A repetitive, yet ever important theme in the world of boxing is how fights unfold parallel to the history of the times. Boxing fed off the momentum of social movements and vice versa, and it still does, with race being perhaps the easiest of fuels to ignite.
One of the more obvious examples covered here on TQBR was the Mike Weaver vs. Gerrie Coetzee showdown, which included racial tensions that were ridden and manipulated in order to generate more buzz, and more money. But not to be forgotten, Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney was a monster story in its day, around the same time.
Sometimes the obvious and unexpected meet, though. For instance, France is still in the midst of racial and ethnic issues that have carried on for decades. Where once were the front lines of one of the globe’s most shocking and bloody conflicts in World War I, now the current population face similar yet separate choices of color, religion and ethnicity.
The Sept. 24, 1922 bout between Amadou M’Barick Fall and Georges Carpentier figures has its own connection there, believe it or not.
The calling forth of nearly 500,000 colonial African troops by France in WWI led to social unrest and resentment after the war, dividing the country along racial lines. White French citizens didn’t want African troops fighting along side them in France, on the Western Front — where much of the war was fought — and African troops rightfully held grudges for largely being forced into a war that didn’t directly involve them or their interests.
Carpentier had put his career on hold to fight in the war, enlisting as a pilot in the French services, and eventually receiving decorations for his work. He was already quite popular, but his military participation drew the attention of nearly everyone in the country. A difficult defeat to heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey was a slight wake up call to Carpentier and fans alike as to his capabilities, but it hardly affected his likability to most.
In any era, a 83-11-5 (52 KO) record meant something. In this era, it meant Carpentier knew a thing or two in the ring, and that he was able to play teacher now and again with what he’d learned.
Amadou Fall, later known as Battling Siki, was born in Senegal and taken in by a French woman. Siki eventually became an imposing physical figure, with a strong back and legs to be admired by many, and drove a fighting career forth to a 51-7-4 (26 KO) by trampling many a hapless fool in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. Siki became known as a fighter that, while not particularly aesthetically pleasing, could absorb punishment in a unique way, and keep boring in for more.
As Siki became well known in France, he began searching for a star trail to hitchhike on, and centered in on Carpentier’s.
Siki and Carpentier were supposed to have fought in 1921, after Siki publicly called out Carpentier with the backing of a French publication called L’Auto. But one of Siki’s international managers got involved, claiming a valid contract with the fighter once Carpentier’s money-generating name entered the mix, thus dashing hopes for staging the bout in the near future. The matter was cleared up soon after, and Siki outpointed Paul Journee the following month, then went 12-0-1 over the next nine months, mostly in France, once again drumming up interest in a Carpentier fight.
The long term plan was to have Carpentier rematch Jack Dempsey in June of 1923, but after Dempsey’s trip to Europe failed to convince the gentry that the Frenchman could compete with the heavyweight champion, the idea was essentially scrapped. Carpentier was forced to return to reality temporarily.
Carpentier’s manager, Francois Descamps, bemoaned the idea that Dempsey would draw any sort of color line in failing to face either Harry Wills or Sam Langford. But in a strange twist, writer Robert Edgren reported before the bout, “Running short of opponents in France Siki was offered a match with an American negro boxer, but announced that he was of superior stock, his ancestors having been free from the time Caesar down, and that he draws the ‘color line’ on that account.”
But to truly spin a head or two, Siki had this to say about a prospective fight against Dempsey: “I don’t see why Dempsey should bar me, because, you see, I am not a negro; I am a Frenchman of color, but a full fledged Frenchman like Carpentier. I vote and pay taxes.”
A 65,000 seat arena was built in Paris for the event. The stadium was dubbed “The Buffalo” — an homage to the fact that Descamps helped to handle Buffallo Bill’s Wild West Show European tour.
Carpentier was guaranteed 300,000 francs and 20 percent of the gate, but along with Descamps held about 40 percent of the stock in the revenue of the bout, as they had both footed the money for the new arena to be built and to cover the purses.
According to numerous AP wires that officially announced that Siki had been “spirited away to Brittany by Manager Hellers, in order to get him away from the seductive glare of brightly-illuminated cafes in Paris, with their gay company.” On the other hand, Carpentier signed a multi-picture film deal with noted producer and director J. Stuart Blackton, securing his stardom and mapping out his post-boxing career nicely.
Writer Sparrow McGann said of Siki, via the Evansville Courier and Press, “Siki is a Senegaliese negro, and is a real bad actor. When he is not fighting in the ring he is very likely to start something outside of the squared ring and the cabarets have known him to their disadvantage. Every Frenchman will breathe easier when Carpentier knocks him for a row of shanties.”
Starting at the beginning of September, numerous accounts said Carpentier didn’t seem to be taking the fight seriously, and left himself only a few weeks to train. The initial Sept. 10 fight date was pushed back 11 days, presumably to allow more marination and training time, but the official excuse was that Carpentier was too busy with his film career.
Another effect that the delays had, however, was creating more interest in the bout, which drew the first million franc gate in the history of French boxing. Despite this, a news wire from Paris reported that 10-to-1 odds in favor of Carpentier were being offered, with very few takers.
The bout began somewhat curiously, considering the ending. Said the AP, “When the gong sounded at the commencement of the fight, Siki appeared timid. He covered up in fear of Georges’ terrible right.” Siki chewed on a few right hands successfully, though he was down briefly on a light left hand that wasn’t clearly counted as a knockdown, but the relative success appeared to give him a burst of confidence. After the 1st round, Carpentier went to his corner declaring he could win whenever he wanted to.
Siki’s ability to harden under pressure paid off quickly, as despite his inability to put much together offensively, Carpentier wore a look of confusion on his face after cracking Siki with more right hands in round 2 that had no apparent effect and the light heavyweight champion Carpentier began breathing with an open mouth before too long. Siki attacked in round 3, but ran headlong into a right hand that put him down for a count of seven. But before much else could be said or cheered for, Siki drove a series of body shots home that folded Carpentier up in short order for a count of four. Sensing his advantage, Siki swooped in for the kill with a hellish body attack that made Carpentier teeter about until the bell.
United Press correspondent John O’Brien reported, “Siki started in the fourth round and from that time on it was just a question of how far Georges’ heart would carry him before he would have to give up.”
Carpentier had his right eye closed and was sucking oxygen uncomfortably, on top of losing blood. Siki’s frantic attempts to finish the fight had him missing wildly and eating right hand counters, but to no effect. Carpentier had a few games left to play, hitting low, grappling, shoulder-butting and using his head as a weapon, all of which drove Siki to fight harder. But a quick right hand in the 5th put Carpentier down again. The state of Carpentier’s face, his failing stamina and his tactics had even his rabid fans booing their man and calling for the fight to be stopped.
An uppercut in round 6 began the end. The follow up to Carpentier’s body had the hero imploded on the canvas, unable to rise.
The initial call from referee Henri Bernstein was that Siki had fouled Carpentier, which called for a disqualification. Descamps worked the crowd, trying to get them to rally behind their man and support the DQ, but an evidently overly educated band of fight fans, and the reviewing of the bout by three judges, had the win turned over to Siki, rightfully. And the crowd delighted.
Questions arose regarding the bout’s legitimacy, and they were later addressed, secondhand.
Stefan Lorant, a photojournalist who became good friends with Siki after the fight, recalled via Sports Illustrated that Siki told him, “My manager told me the money would be good [to throw the fight]. So I said, ‘O.K., but I don’t want to be hurt.’ My manager said ‘You won’t be.’ In the ring, at the start, we were playing around. And the fellow hit me. I said, ‘You aren’t supposed to hit me.’ He kept doing it. He thought he could beat me without our deal, and he kept on hitting me. I was so mad, I started hitting him back, and the next thing I saw, he was on the floor, knocked out, and my manager said, ‘My God, what have you done?’ I said, ‘He hit me.'”
Carpentier fought nine more times, going 5-3-1, though the losses were to three excellent fighters in Tommy Gibbons, Gene Tunney and Tommy Loughran. That Carpentier managed to even somewhat compete nearing 30-years-old and after 100 bouts was a testament to his savvy and greatness. It had been reported the entire way, however, that Carpentier planned to retire at any given moment, giving up the ring for the silver screen in attempt to bank on his stardom in Europe.
Battling Siki became the first African-born world champion on that day.
After this bout, he lost about as much as he won, and he never seemed to gather much momentum. His title was taken from him in the very next fight, even without having to weigh in for it against Mike McTigue. Famous around New York City for his street fights, altercations and domestic issues, he would finally be killed in 1925 by two gunshots to the back in the neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen.