Battling Siki

By Thomas Gerbasi
[click here for Siki's record]

[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 stories.

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. Light Heavy 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.

  • The New York Times
  • The Culture of Bruising - By Gerald Early
  • Battling Siki-The Man They Turned Into a Joke - By Dan Shocket (reprinted in Boxing 98 (May 1998)
  • CyberBoxing Zone - Battling Siki record - compiled by Tracy Callis
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