Langan, John (‘Jack’) (1798–1846), bare-knuckle pugilist, was born in May 1798 in Clondalkin, Co. Dublin. His family moved to Ballybough, on the north side of Dublin city, when he was a child, and his parents (of whom no other details are known) ran a provisions business. The tough environment in which he grew up helped to mould him as a prizefighter. His first recorded bare-knuckle fight took place when he was just 13, when he comprehensively defeated a boy five years older. Langan spent a short spell at sea before returning to Ballybough, where he commenced an apprenticeship as a sawyer at the age of 16. At 17 he was accused of murder when he ‘killed’ a 26-year-old called Savage in an all-day fight. Savage, however, rose from his coma and lived to be 93.
Throughout his teens Langan steadily built up a reputation as a fighter, and his victory over Owen McGowran in May 1819 for a prize fund of 100 guineas (£105) a side on the Curragh of Kildare established him as the best fighter in Dublin. A challenge to the rest of Ireland went unanswered and resulted in his being regarded as champion of Ireland. Always something of an adventurer, in 1819 he nearly starved to death when he participated in an ill-fated expedition to the Caribbean and South America to fight with Simon Bolívar's army. One of Langan's brothers, who had served on Nelson's flagship HMS Victory, accompanied him and died in Tobago. After achieving the rank of quartermaster-sergeant, Langan returned to Dublin (via Trinidad and Cork) where he became a publican, running an establishment called ‘The sign of the Irish arms’ in King St. Over the door he reputedly had the motto ‘Quiet when stroked; fierce when provoked’.
After a couple of years Langan fled Ireland as a result of losing a paternity suit and ended up in Oldham, Lancashire, working as a sawyer. Having initially been a protégé of Dan Donnelly (qv), he became a friend of another famous fighter, Tom Reynolds, who organised some bouts for him in the north of England. On 30 April 1823 he defeated local fighter Matt Wheeping at Buxton, Manchester, in front of 5,000 spectators. After going back to Ireland to serve time in prison for absconding without paying his paternity award, he returned to England, where he challenged the acknowledged English champion and the greatest fighter of the day, Tom Spring, to a fight, the match eventually being made for a sum of 600 gold sovereigns. The bout – one of the most famous in bare-knuckle history – took place at Worcester on 7 January 1824 in front of an estimated 30,000 paying spectators. Billed as a fight between the champions of Ireland and England, it lasted for almost two and a half hours and seventy-seven rounds. Although Langan started well and floored Spring as late as the sixty-fifth round, it was a battered and exhausted Langan who was unable to come out for the seventy-eighth round. The next day Langan demanded a rematch, claiming that Spring's supporters pressed so close to the ring that the boxers were forced to fight in a space of about five feet (1.52 m) in diameter, giving Spring an unfair advantage. This was a rather spurious claim, as most observers felt that the small space suited the slower and less mobile man. Crowd chaos at the fight was such that a spectator was killed and scores injured when a temporary grandstand collapsed.
The rematch was first set for Warwick on 8 June 1824 but was eventually held near Chichester, Sussex, before an attendance of 12,000. Although the fight was an hour shorter than the original match, it was even more brutal. Langan's strategy was to stay in the fight in the hope that Spring, who was taller, heavier, and a more stylish and scientific fighter than Langan, but had weak hands and was not a strong puncher, would have to retire with injured hands. In the end, the fight degenerated into a bloody and distressing spectacle, between a clearly exhausted Langan and an English champion whose hands were too damaged to finish him off. Eventually the fight was stopped by the umpire in the seventy-sixth round and Spring was declared the winner. Despite the brutality of the fight itself, it had been fought in good spirit and both men remained lifelong friends. According to one report Spring's hands were swollen to the size of ‘large apple dumplings’ and Langan's bravery was much admired and commented on. Such was the punishment endured by both men that neither fought again.
Never a stylish or scientific boxer, at 5 ft 11 in. (1.8 m) and just over twelve stone (76 kg) at his fighting peak, Langan relied on his great strength, tremendous stamina, and determination to win. After the fight he fell out with Tom Reynolds about some of the financial arrangements, and after a brief trip back to Ireland set himself up as a publican in Liverpool, where, according to one report, he provided ‘two days’ free lodgings, with ample porridge, potatoes, and beer, a glass of poteen and a straw bed for any Irish harvesters on the condition that they left their sickles and shillelaghs outside’. Despite the fact that his good friend, the writer Pierce Egan, produced an extensive account of his life and fights up to and including 1824 in his Boxiana, little is known about Langan's personal life. Naturally gregarious and good-humoured, he was successful enough as a publican to retire eventually to Cheshire, where he died 17 March 1846.