Commentary

Tough McVey was 'game to the core'

Were he a fighter of this era, Sam McVey would be a pay-per-view attraction. During the early 1900s, however, African-American fighters of McVey's caliber were avoided at all costs, even by boxers of their own race.

Originally Published: February 19, 2008
By Graham Houston | Special to ESPN.com

Sam McVeyAntiquities of the Prize RingApart from Jack Johnson, Sam McVey, left, held wins over all of the top black heavyweights of his time.
Everyone knows the wonderful contribution made to boxing by black fighters, from the greats to the hard-working contenders. Yet some have become hidden behind the mists of time, names known only to the historians or the hard-core followers of the sport. One such fighter was the old-time heavyweight contender Sam McVey.

McVey, who lived in Oxnard, Calif., was one of a group of black heavyweights, including Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette and Harry Wills, who could not get a title fight in the early 1900s.

The white champions preferred to fight other Caucasians -- generally speaking, the fights had less risk and greater reward.

Those were very different times. Heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries drew what was called the "color line" in saying he would not fight a black challenger, hence the long wait Jack Johnson had to endure until he finally landed a title fight. (Irked by Johnson's goading, Jeffries did, according to boxing writer Nat Fleischer in his book "Black Dynamite -- Volume IV," invite his tormentor to go into a cellar with him at a well-known boxing saloon in San Francisco to settle matters, with the winner being the one who walked out unassisted. The invitation to what would presumably have been a no-holds-barred fight was sensibly declined by Johnson, the superior boxer who might not have fared well in a confined-space brawl -- and much later enjoyed payback in the boxing ring.)

Fighters such as McVey might have felt a particular sense of frustration that, when Johnson won the title, they still could not get a championship fight. To be fair to Johnson, though, he had beaten McVey, Langford and Jeanette before becoming champion: There were easier pickings for much bigger purses.

Research on McVey revealed that despite the inevitable racial stereotyping of the day, the white sportswriters, in general, had a great respect for the black fighters.

I suppose one could say there was a sort of benign racism in the sports writing of the day, but offhand insensitivity was not confined to black boxers: A cartoon of the era depicted Jeffries as a brutish caveman carrying a club, while the Italian boxer Joe Grim, noted for his durability, was held up to ridicule in a 1903 article in which "a noted Philadelphia physician" was quoted as saying that Grim could absorb beatings "simply owing to the fact that he is in possession of a very small brain. … Slow to grasp the idea that he has been hurt at all, and then not able to take hold of it with one-half the sense of pain of a human being of ordinary intelligence, [Grim] will have to be almost killed before being beaten into insensibility."

So the sort of descriptive writing that today would be considered not only offensive but downright libelous was par for the course in the era in which McVey fought.

McVey would have been a small heavyweight today at about 5-foot-11 and 208 pounds, but he was a big man for the time.

Sam McVey
Antiquities of the Prize Ring At 5-foot-11 and 208 pounds, McVey was a big man for the time.
Reports suggest he was a strong fighter, tough and brave ("game to the core" according to Fleischer) and a good body puncher. Fleischer described McVey as "a hard hitter, and fairly clever."

According to F.H. Lucas, the Paris-based correspondent of the British weekly Boxing, McVey always looked in "splendid" condition. Lucas, though, seemed to regard McVey as essentially a big hitter without great variety, offering the opinion in a 1910 article: "Sam's stock-in-trade is very limited. His guns are few enough, but they are of large caliber. Sam's arsenal is made up of heavy artillery only, so to speak, but when he does let off one of his weapons, they damage."

Lucas was especially taken with McVey's "wonderfully quick left hook."

Clearly, then, McVey was a fighter to be taken seriously.

Although Jack Johnson won each of his three bouts with McVey, he told Fleischer that every time he "knew that he was in for trouble."

Reports of the three fights with Johnson showed what a good fighter, and also how durable, McVey was, and also indicate the high regard in which he was held by the sporting public.

In the rematch in Los Angeles in October 1903, even though McVey had lost the first bout, he was actually the betting favorite. The San Francisco Bulletin reported: "It may have been that the wiseacres agreed that McVey was improving with every battle, and therefore due to cop Johnson."

The know-it-alls got it wrong. Johnson won a 20-round points victory, but it seems to have been one of those one-sided but exciting bouts. The Bulletin reported that it was "a smashing fight," although Johnson clearly had the better of it. Down three times, "McVey came up after every knockdown full of fight and forced matters at all times." The crowd of 7,000 was "thoroughly satisfied," the Bulletin reported.

There was a third meeting six months later in San Francisco, for the "colored heavyweight championship." The San Francisco Bulletin described the boxers as "the biggest and best in their class and color in the world."

Jeffries was due to make a title defense against an overmatched white challenger, Jack Munroe. The Bulletin suggested, in a somewhat convoluted manner, that the Johnson-McVey winner should be next in line for Jeffries, arguing: "There does not appear to be a ring man in all the wide area where pugilism holds sway with sufficient inches and heft to meet the world's champion after Munroe than one of tonight's fighters."

It does seem that a lot of the white boxing aficionados of the time wanted to see Jeffries meet the stern test that would be provided by a challenger of color. They just wanted to see the best fight.

Johnson was described as "the cleverest big man now before the public," but McVey came in for praise, too, being described as "the ideal fighter … strong and fast, and never once from the tap of the gong does he let up a moment in his consistent rushing and desire to get to close quarters."

In the event, Johnson scored his most decisive win of the three-fight series, knocking out McVey in the 20th and final round. "McVey stood a horrible walloping, and it was only his great strength and endurance that kept him from meeting his fate earlier in the fight," the Bulletin reported.

But while McVey could not defeat Johnson, he did have considerable success against other prominent black fighters, who would meet each other in a series of fights.

This was the era of so-called newspaper decisions, with boxing matches officially being labeled "sporting exhibitions" to circumvent city ordinances prohibiting prizefighting: Newspaper accounts of fights formed the basis of gambling wagers being settled.

Including newspaper decision, McVey had wins over all of the top black heavyweights apart from Johnson. He knocked out the big, muscular Denver Ed Martin twice in three meetings, had a win and a draw in a four-fight series against Jeanette, beat Battling Jim Johnson several times, twice defeated Wills in a five-fight series and had an astonishing 15 fights with Langford (winning twice, with a sprinkling of draws or no-contest decisions).

McVey fought in Europe, Australia and Latin America but was especially popular in Paris, where, according to a 1909 issue of Boxing, he was "looked upon by Parisians as invincible" after a string of knockout wins.

In his first fight with Jeanette, a 20-rounder, McVey won by decision, knocking down his opponent three times.

The rematch just two months later was a fight to the finish, with McVey, his eyes damaged, and in a weakened condition, retiring after 49 rounds, apparently walking over to Jeanette's corner to tell him: "I can't go on, Joe."

There was controversy, though.

McVey dropped Jeanette in the 19th round of that fight and some spectators said that the floored boxer illegally had water thrown over him by his seconds. As recorded in Boxing: "The sudden contact of this cold douche with Jeanette's prostrate form, it was claimed, revived him, and robbed McVey of a victory -- and a decisive one."

A third meeting ended in an anticlimactic 30-round draw. "All sporting Paris seemed to be present," Boxing reported, but this time neither man seemed to want to engage the other. According to Boxing: "From a spectacular point of view, the contest was a huge disappointment."

In fact, not all of the fights between black heavyweights were exciting or particularly hard-fought, and I think it is a fair guess that sometimes the boxers took it easy with each other. This seems to have been the case in McVey's third fight with Jeanette, and also in his 15-round draw with Jim Johnson, when Lucas noted: "Already in the third round there appeared to exist a feeling of mutual respect between the two boxers, which on short occasions broke into affection."

When McVey was in the mood for serious fighting, though, he was a daunting opponent for anyone, as Grim found out in their 1910 mismatch. Grim was stopped in the 12th round of an affair described in Boxing as, "wretchedly weird and wonderful! It was not a contest, but one man all the while trying to knock another out."

Grim was down 52 times, according to the report. These were truly hard times in boxing.

It seems clear, then, that McVey could have been champion, if only he had been given the opportunity.

Johnson described McVey, in a 1910 interview in Boxing, as "quite the toughest proposition I ever tackled."

Years pass, and McVey could now perhaps be described as one of boxing's forgotten heroes -- but one well worth remembering.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

Graham Houston is the American editor of Boxing Monthly and writes for FightWriter.com.

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