Subj: The BAWLI Papers No. 44
Date: 99-01-21 16:09:24 EST
The BAWLI Papers
(Boxing As We Liked It)
By J Michael Kenyon
Issue Number 44
Tuesday, January 26, 1999
New York City, New York, US of A
IN THIS ISSUE: THE LIFE AND -- TRAGIC -- TIMES OF THE REMARKABLE BATTLING SIKI
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(ED. NOTE -- In previous issues, we've introduced you to the interviewing
talents of Mr. Thomas Gerbasi, he of Cyber Boxing Zone notoriety. Here, again
thanks to his kind submission, we present a capsule biography of the rather
amazing life and times of the man known to boxing history as Battling Siki.)
By Thomas Gerbasi
[He] was dangerous and terrible now; he was the negro springing along the
forest path. The sudden smell of blood, the hallucination of victory, the dark
disfigured mask which had taken the place of the fair white face had unlossed
in him the savagery of his race, dormant since the dark and distant centuries.
. . . The referee, whose face had gone very pale, raised above the crowd the
black arm of the new champion.
-- Orio Vergani, Poor Nigger, pp 136-37 (1930)
Though he has not gone down in boxing annals as a great fighter, Battling Siki
is remembered for having one of the fight game's most intriguing and tragic
Born Baye Phal on September 16, 1897, in the port of St. Louis, Senegal (then
called French West Africa), Siki moved to France while still a teenager. It is
rumored that he was taken to France by a French actress who took a liking to
him and made him her servant. In any event, Siki soon changed his first name
from Baye to Louis, and by age of 15 began a career as a prizefighter.
From 1912 to 1914, fighting strictly in France, Battling Siki compiled an
unimpressive record of 8-6-2. With the outbreak of WW I, Siki then enlisted in
the French army, where his bravery in battle earned him both the Croix De
Guerre and the Medaille Militaire.
Siki resumed his boxing career in 1919 after leaving the service. With new-
found vigor, Siki won 43 of 46 fights in the ensuing four years, drawing
twice, and losing only a 15 round decision to Tom Berry in Rotterdam.
Lightheavy weight champion at that time was Georges Carpentier. Carpentier's
manager, Francois "General" Deschamps, attended Siki's June 1922 win over
Marcel Nilles and decided Siki was a "safe" opponent for his champion. When
the bout was held on September 24, 1922 in Paris, France, Siki became the
first black fighter in seven years to fight for a boxing championship.
Carpentier (173 1/2 pounds), fighting on French soil for the first time in
three years, was a heavy favorite against Siki, and his popularity produced
the first million franc gate in French boxing history. Forty thousand people
packed the Buffalo Velodrome to see their idol in action, and Siki, an awkward
slugger, seemed to be a perfect foil for Carpentier's homecoming.
Siki followed the script for the first three rounds, being dropped twice by
the champion. Carpentier even told his manager and trainer after the first
round "I'll get him whenever I want to." But Siki (174 lbs), using his
trademark "windmill" style, sent Georges to the canvas late in the third, and
from that point on, he controlled the contest.
Siki shook off the champion's blows, telling him "You don't hit very hard, Mr.
Georges," and Carpentier took a thorough beating over the next two rounds. In
the sixth, a right uppercut sent Carpentier down and out. But
referee Arthur Bernstein claimed that the challenger had tripped the French
hero, and he disqualified Siki at 1:10 of the sixth round. The French crowd
roared its disapproval, and the three judges at ringside, fearing a riot,
reversed the decision twenty minutes later, rightfully naming Battling Siki
the new light heavyweight champion of the world.
Immediately after the fight, Siki told the Associated Press "You had better
cable Mr. Rickard tonight that I am willing to fight Dempsey right away." But
there would be no shortage of offers for the new champion's services.
Dave Driscoll, matchmaker for Ebbets Field, reportedly cabled a $100,000 offer
to Siki to fight heavyweight contender Harry Wills on October 12, 1922. But
the offer was actually $20,000. Siki's manager, Charlie Hellers, responded
with a demand for 1,100,000 francs for Siki to take on Wills.
Tom O'Rourke of the Polo Grounds offered Siki $45,000 to meet Wills, or
$30,000 to meet American light heavyweight champ Harry Greb. Greb responded
that he would fight Siki "anytime, anywhere, for any reasonable amount of
money. I have had three offers already to meet Siki, and to all of them I have
replied that I am ready to talk business as soon as he signs a contract."
Marty Killilea, manager of world middleweight champion Johnny Wilson, also
threw his hat in the ring, offering Siki $50,000 to fight Wilson in Boston.
Even former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson wanted to get into the act,
challenging Siki to a match. This fight never happened, though the two later
fought a six- round exhibition in Quebec in 1923.
And what about the current heavyweight king, Jack Dempsey? When told of Siki's
challenge, Dempsey's manager, Jack Kearns, smiled. "We're always ready to
accommodate any ambitious young man. If he is sincere in his statements that
he wants a crack at the world's heavyweight title, why Dempsey will
accommodate him gladly, either in this country or abroad." Dempsey himself
responded "I'm ready for them all."
But it was not all roses for Siki, the new champion. Carpentier's manager,
Descamps, appealed Siki's win on September 26, claiming that his man had been
fouled. But two days later, the decision was upheld. And while an appearance
by Siki stopped traffic in Paris for more than an hour, he could not escape
ridicule and racism, even from his own handlers. Newspapers called him
"Championzee" and "Child of the Jungle." A French publication, The
Intransigeant, ran a story with the headline "Siki would give half his
winnings to become white." And the biggest insult came from his own manager,
Hellers, who said in a New York Times headline "Siki is a Gorilla." And he
wasn't finished. According to Hellers "Siki has something in him which is not
human. A long time ago I used to think that if one could find an intelligent
Gorilla and teach him to box, one would have the world's champion. Well that's
what I found in Siki. There's much of the monkey about him." Siki's response:
"A lot of newspaper people have written that I have a jungle style of fighting
-- that I am a chimpanzee who has been taught to wear gloves. This kind of
thing hurts me. I was never anywhere but in a big city in all my life. I've
never even seen a jungle."
But despite that moment of introspection, Siki seemed to disregard the
negative cruelty of the press, and instead drowned his sorrows in his new
found celebrity. He walked the streets of France with a pet lion on a leash,
and he was also known to fire pistols in the air to enduce his two great danes
to do tricks. He was also fond of drinking, flashy clothes, and white women
(both of Siki's wives were white).
Not surprisingly, this lifestyle would wreck havoc on his boxing career. He
finally signed for his American debut, a November 30, 1922 match against a
tough black fighter from Baltimore, Kid Norfolk. The fight would be held at
Madison Square Garden. But it wouldn't happen until a year later.
In the interim, Siki traveled to Dublin, Ireland to take on Mike McTigue on
St.Patrick's Day, 1923. Needless to say, Siki lost a 20-round decision and the
title to Mc Tigue. Observers do state that McTigue deserved to win and was not
the recipient of a hometown decision. Three months later, Siki lost again,
this time being disqualified against Emile Morelle. This defeat cost Siki the
light heavyweight crowns of Europe and France. The ex-champ rebounded with two
knockout wins in France, and finally, on November 20, 1923, Siki made his
American debut against Kid Norfolk.
Siki dropped a 15 round decision to Norfolk, and a month later he lost another
decision, this one to Jack Taylor. (Taylor was no slouch -- he fought 3 close
fights with Sam Langford and later beat Max Schmeling.) Siki's moment in the
sun had passed, yet he continued fighting in America, usually against non-
descript foes. His last chance for ring redemption came on March 13, 1925
against Paul Berlenbach. It was not to be. Siki lost in the tenth round, and
1925 proved not only to be his last year in the ring, but his last on Earth.
Siki's out of the ring antics brought him more attention than his fights, and
he seemed to revel in the attention. Siki claimed that he trained on "liquor
and late hours", and his only sparring used to be in street brawls. This
caught up with him on December 15, 1925. Early in the evening, Siki left his
home on 42nd Street, telling his wife, Lillian, that he was going out "with
the boys". Around 2:30 am, after a bout of heavy drinking, a policeman spotted
Siki, who was a bit unsteady on his feet. After assuring the officer that he
was on his way home, Siki staggered away. Four hours later, the same officer
found a man lying face down on the ground. Upon further investigation, it was
discovered that the man was Battling Siki. He had been shot twice in the back
at close range, and he died at the scene. A .32 gun was found across the
street from the murder scene, but the killer was never captured. According to
Lillian Phal, her husband had been threatened by a man named Jimmy over a debt
of $20. But we will never know.
Battling Siki was remembered by his wife as "a good boy, he was just
mischievous. He would never harm anybody." Georges Carpentier, the victim of
Siki's greatest triumph said "It seems a pity that an athlete of such
magnificent gifts should have met with this end. The time has passed when
boxers can indulge in drinking and carousing and be champions. I only hope
poor Siki's fate will be a lesson to aspiring pugilists."
Siki's wake was held in Harlem, and the former champion was viewed by 400 to
500 people. His funeral took place at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the
service was presided over by the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell. According to
Rev. Powell "No man ever came out of Africa who had a more dramatic life or
had a more tragic ending. A lack of proper preparation or a noble purpose
were the two dreadful mistakes of his life. Our civilization is perhaps more
to blame for these mistakes than he was."
Battling Siki is buried in Flushing, Queens.
His final ring record was: 63 wins, 21 losses, 5 draws, 5 no-decisions. He
lost 4 fights on fouls. He was kayoed just twice, at the end of his career.
Siki scored 35 knockouts in his 63 wins.
(Mr. Gerbasi is associate publisher of our favorite Web boxing site, the Cyber
Boxing Zone. Again, our heartfelt thanks to him for taking up the standing
offer to submit original works and/or research articles to The BAWLI Papers.)
BOXING'S PUGILISTIC PYGMY
(Independent on Sunday, January 10, 1999)
By Andrew Longmore
For a dyslexic boy who left school with no qualifications and a label saying
'scrapheap' around his neck, the Pugilistic Pygmy - as Don King called him -
has come a long way.
You can only say "We'll take the Hungarian kid" in an accent from the Bronx or
the Walworth Road. Otherwise, it sounds like a bad line from On The
Waterfront. Not that Frank Maloney was worrying much about the pastiche. With
a show to stage and his main challenger out with a dislocated shoulder, the
Hungarian Kid had saved the day. One phone is put down in the attic office on
Bloomsbury Square, another is picked up. "We're back in business," Maloney
shouts down the receiver. "Tell 'em the fight's back on." Boxing, a land of
Maloney put on 28 shows in Britain last year -- "even made money out of a few"
- and four more, in the United States, Uganda, South Africa and France, which
made him the busiest promoter in the game. His schedule over the next month is
equally hectic: Bethnal Green (16 January), Ipswich three days later, Crawford
Ashley v Henry Wharton on 6 February in Halifax and a couple of testimonial
nights, one for Alan Hudson (of Chelsea, Stoke and England), and another for
Herol "Bomber" Graham.
Only then will he take himself off to Lennox Lewis's training camp in Pocono
Resorts, Pennsylvania, for the grander business of unifying the heavyweight
championship of the world. There, he says, he will lose a stone and a half by
going into training himself and use his spare time to polish his campaign for
the Mayor of London elections in May 2000. He pops out from behind his desk to
show me the outlines of the manifesto, all neatly sealed in a dark red folder:
"Education, Health, Sport." For a dyslexic boy who left the Sacred Heart
school in Camberwell with no qualifications and a label round his neck saying
"scrapheap", Frank Maloney has come a long way.
His teachers thought the milk round or HM prisons were the most likely career
options. Now Maloney is invited into schools to lecture errant children on
keeping to the straight and narrow. A council house in south London has been
swapped for a five-bedroomed detached house in Chislehurst at the swankier end
of the 0181 telephone range and a touch of Tory law and order policy has been
grafted on to solid old Labour credentials. "A right-wing socialist," he
grins. "That's what I am. But I'm unpolitical, really. I just want to be the
People's Mayor." Maloney expects the patronising smile. He has made a very
decent living out of being underestimated.
When I first met Maloney in 1986, the pioneering spirit was already evident.
He was bringing boxing back to Lewisham Town Hall for the first time in 60
years and had hooked up with a big white heavyweight called Danny Moull, whose
one distinction other than a solid punch and a certain B movie suavity was in
beating Gary Mason as an amateur. Moull was a computer analyst in the City and
had once been on Chelsea's books. Only thwarted ambition and boxing's peculiar
lure drew him into believing Maloney's bluster about great white hopes. Moull
was beaten that night and lost his next two fights as well before Maloney
himself took over his training. His next fight was his last. "He came back to
his corner at the end of the third and said he'd had enough, so I stuck a pin
up his arse and told him to get back out there. He did, he won and that was
that. He packed it in."
Maloney had better luck with a 6ft 6in Olympic gold medallist who arrived at
Heathrow Airport one morning in 1989 and, for a reason neither Maloney nor
Lennox Lewis can fully explain to this day, chose the little Londoner as his
trusted ally on the road to fame and fortune. The unlikely chemistry has
survived boxing's unique ability to curdle friendships. Even Don King, that
arch manipulator, has had to concede Maloney's worth. The Mental Midget of old
has become my "little pal from England", a shift of allegiance which is only
partly attributable to the fall of Mike Tyson and the growing pulling power of
Lewis in a dangerously threadbare heavyweight division. The seraphic smile of
the former Sacred Heart choirboy unnerved King. While King ranted at the
Pugilistic Pygmy, Maloney went to bed to watch his Millwall tapes. A Don King
doll now holds pride of place on the windowsill in Maloney's office and a deal
on a permanent partnership is close to completion.
"He's the ultimate," Maloney grins. "All those insults were great for me. They
moved me from being a 5ft 3in boxing manager into the world's spotlight.
People still ask me how I can keep talking to him, but this is a business
built on hype and propaganda and showmanship. I've got quite close to Don over
the last few months. He sent me a contract recently, pages of it. I read the
first page and got someone else to check it for me. Then, I rang him back. I
said, 'Don, the offer you made was fantastic, but you told me slavery died
over 200 years ago and you also told me only black guys were sold into
slavery. I'm a little white guy and we're moving into the next Millennium and
you're still trying to put me back into slavery'."
But Maloney knew that years of haggling and evasion were over the moment King
arrived in London to do business. "Before then we had always had to go to the
States," Maloney said. Lewis-Holyfield was made.
Conversation with Maloney hovers dangerously close to the edge of the absurd.
Ideas swirl around and then vanish like smoke. Some are potentially brilliant
(hiring the first woman MC through an ad in The Stage), some crackpot
(persuading the Euro-sceptics to sponsor one of his shows), others plainly
mischievious. Recently, he persuaded King to become US patron of Coventry
rugby club. His name is there on the programme masthead, plus a little fanfare
by King, all bombast and Churchill quotes (penned by Maloney himself, as it
happens). Maloney did some publicity before the game against Bedford and the
club had its biggest gate of the season. Mere coincidence, of course, that
Bedford happens to be Frank Warren's club. And Coventry won 13-12, an apt
metaphor for the shifting alliances on the ring apron. There was a time when
Maloney made the tea for Mickey Duff and was happy to be seen in the company
of such movers and shakers as Frank Warren. "Now I'm their equal," he says.
While Warren is due in court this month for a costly and potentially ruinous
legal battle with King, Maloney will be helping to prepare Lennox Lewis to
become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world beneath the great
chandelier in Madison Square Garden.
His own involvement in such a momentous sporting occasion still requires the
odd pinch. "The Garden, that was a masterstroke by Don. The first big fight I
ever saw was Ali-Frazier at the Garden. I saved my pocket money and sat in the
cinema all night, open-mouthed. Now I'm actually going to walk out under them
spotlights, flags waving. I can't believe it." Lewis moved into camp yesterday
with the team which has served him since 1992: Manny Steward, his trainer,
Harold Knight, Courtney Shand and Al Gavin. Denis Lewis, Lennox's brother,
handles the commercial side. It is a tight-knit community and it will need to
function efficiently to insulate Lewis from the suffocating forces at work in
such a pressurised campaign. Evander Holyfield, the old warrior, has been
there before. Lewis, for all his experience, has not. Maloney is undaunted.
"I see Lennox knocking him out in six or seven rounds. He's too big, too
strong and he wants to win too badly. I've studied all the tapes and I
honestly don't think Lennox can lose." He waits for reality to catch up.
"Don't get me wrong, anything can happen, of course. But there's something in
the destiny of this fight which says Lennox cannot lose. In 1989 I said he
would become the greatest sportsman Britain has ever produced and that his
name would rank alongside Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano as one of
the greatest heavyweights of all time. This is the fight which will do it."
Only mention of his own relationship with Lewis prompts a momentary bout of
reflection. It has changed, he says. "We get older and do different things."
How often does he call? "As little as possible and I mean that in a nice way.
Lennox knows that when I phone him I want him to do an interview. I usually
speak to his answerphone."
And Maloney has not forgotten who does the fighting. "I'm still employed by
Lennox Lewis, not the other way around. I'm employed by all my fighters. Just
because I sit behind a desk doesn't mean anything." There are five generations
of the family, from his 93-year-old mother down to a new baby granddaughter to
enforce the humility. But 13 March in New York will be a night of destiny for
the little man as well. "The minute they put the belt round him and say. 'and
undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Lennox Lewis of Great Britain'.
No matter what anyone else does to me after that, they can't take that moment
away from me."
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Subject: The BAWLI Papers No. 44
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