cambridge, MA, Sam Langford’s grave is along the Amaranth Path of the Cambridge Cemetery, a large and relatively simple cemetery.

Langford’s stone is nice but nondescript, and does not betray any hint of the man’s pugilistic legacy.

On their website, the Cemetery lists “Notable Burials,” including two Baseball Hall of Famers. But it does not list Sam Langford, the uncrowned champion.

(I emailed the cemetery, suggesting his addition. So far, his name has not been added.)

My girlfriend and I had now visited the graves of three boxers: John L. Sullivan, George Dixon, and Sam Langford.

We were hooked on making these day trips together, exploring Massachusetts boxing history and enjoying each others’ company.

And I was enjoying the research that went into my increasingly in-depth social media posts about these excursions.

In the summer of 2023, we were set to spend a week at the beach in Wildwood, New Jersey.

It’s a traditional vacation spot for my family, going back several generations. We decided to use the travel opportunity to visit a few boxing graves outside of Massachusetts.

Driving from MA to southern NJ meant we’d be passing near New York City, an area thick with cemeteries and rich with boxing history.

I began looking into fighters from that region. Our goal was to locate several graves near each other, so we could visit them all in one day.

We had no intention of spending the entire week tracking down headstones and cemetery plots all over the Garden State.

Outside NY, in Bergen County NJ, we found the grave of regular Langford foe, Joe Jennette. His resting place is at the Fairview Cemetery, a sloping hillside cemetery that overlooks the town below.

Jennette’s career mirrored Sam Langford’s. He was supremely talented, but always denied a shot at the heavyweight title.

His style was similar to Langford’s, tricky and effective on the inside.

Like Langford, he fought several Black fighters, Langford included, multiple times, and endless round robin for a distant second place.

George Kimball popularized the term “Four Kings” to refer to Duran, Hagler, Hearns, and Leonard in the 1980s, but the term could easily be applied to Sam Langford, Joe Jennette, Jack Johnson, and Sam McVea.

They were all top fighters in their day, relatively equal in skill, and they fought one another repeatedly.

Jennette’s biggest fight was against one of these Kings, Sam McVea. The two big men went 49 rounds inside a Paris ring in 1909 – the longest fight of the twentieth century.

Reports claim up to four dozen knockdowns, with McVea taking an early lead. Jennette’s durability, however, won him the day. McVea could no longer rise from his stool and Jennette earned a TKO victory.

After retiring from boxing, Jennette managed to escape the poverty that ensnared Langford. Jenette opened a successful gym where he trained fighters, including future champ James Braddock. Jennette loved cars, and later turned his gym into a garage, where he ran a fleet of limousines and later a taxi company.

Jennette’s stone is large, but simple. The family name is displayed prominently, along with an engraved cross with flowers. The names Joseph and Adelaide are inscribed along with dates on the plinth, a separate piece from the headstone itself, perhaps a sign that this headstone was added later.

Wanting to make the most of this stop off from our New Jersey vacation, we had looked for other graves near Bergen County. A little searching revealed that nearby Orange, NJ was the final resting place of one of my favorite fighters, “Two Ton” Tony Galento.

Tony Galento resting place

Galento was a cigar-chomping, beer-guzzling, hot dog–swallowing bartender known for his New Jersey accented catchphrase “I’ll moida da bum!”

Galento horrified boxing purists with his crude in-ring style, but he thrilled sportswriters who always found a good story.

Tony never met a PR stunt he didn’t like. He boxed kangaroos, trained on beer, and campaigned for president on the Prohibition Party ticket. A polka was even written in his honor.

But Two Ton faced some real toughs, including Arturo Godoy, Ernie Schaaf, Lou Nova, Max Baer, and Max’s brother, Buddy Baer. Without a doubt, his biggest fight was his 1939 championship fight with Joe Louis.

Tony miraculously dropped the champ in the 3rd round. Louis recovered and battered poor Tony pillar to post before the referee mercifully called a halt to the beatdown in the 4th round.

After retiring from the ring, Tony Galento tended bar at his Orange, NJ establishment.

He remained a popular public figure, wrestling and refereeing occasionally, even once battling an octopus on a Seattle pier. He appeared in a few Hollywood movies, including Guys and Dolls and On the Waterfront.

He died in 1979 and was buried in a small churchyard cemetery attached to St. John the Evangelist Church in Orange, NJ..

The church sits atop a small hill and the cemetery grounds are nestled in an attractive neighborhood, with a grammar school to one corner. The church itself is gorgeous. My one regret, having seen photos online, is not going inside to see the church’s interior in person.

The cemetery gates were locked when we arrived, so we had to hop a small brick wall. No one was around to mind. Although we didn’t have a plot number, we found Tony’s gravesite fairly easily. His family name is spelled Galanto on the stone, which bears a simple cross and two torches.

The man once called the “New Jersey Nightstick” is buried under his birth name Dominick, with “Tony Galento” inscribed below. Day lilies grow wildly around his resting place.

Langford, Jennette, and Galento make for an unlikely trio. Their careers reveal two distinct sides to the same sport. Langford and Jennette were early examples of Black excellence.

They fought hard and they fought well, but racism blunted their careers, denying them entrée to the pinnacle of prizefighting, a denial whose effects cascade down the decades.

We’ll never share photographs of Jennette or Langford with a championship belt around their waist, or speak their names when we talk of lineal championships.  

Twenty years later, Joe Louis, the first Black heavyweight champion after Jack Johnson, faced similar racial struggles. His career was self-consciously molded to avoid or repudiate much of the swagger Jack Johnson had displayed. Tony Galento faced Louis in 1939, one of Louis’s so-called “bum of the month” club, the double-edged accusation that Louis wasn’t defending his title against “real” contenders.

Galento was entertaining, but he wasn’t in a class with warriors Jennette or Langford. Yet he, the white fighter, received the title shot denied to Langford or Jennette.

Boxing’s legacy, as with any public institution whose tenure stretches back into even recent history, is riddled with racist overtones and anecdotes. Boxing, for good or ill, makes plain the inequities of the society that breeds it.

That history reflects onto us now, today. Whether or not we listen, learn, is up to us. Until death, that most democratic of institutions, reaches us all.

People die, and the grass grows. I wish I could translate the hints about the dead, Walt Whitman writes, thinking of the smallest green sprouts.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.