OCTOBER 12, 2012
ON A DESOLATE STRETCH of West 41st Street, in the early hours of December 15, 1925, someone put two bullets into the back of Battling Siki. Just two years after losing the light heavyweight title, Africa’s first boxing champion and icon of the era was dead. Siki probably never saw the shooter — let alone the gun — on that cold New York morning, and his killing remains a mystery today. Peter Benson’s 2009 biography Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920s concerns Siki’s life but does not spend much time, as the title might suggest, on his untimely death. Ditto for Championzé: Une histoire de Battling Siki, a 2010 French graphic novel by Aurélien Ducoudray and Eddy Vaccaro. But of course Siki’s story is not simply that of a murdered champion boxer; his life stood at the intersection of popular culture, racial politics, and the criminal underworld. Thankfully, his biographers weave together these different plot-lines to offer useful portraits of the fighter.
Champion boxing in the 1920s yielded big figures with big names. Jack Dempsey, the most famous heavyweight of the era, lent his name to streets, sporting events, and even a tropical fish, the Jack Dempsey cichlid, popular with aquarium owners today. Likewise, Luis Ángel Firpo, the Argentine heavy who knocked Dempsey out of the ring in 1923, lives on in Latin America, where many streets and institutions — including a Salvadorean futbol team — bear his name. By these standards alone, Africa’s first sports champion has had a truly global reach. “Siki” was the nom de guerre adopted by one of Che Guevara’s commanders, and during the champ’s lifetime a noted and diverse set of writers spilt much ink over the boxer: Ernest Hemingway (though indirectly) in his short story “50 Grand”; Henry Miller in Plexus; and George Bernard Shaw in his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession. Ho Chi Minh adopted Siki as an anti-colonial symbol and penned “About Siki,” a brief essay on the 1922 title-winning fight against Georges Carpentier. (For Ho Chi Minh and other aspiring anti-colonialists around the world, Battling Siki served as a sort of pugilistic Mithridates striking an emblematic blow against the West.)
Siki was born Ahmadou “Louis” Mbarick Fall under humble circumstances in what is today Saint Louis, Senegal (perhaps in 1897) but, he lived his life like no saint. Peter Benson doesn’t shy away from addressing Siki’s personal failings. Siki originally agreed to throw the Carpentier fight and it was probably not the first nor last time he agreed to take part in fight fixing. Siki was never formally married to his first wife with whom he fathered a child. When deportation loomed Siki simply married an American woman in an utter shock to his Dutch wife in Paris.
Jack Johnson had shocked the world by becoming the first African-American to win the heavyweight championship title in 1908, in part because his defensive technique was far superior to most white boxers of the era. While Jack Johnson’s 1908 victory was seen as a threat by some whites, they were primarily in America. Battling Siki’s win, as his continued influence shows, had global implications. In 1922, when he climbed into the ring for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the World, Siki had no intention of fighting racism. In fact, he was expected to lose to Carpentier, whose handlers had secretly bribed the “Singular Senegalese” to ensure the loss. Carpentier, after all, was one of France’s most beloved sports figures, a French war hero whom history has remembered as the “Orchid Man.” In this neatly rigged fight, Siki would get his money and the champion would win; but once the fight began, plans changed. Carpentier likely didn’t know the fight had been fixed, and was looking to win with his punches — not his pocketbook. Conversely, while Siki was willing to lose the fight in the minds of the judges, he had no interest in being hurt or knocked out. He began gamely fighting back. When Siki KO’d Carpentier in the sixth round, the Parisian (and thus partisan) crowd was stunned. As the smoke from thousands of fans’ cigarettes lingered in the air, the referee suddenly intervened and ruled that Carpentier had been tripped. The win was quickly awarded to the recently sprawled Georges Carpentier.
And then the audience at the Buffalo Stadium that warm September night did a funny thing. Boxing isn’t like a baseball game, where, if you go in as a Dodgers fan you come out a Dodgers fan, win or lose. In boxing, the sudden knockouts can be catalysts for sudden shifts in allegiance. The fans at ringside started crying foul; the same fans who’d paid good money to see their man Carpentier win yelled that Battling Siki had rightly won. American comedian Robin Williams once joked that if the French invented baseball they would only have left field and no one would be safe. It was to this principle of equality that the crowd appealed. The judges and French boxing authorities agreed, and awarded the trophy to Siki. France was stunned. Peter Benson skillfully paints the scene in which crowds outside the stadium, having gathered for celebratory picnics on the evening of the fight, mistook firework displays for a Carpentier victory. Indeed, Benson’s strength lies in his ability to depict provocative portraits of both France and America in the 1920s.
Battling Siki’s 1922 victory against Georges Carpentier made him at once the first African-born boxing champion and the first Muslim to win a world championship in any sport — decades before Muhammad Ali. Siki, however, continued to fight not for a legacy but for money. His use of revolver tricks and pet lions as tools of self-promotion were harbingers of today’s showboating world. Championze features an impossible scene in which Siki’s training camp is made into a jungle; the fighter leaps out to the approval of the visiting press. But as the powerful images sketched in the graphic novel suggest, Siki also had to tread carefully when using his African roots as a marketing ploy.
In the ring he showed no such caution, and films of Siki’s fights show him throwing wide swings and pursuing a policy of all-out aggressiveness. Peter Benson, a life-long boxing fan, compares Siki to a young Manny Pacquiao, but Siki never refined his boxing technique the way Manny Pacquiao did, in part because, as Benson makes clear, he never had the sort of dynamic coaching Pacquiao, Ali, or Tyson received, which allowed them to transform their natural abilities into dynamic boxing skills. Both texts suggest Siki never progressed beyond being a rude cogneur or “crude slugger.” Racist press coverage of the time played up this aspect of Siki and noting that he employed “monkeylike swings” and “tigerlike crouches.”
Siki was rarely set up with a “fair fight,” and no greater example of this was on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1923, in Dublin, where Siki first defended his title against Irish light heavyweight Mike McTigue. At the time, Dublin was the site of a guerrilla war between the British army and Irish rebels bent on independence. Despite the threat of violence, Siki (who had few other options) took the fight. Though a plan to pit him against Jack Dempsey never materialized, Siki often had to fight other opponents who had 20 pounds on him. Few boxers have more steadfastly lived up to the pledge to “take on all comers,” but few had as little to show for it. In Dublin, to no one’s surprise, he lost the fight on a decision. Though the illustrations in Championze make Siki’s opponents seem fearsome, Siki’s career in America saw no important wins against his more established opponents. Monsieur Siki, a Frenchmen to Americans, was technically exempt from the era’s segregation laws. This type of exception, Benson reminds us, is one of the odd inconsistencies of segregation; decades later, a young Cassius Clay would don Middle Eastern style robes and fake an accent to gain access to “white-only” movie theaters in Louisville.
In France, however, boxing helped Siki avoid the country’s racist labor laws, which had been in place since the end of World War I. France’s regulated labor market kept Africans out of many skilled professions, and encouraged them to take ‘apprenticeships’ in agriculture. These jobs greatly limited the earning potential of France’s minorities and immigrants. Given such a market, Siki quickly returned to his boxing career.
It was in pursuit of even greater riches that, following the loss of his title, Siki abandoned his Dutch wife and sailed to America never to return. Like all the great fighters of the 20th century, Siki was first and foremost a talented promoter. His antics and even his keeping of big cats for pets would influence African-American boxers later in the century. Muhammad Ali considered Battling Siki influential and Mike Tyson later adopted both Siki’s technique for throwing left hook and his enthusiasm for keeping big cats as pets. Like Tyson and Jack Johnson, Battling Siki marketed himself on negative appeal. Unfortunately for Siki, his boxing skills were not as refined as those of Johnson or Tyson, much less those of Muhammad Ali.
Championze presents Siki as a man who loved women and saw monogamy and polygamy as culturally relative. The media perhaps exaggerated Siki’s carousing and barroom brawls, but there is no doubt that Siki had some bad friends and worse enemies. Benson argues that Siki’s murder in 1925, while he was trudging home one cold night, was not a crime of passion or some drunken brawl, but the result of his having angered some underworld figures. In 1920s New York, organized crime was heavily involved in the sporting world, especially boxing. Other famous fighters of the era — Harry Greb, Tiger Flowers and a Filipino fighter with the nom de guerre of Pancho Villa — all died on the operating table within a year of Siki’s death. (The autopsy following Siki’s death found lesions on his lungs, the scars of World War I gas attacks, making his accomplishments in the ring more impressive.) His funeral was a peculiar mingling of traditions. While his American wife insisted on a Christian burial, Siki’s Muslim friends in New York pleaded for a respect to Siki’s Islamic faith and turned out to offer Muslim rites as well.
In 1991, Siki’s body was brought back to Senegal, where Battling Siki, the “Singular Senegalese” remains a popular figure to this day. Though the murder of will remain a mystery, these two works do a service in reminding American readers about this influential champion.