Book Review: Black Ink

By Adam Berlin on September 12, 2016
Book Review: Black Ink
The respect and awe his dominance earned him spilled out into the cabarets and streets.

Panama Al Brown, boxing’s first Latino champion, looked like poetry. He was a long, lean bantamweight who moved gracefully and punched forcefully…

Jose Corpas begins his biography of Panama Al Brown, titled Black Ink, with a touch of the poet. That’s how it should be. Al Brown, boxing’s first Latino champion, looked like poetry. He was a long, lean bantamweight who moved gracefully and punched forcefully. And like the best poems, there was weighty subtext under Brown’s fine lines—lines born from a hardscrabble upbringing in the canal-hard streets of Colon as a boy, then solidified in the concrete-hard streets of Harlem as a young man.

In Black Ink’s early chapters, Corpas creates context with more than facts; he paints pictures of late-nineteenth century Panama, from the deadly working conditions involved in building its famous canal to its swarms of disease-ridden mosquitoes to the Manzanilla trees with their tiny fruits that, if touched, could send a heavyweight into convulsions. Corpas’ eye for detail and description is most skillfully apparent in his portrait of all things boxing. On the gym where Brown trained as a boy, Corpas writes, “Pounding the bags with a dingy pair of Maynard boxing gloves, he found solace in a gym filled with red flags. Coin-sized brown spots, once red, dotted the ring floor. The knockout seat where dazed boxers went to gather their senses was always occupied.” Colon’s gyms were the opposite of today’s white-collar, state-of-the-art franchises. Kids learned to fight hard, or they didn’t, quickly.  Al Brown did.

Like all great boxing stories, Al Brown’s story is about more than boxing. Yes, there’s the struggle, the perseverance, the hard work that’s at the core of every successful fighter’s life, traits that sweeten the sweet science and make its practitioners worthy of respect. But Al Brown’s story is closely connected to the underbelly of American hate, its racist hate and its homophobic hate. 

Stowing away on a ship, peeling potatoes to insure he wasn’t thrown overboard, Al Brown came to Manhattan in search of his ring idol “Kid Norfolk,” the uncrowned Panamanian heavyweight champion who’d moved to New York to seek big boxing money. Brown’s arrival became a stint of rough days and homeless nights, but he finally found Norfolk as well as a gym he’d call home, Grupp’s Gymnasium and Athletic Club on West 116th Street. Once settled, Al Brown seemed poised for a meteoric rise in the bantamweight rankings. Physically, Brown was so dauntingly tall for a 118-pounder (114 in his first fight), manager Leo Flynn told him to take it easy during his first professional bout, afraid a quick knockout would make it impossible for Flynn to secure future fights. The young Panamanian listened, stayed on his leash, and fought to a draw. Then the leash was removed and knockouts ensued. 

Corpas chronicles Brown’s victories, his broken hand, his nights out drinking and nightclubbing during the healing process, his return to the ring, his victories, and his looming fight with champion Pancho Villa. But when Brown’s trainer left the country, and his influential manager got sick, Al Brown suddenly found himself back on the streets, banned from his gym, with few prospects. New York’s boxing powers, pre-disposed not to like this Latin American fighter, no longer had to hold themselves in check. Not only was Brown a threat to their preferred contender, a bantam named Frankie Genaro, but rumors were rampant that Panama Al Brown was gay. Here Corpas goes beyond pugilistic biography and puts this fighter of yesteryear in social context:

“He (Al Brown) came from a place where alcohol and prostitution were legal but consensual affections between same-sex adults was a crime…Many in the science and medical professions were against it too. Parents brought their gay children to doctors who would drill a ¼-inch hole through their skull with a trephine or insert an ice pick through their eye sockets and perform a lobotomy because, science believed, something inside their brain needed fixing.”

The boxing powers-that-be didn’t drill holes, but they did punch holes in what should have been a meteoric rise to a title shot, and they did tell Brown to “tone it down,” subtext intended.

Al Brown kept fighting. Sometimes he carried opponents. Sometimes he was not in the best of shape, more interested in nightlife than a fighter’s Spartan life. Sometimes, when an opponent insulted him or he needed to win impressively, Brown would train in earnest and hurt his opponents in the ring. He traveled the world, fighting abroad, and was especially fond of Spain and France. In France, Brown thrived. And he was admired by sports fans and fashion fans and fans of the bonne vie. While Brown delivered PR lines about a girl waiting for him back home, he was allowed to be more himself in France, a nation free of America’s puritanical shackles. 

After 73 fights and some confusion about official title bouts, Brown fought for the NBA title against crowd favorite Kid Francis, a fighter described as a “sawed off Hercules.” Brown proved more immortal, won by decision. Unfortunately, perceptions of Al Brown’s outside-the-ring character influenced his fate. He was stripped of the title the next day, remained an unrecognized champion by various boxing bodies, and the homophobic press continued to denigrate him.

Corpas highlights how this disrespect, this ugliness, worked as motivation for Al Brown in the ring:

“It wasn’t just the money that drove Brown. The feeling that consumed him when the bell rang had no price tag. When the bell rang he was chief, king, the boss and everyone watching knew it. For someone who was often told he should be ashamed of who he was, that feeling of superiority was addictive. The respect and awe his ring dominance earned him spilled out into the cabarets and streets where Brown was often the richest, most famous, and toughest man in the room. As a result, he was the best dancer, best singer, and best looking man in the room too. When he couldn’t box, he was a poor, skinny, gay drunk. Walking away from boxing meant walking away from being special.”

Before he walked away, the blockades in front of Al Brown’s career were depressingly timeless—contract disputes, managerial disputes, infighting between different commissions, all compounded by press coverage that was racist and homophobic. Panama Brown’s skills, the beauty of his boxing, is blurred and practically painted over by everything that was and still is the ugly fight business. And Brown’s own recklessness, with money, with his training, with showing up to fights half-drunk, with opium use, didn’t help his cause.

This timelessness, seen through the lens of this particular boxing story that reached its apex in the 1920s and ‘30s and ended in 1942, a span of twenty fight years in which Al Brown compiled a career record of 129-19-13 (59 KOs and never KO’d), highlights a spectacular fighter in less-than-spectacular times. Corpas is very clear about his underlying thesis: Al Brown was a great fighter whose reputation was tarnished, whose life story remained untold for too long, whose legacy may always fall short of what it should be, because Al Brown was black and Al Brown was gay. 

Have times changed? When there’s still controversy about who can piss where, when a fighter’s coming-out still makes headlines, not just in boxing news but in national news, it’s clear how far the puritan reach remains in our supposedly progressive US of A.  And in a year when racism is so prevalent, from police shootings to a politician’s hateful talk, we have to wonder if our country (like the rest of the world) is regressing. Al Brown was slurred and disrespected because of his race and because of his sexuality. Just as lineal champions are determined by the man beating the man who beat the original man, much of boxing’s current homophobia can be traced back to Al Brown, a man who had the guts to come out of the closet, at least a little, in a time when coming out had harsh, career-damaging consequences.

In a late chapter of his life, retired from boxing, smoking opium, Al Brown met and started a relationship with French writer Jean Cocteau, author of Les Enfants Terrible, who’d also used opium as a young man. Cocteau, not a fighter, not even a fan of boxing, recognized a young version of himself in Brown. Cocteau had beaten opium and knew what Brown needed to do to beat the drug and regain his self-worth—win back the title that Brown felt had been criminally taken from him. 

Brown redeemed himself, reclaimed his belt, but, sadly, Panama Al Brown’s story ended where too many fighters’ stories conclude—broke and broken from too many fights. Perhaps his tragic ending was inevitable, even literary. This fighter temporarily redeemed by a writer lived a tragic hero’s life, fighting with many boulders on his back, the world and fate conspiring against him. Racism, homophobia, an impoverished upbringing, alcohol and opium use, late-stage syphilis, a too-large entourage, a criminal manager named Dave Lumiansky who makes Don King seem almost angelic—too much. Life weighed down Al Brown. But still, the boxer from Panama kept climbing that proverbial mountain, fighting an elite list of who’s-who bantam and featherweights, beating most. We can forgive Al Brown his excesses. When mere mortals are forced to carry Sisyphean rocks, temporary escape seems vital. As Corpas writes about Brown’s opium use, “and that drug—did for him what his vaunted straight right used to do—it bailed him out.” 

In the acknowledgments page of Black Ink, Jose Corpas thanks two friends and mentors, Springs Toledo and Zach Levin. Toledo, an award-winning boxing writer whose prose has the fine muscularity of the best fighters, writes a resonant forward to this book, practically singing the urgent need for a biography of Al Brown with the refrain Set it off, a line from an ‘80s jam that beautifully sets off this book. Zach Levin, a boxing writer who knows the fights as well as anyone I know, is credited with helping Corpas edit this book. With cornermen like these, Black Ink is destined to do more than go the distance.

Black Ink brings a time, many places, and a legitimately great fighter into sharp, detailed focus. Finally, Panama Al Brown gets his due, a due he didn’t get in life. Between the poetry of Jean Cocteau and Jose Corpas’ thorough biographical portrayal, Panama Al Brown lives.

Adam Berlin is the author of four novels, most recently the boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). He teaches writing an John Jay College/CUNY.  For more, please visit

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Panama Al Brown beats Huat This Day in Boxing History October 27, 1931

Champions de France : Panama Al Brown

Pete Sanstol & Panama Al Brown Sparring: 1935

Panama Al Brown - Paris (1930)

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  1. william jennings 01:42pm, 04/10/2017

    Just got through reading this book and must say it is a fantastic story that was well executed.
    And that espn link to an essay about Panama Al Brown that someone posted below has some incorrect information. Specifically the part about being adored by French fans and also about turning pro under Lumiansky.

  2. Harry B 02:23pm, 09/18/2016

    This is a well written book - a cut above most other boxing bios.

  3. The Thresher 11:30am, 09/15/2016

    Another troll/stalker.

  4. LloydG 10:23am, 09/15/2016

    It’s not going ballistic - it’s just one person who’s in a bunch, one or two who can’t resist engaging him, and thresher enjoying it and acting as instigator

    btw - finished the book - i give it a highly recommend rating

  5. Eric 10:21am, 09/15/2016

    Mr. Young, I wouldn’t call them “liberals.” These leftist freaks are in no way shape or form, “liberals.” This group of intolerant fools hijacked that word long ago to appear like the “good guys.”  Dese nutz are the most intolerant, hate-filled group of miscreants on the planet. I quit calling these jackasses “liberal” a long time ago. Matter of fact, I view myself as a classical liberal more than anything else, and I distance myself from these “liberals” as far as possible.

  6. The Thresher 10:16am, 09/15/2016

    Sooner or later, you just knew this thread would go ballistic.

  7. Sam Young 09:49am, 09/15/2016

    Listen, Slavery still exist in Muslim Countries right now. I’ve never supported slavery, so stop lying about me, but if you’re a Leftist Liberal that’s second nature to you. Your problem isn’t with me anyway, it’s with the True Biblical God. By the way, you don’t become right with God by being Religious but by Repenting (having a genuine Change of Heart and Mind towards God and the Bible) and Receiving Jesus Christ as Saviour.

  8. Jethro's Flute 09:37am, 09/15/2016

    Sam Young approves of slavery because the bible does.

  9. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:40am, 09/15/2016

    In that phony ass Bio the only authenticity would be if they have Johnny Depp doing a cameo as Larry Sinclair in the back seat of that limo tootin’ Barack’s ( Lil Wayne’s) horn. For added realism Larry Sinclair ( Depp) would be portrayed doing coke and Barack ( Lil Wayne) could be shown doing crack, although unlike Barack Hussein Obama I doubt very much that Lil Wayne does crack in “real life.”

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 07:52am, 09/15/2016

    When Hollywood makes that phony ass life story of Barack Hussein Obama I say Lil Wayne should play the title role. More to the point and when I really give it some thought I firmly believe that Lil Wayne would be a better President than Obama in real life, so why not let him bring that character to life on the Silver Screen.

  11. Ant 04:24pm, 09/14/2016

    This book starts with a bang and ends with an explosion.  It’s among the 2 or 3 best boxing biographies I’ve read and possibly the best. I’d put it up there with Unforgivable Blackness. Homophobes need not fear reading this book - its not some liberal homo-guilt or even white-guilt modern propaganda piece designed to make a martyr out of Panama Al. Heck no- not when he describes him as a toothless punchy addict. It’s a greatly done story.

  12. Eric 08:34am, 09/14/2016

    Didn’t Mark Breland play in a movie back in the day? Something about a military academy or sumtin like dat. A young Breland would be a perfect fit if he wasn’t so damn tall. As skinny as Breland was, no one would believe a 6’2” guy could be a bantamweight. If any fighter needed to hit the weights, it was Breland. Awesome puncher, but absolutely no strength at all. Marlon Starling pushed him all around the ring.

  13. Eric 05:53am, 09/14/2016

    Sam Young… Don’t think that any major religion in the world approves of homosexuality. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, all condemn homosexuality. I believe it is up for grabs (hehe) in Hinduism. Those converts of the religion of Political Correctness won’t be happy until they destroy Western Civilization. They don’t have the guts to push their agenda in the Middle East. Oh, they’ll attack Christianity ONLY, and protest Christian bakeries, but you can bet on it, they won’t dare protest outside a synagogue or a mosque. “Comedians” like Sarah Silverman or Larry Davis can smear Jesus Christ in the most vile, despicable ways, but they wouldn’t dare make a joke about Martin Luther King or Baby Nut-n-Yahoo. Honestly, whether you are heterosexual or homosexual, what kind of person wants an adult male permitted to enter a ladies bathroom. Most straight people could care less about homosexual relationships as long as it isn’t driven down our throats. The LGBT community is being USED as pawns just like the African American community in the so-called, “civil rights movement.” Divide and Conquer is the agenda for these people, not unity, and they will use male vs female, black vs white, poor vs. rich, homosexual vs heterosexual, you name it, these freaks will do it.

  14. The Thresher 05:25am, 09/14/2016

    Brown was an intellectual of sorts. Could seven languages and was comfortable in Paris. Also freaky deaky dimensions. Curious character to say the least. The actor would have to be tall and rail thin and have a somewhat anguished demeanor. Don Cheadle?

  15. Eric 05:21pm, 09/13/2016

    Too bad that Jimmie Walker got too old and fat to play the role, he would have been perfect. Good ole JJ already had a role as a boxer in, “Let’s Do It Again.” hehe.

  16. Glen 04:52pm, 09/13/2016

    Irish Frankie - yes it’s the same Jose Corpas.  Some of his earlier articles mentioned this book was coming out soon.

    Lil Wayne?  Nah, get a boxer to play him. Bit johnny depp works.

  17. LloydG 04:24pm, 09/13/2016

    Irish Frankie - great suggestions for the leads. I’m reading it now - I’m about half way through - it’d be a great film.  And any boxing historian who passes on this book is losing out on excellent descriptions of Kid Norfolk, Jack Johnson, Luis Firpo, Jack Dempsey, Battling Siki, Pancho Villa, Kid Francis, Santiago Zorilla, so many others including my new favorite. Abe the newsboy Hollandersky.  ,

  18. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 02:27pm, 09/13/2016

    I hope Jose can sell the movie rights and that he does the screen play as well. If I’m not mistaken I believe that he has contributed to in the past and Springs Toledo has posted comments as well. I can see Lil Wayne in the title role with Johnny Depp as Cocteau.

  19. Sam Young 01:02pm, 09/13/2016

    I guess you writers on are “Biblephobic” an extreme hatred for the Holy Bible and the God of the Bible. If Al Brown was a Sodomite (homosexual) that’s his business. It’s Perverted and Unnatural, and God calls it an Abomination. I’m a Bible Believing Christian man now, and have been for 36 years. I was an awful sinner myself, and sometimes I struggle with anger and lust for women, but pray to God for help. Listen one day you’re going to die, and stand before God Almighty on Judgment Day, you’re not going to be judged by any Satanic Politicallly Correct Nonsense. You’re going to be judged by God’s Word and why you didn’t Genuinely Repent and Receive Jesus Christ as your Personal Saviour.

  20. Eric 08:12am, 09/13/2016

    Oops. Forgot to add Roy Jones Jr. to that list of Rope Masters. And I’m talking about Floyd Mayweather Jr., even though I can imagine Patterson might not have been that bad either.

  21. Eric 07:59am, 09/13/2016

    Pretty good rope skills by Panama, but he’s no Duran. Duran was a master at skipping rope. Ray Robinson, Duran, Floyd, and even Tyson were entertaining.

  22. Eric 07:24am, 09/13/2016

    Have seen some clips of people hitting heavy bags made from car tires. Need to put out a line of these things out and sell them to some gym that caters to the white collar crowd. haha. Those fashionista fools will buy anything, hook, line and sinker, if you convince them this is the latest tool for boxers. Just like kettlebells. These overpriced cannonballs were dumped in favor of dumbbells years ago, for a good reason. You can do the same exercises with dumbbells and not destroy your elbows, wrists, etc in the process. But convince a few gullible people, that something is vastly superior, and they will pay big bucks for it.

  23. nicolas 08:07pm, 09/12/2016

    Well they made a movie about Roberto Duran, which I heard was not all that great. Maybe they can make a movie about this fighter. It might be a very good movie indeed.

  24. Anthony P 03:45pm, 09/12/2016

    You think the writer is great (another word used to frequently) and you call him Joe so you must know him personally.  Yet you bash a fine review about his book?  Who needs enemies with friends like Jealous Ted?

  25. The Thresher 02:07pm, 09/12/2016

    This essay by William Detloff is a neat one that describes Brown’s symbiosis with Europe and especially France—Paris.

  26. The Thresher 02:00pm, 09/12/2016

    shrill jealous comment about being jealous—typo

  27. The Thresher 01:58pm, 09/12/2016

    Thanks for clearing it up. I must have missed something. Maybe the part about “late-stage syphilis”. 

    As for that shrill jealous comment about being jealous, that says more about you than it does me. The thing is, I think Joe is a great writer. I just don’t much care for boxing books. I prefer essays.

    My criticism here was not about the book; it was the way Berlin reviewed it

  28. Anthony P 01:46pm, 09/12/2016

    Easy there jealous Ted - did you even read the book? I have and the writer doesn’t not paint him as a hero. Far from it actually. But I submit to you that many in today’s society may look at Al Brown as a “tragic hero” which was the whole quote.

  29. The Thresher 01:24pm, 09/12/2016

    “.......hero’s life” !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  “heroism” is a word used too frequently and too inappropriately. There are few heroes. I submit Al was not one. Ali because of his stand against the Government.  Not Al in my view

  30. The Thresher 01:19pm, 09/12/2016

    “This fighter temporarily redeemed by a writer lived a tragic hero’s life, fighting with many boulders on his back, the world and fate conspiring against him. Racism, homophobia, an impoverished upbringing, alcohol and opium use, late-stage syphilis, a too-large entourage, a criminal manager named Dave Lumiansky who makes Don King seem almost angelic—too much. Life weighed down Al Brown.” 

    Gee poor guy got some bad breaks, eh? Yep. must have been a conspiracy….....

  31. Nicholas W 08:11am, 09/12/2016

    I actually just finished reading this book and thought it was excellent. What I found refreshing is that, unlike many boxing biographies, the writer does not embellish or claim the subject to be the best thing since slice bread. This book is a fly on the wall portrayal of a fighter who dealt with everything this review mentions.  It’s worth a read fellas.

  32. Eric 07:52am, 09/12/2016

    America and the West are indeed regressing. Racism is indeed rampant. Black on White violence is totally out of control, European women are being raped daily by an influx of “migrants.”  Is America homophobic? Hmmmm, maybe, but not even in the same league as the Middle East. WHY do all these people wish to come to such an intolerant, hate filled, craphole like America? IF America is so damn racist, homophobic, xenophobic, blah, blah, blah, I wish to God Almighty, these people would choose another country to live in. hehe. Can homosexuals be prejudice against heterosexuals? You bet they can. We have all read or heard of the Matthew Sheppard case ( believe the spelling is correct), but what about the case of Jesse Dirkhising?  MAGA!!