Fall of Battling Siki

By George Thomas Clark on January 8, 2014
Fall of Battling Siki
"I want Dempsey and Tunney and Greb and Gibbons. I want fights against whites."

I started fighting professionally at age fourteen and promoters who liked my style called me Battling Siki, which is better for a boxer than Louis Fall…

I’ve never been in a jungle so am hurt reporters keep calling me a wild man from Senegal. I’m from a fine seaport on the Atlantic, Saint-Louis, and lived on a finger of land for poor people where every day I ran, swam, wrestled, fought, argued, and tried to be happy but never really was and felt worse when my father, a fisherman, died at sea. Fishing and labor on the docks were about the only jobs in Saint-Louis and I wanted more and my mother wanted fewer children and said God bless you to a French lady who considered me a cute and exotic boy of eleven and offered to take me to her country.

Newspapers speculate she wanted me for romance. That isn’t true. She couldn’t get the necessary entry papers so right away said goodbye in Marseilles and gave me money for return passage. I thanked her and ran. I sensed opportunity and wealth in this new place, and cleaned homes and restaurants and worked as a bus boy to get a little food and a place to sleep. I moved to Toulon and Nice and others cities and towns before coming back to tough Marseilles and concluding there was only one way to succeed: attack other men and beat them up. I listened when boxing trainers explained defense and tried to follow instructions but realized my defense would be left hooks and right hooks. I started fighting professionally at age fourteen and promoters who liked my style called me Battling Siki, which is better for a boxer than Louis Fall. I won a few more fights than I lost before the Great War started. 

I was only seventeen when the Germans began to pound and rip us with artillery and machine gun fire and killed or wounded two-thirds of my comrades. Sometimes the shooting stopped and that was worse and I wept as we forever waited in stinking, rat-filled trenches for fighting to resume. I never panicked killing Germans and saving French and recovering rapidly from wounds all over my body, and won the Croix de Guerra and the Médaille Militaire. Sometimes, when we were safe, I got to spar with the best American soldiers and decided I could take them. After the war French unions organized strikes to prevent blacks, many of them Senegalese who’d just fought for colonial France, from being hired for good jobs, but, really, I would’ve been a boxer anyway. I loved to fight.

After the war I was much larger and stronger, a full middleweight, even a light heavyweight, and either knocked out or chased frightened opponents trying to survive. From 1920 to 1922 I win all forty-five fights except one the promoter forces me to fix. I even win a fix or two though need no such help. Just talk to reporters. I’m a wild beast from the jungle who has a skull so thick punches can’t hurt and gorilla arms so strong no white man can withstand my blows. Reporters also enjoy writing about my drinking. Fine, come and have one on me. I love absinthe. It’s strong as I am and gets me like I want to be. 

In Holland, where I move and have many fights, I meet Lijntje, pale, blond, and pretty, and she loves my black skin and calls me exotic and handsome and wants to marry but her parents oppose a man born in a stone hut. Lijntje still insists she wants me and is pregnant when we move to Paris in spring 1921, and we’re thrilled when Louis Jr. is born. Here, look at this beautiful family portrait of Lijntje, seated, in an elegant dress and hat and holding little Louis as beside them I stand wearing a handsome suit, tie, and handkerchief. I want many babies and wish I could stay home more. I could if light heavyweight champion and French war hero and matinee idol Georges Carpentier would fight me. 

His handlers say I’m not worthy. That’s strange since for two years I’ve been racing around France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, fighting everyone who’ll get in a ring. Who else is Carpentier going to fight? So what he behaved bravely while getting knocked out by Jack Dempsey the year before? No honest observer can deny that Battling Siki, a very black brawler from Senegal, has earned the opportunity. But many French officials, and Carpentier’s manager Francois Descamps, think I’m their colonial servant. They’ll let me fight dashing Georges Carpentier in September 1922, but I must agree to lose. They’ll give me thirty-five thousand francs for that. And more than fifty thousand people will watch. I should be thankful. 

Okay, messieurs, I’ll do it. And I try. In the first round I show the fix is on, dropping to a knee after Carpentier taps my head. It’s exciting to hear so many people cheer, even against me. I stick to the plan but in the third round Carpentier attacks me, throwing his best punches, and knocks me down. I decide not to take a beating and hit him with a great right hook that knocks him to the canvas. We both land strong punches in the fourth, and in the fifth most of the good ones are mine and just before the bell Carpentier slips and I help him up but he sneakily fires a left hook at my head. That enrages me. Starting the sixth, I charge the champion and land a powerful right uppercut to his chin, and then more right uppercuts and body shots and Carpentier collapses, left leg oddly stiff and elevated, and he’s not getting up and thirty seconds later needs help to stagger onto his stool. The referee claims I tripped Carpentier and he’s the winner. Spectators, sick after waiting seven years for their former idol to have a major fight in Paris, disgusted by the third disqualification that day of opponents of Descamps fighters, press around the ring and insult Carpentier, his manager, and the referee until the judges award me the fight and light heavyweight championship of the world. Tell America I want Jack Dempsey, I shout. 

As Lijntje holds Louis in our hotel suite crowds gather below our window and chant come on down, champion, and then hug me and march down the streets and pull me into cafes for drinks but I say, no more of that, I’m through drinking, I’ll make France proud of me. And someday I will but in a few days I must celebrate, and buy drinks for everyone present and challenge white Americans who object to my position. They’re a rowdy group, attacking Africans in Paris streets. I’ll teach them to behave like my two Great Danes who I publicly direct with pistol shots into the sky. Police sometimes haul me in but know I’m a gentleman for I’m the man who beat the great Carpentier and the exciting fellow who by a leash parades his lion cub down grand boulevards. Usually, though, I leave the lion home and put my monkey on my shoulder as I move around the city. Do not believe rumors that I insist either creature drink alcohol.

I must maintain this style of living but am almost out of cash. The winner of the fight was guaranteed two hundred thousand francs but the winner was supposed to be Carpentier. He got what should’ve been mine. I got taken and need important fights right away and sign to meet British heavyweight champion Joe Beckett. I don’t like to train much but still spar with my stablemates and am in the corner of a friend who’s skillfully defending his French middleweight title. In the eleventh round he’s clearly hit in the groin and drops to the canvas. Foul, we cry, foul. The referee counts to ten and raises the other guy’s hand, and I charge across the ring and shove his manager. I don’t hit him. He never claims I hit or even threaten him. The boxing federation, however, declares it’s appalled by my behavior in and out of the ring, and that I’ve disgraced the profession. 

Newspapers print that I often beat up people in cafes and on street corners and shoot guns in bars and sell drugs and flirt with young girls. I never flirt with anyone under eighteen and no one presents more than hot air. People usually considered my antics funny when I was a nigger scrounging to survive. Now I’m a national disgrace. How is that? I’m a good guy who needs to support his wife and child. Why have they taken away my license to box? Would you ban a white man who behaved similarly? I don’t think so. You and others in England and elsewhere have forced me to work in Dublin, fighting Mike McTigue on St. Patrick’s Day for my light heavyweight championship.

McTigue’s a rather skinny fellow, more like a middleweight, and from the start he runs a lot. When I catch him I throw my wide hooks and some land on his head and body, others on his arms and shoulders. I’d like to hit him more but still land the best blows as he throws little and what he offers isn’t very hard. I’m definitely leading. He’s not doing anything to take my title. Even as I tire during final rounds he never hits me solidly. I’m stunned he gets the decision. All Europe is treating me as a colonial servant. I go back to France, where they’ll let me fight now that I’m a former champion, and knock out a heavyweight for little money.

I’ve got to go to America, I tell Lijntje. I want Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney and Harry Greb and Tommy Gibbons. I want fights against whites. That’s where the money is. Wait here, I’ll send some often as I can. I’ll always take care of you and Louis. 

In New York my ship docks in September 1923 and I walk down the gangway to meet reporters who I hope like my suit brightened by a yellow pocket handkerchief and the ivory handle cane I carry. I don’t understand their questions. 

Don’t you speak English, someone asks in French. Not yet, only French, German, Dutch, Spanish, and a couple of Senegalese dialects.

We hear you drink a lot, Mr. Siki. What do you say?

I do like wine more than water.

New York City’s an exciting place. Right away I find a great speakeasy in Harlem, and many more around town. The bootleg whiskey and gin are quite delicious. When the check’s ten dollars, I often leave fifty. You like my hat, here it is. Try my shoes on, they fit, they’re yours. You want my suit, let me finish taking it off, and I’ll ride home in my underwear.

I like to relax and need to stop worrying that New York boxing commissioner William Muldoon keeps threatening to tear up my license if he thinks I’m misbehaving or I don’t honor a former manager’s dishonorable contract to fight Kid Norfolk. I didn’t agree to that match. Does Jack Dempsey have to fight those he prefers not to? Evidently not. I have to or they’ll send me penniless back to Paris. 

I go to Canada for a sparring tour against Jack Johnson. I’m the first black man to fight for any title since you beat Tommy Burns in 1908, I tell him. 

He smiles and says, you’re not even big as little Tommy. 

I’ll get him in the ring, swinging powerful left and right hooks at the old man, who’s forty-four. All he does is wrestle and grab my arms. His jab’s so soft I can’t feel it. He thinks the crowds are impressed. He thinks they love him. He smiles too much for a has-been. I’m happy to get away from Jack Johnson and this tour. I may have to punch the promoters or my manager or some damn thief. I only receive about half what I’m supposed to and am thrown off the train before we get out of Montreal.

I suppose I’ll have to fight Kid Norfolk in Madison Square Garden. I start running and exercising and show reporters my huge biceps. Great, one says, but when are going to start sparring and hitting the bags, fight’s in November. 

Soon, I say. 

Eventually I get a trainer and go to work a couple of weeks before opening bell. I think that’ll be enough but for fifteen rounds Kid Norfolk batters my eyes and lips and body and survives my final counterattack, more vicious than against Carpentier, and wins a unanimous decision I can’t dispute.

I need to train more. I need to drink less. I need the motivation of big money against white fighters. Instead I get modest purses to fight tough as hell blacks. I lose a decision to Jack Taylor in December and to Battling Owens in January 1924 and to Tut Jackson in February, and reporters and spectators and start saying I’ll never be champion again, I’ll never even be good. Say that in a speakeasy and I’ll slap your face. Say that in the in streets and I’ll knock you out. Walk down the sidewalk the wrong way and I’ll push you into the streets. I don’t care if you’re a policeman or gangster or bartender. I’m Battling Siki. 

They’re trying to deport me. I don’t want to go back to France, and France says it won’t take me back. I must do something. In July I marry Lillian. They can’t deport me now. Perhaps later, but not now. Reporters seem relieved my wife is only half white. They also hear about Lijntje and Louis and write that she’s struggling in Paris. She’s not my wife, I say. I’m a gentleman.

And no gentleman should have three prizefights in eight days but in August I do, and lose two. I can’t believe there’s fat on my belly, there’s a lot of fat, and after starting most rounds fast I’m tired after a minute or two. I don’t want to think about it. I feel bad when I think about problems and lousy if I’m sober too long and make sure I drink almost every night. Bootleg whiskey and gin get me rolling. I keep going in taxis I can’t pay for anymore. You want your money, cabbie, fine, step out and fight for it. The cowards won’t fight like soldiers. They run to the police. The police don’t have to chase me. Sometimes I tell cabbies drive me straight to a nice, clean jail where I’m known and liked. 

Everything will be great in March 1925. I’ve got a big fight in Madison Square Garden against a white slugger named Paul Berlenbach. I’m going to batter him just like I did Carpentier. Battling Siki’s soon going to be back on top. Berlenbach looks clumsy. He’s a former wrestler and moves like a beast. He also left hooks like one. He left hooks like a nightmare. I’m going to get him. I know I will. I’ll get him before he kills me. I’m not quitting, I tell the referee in the tenth round.

This fight’s over, he says. 

Now I’ve got to go back to nowhere, to Newark and Queens and Buffalo. I’m only twenty-seven. I’m still strong and hurt those I can hit. In July I knock out Jimmy Francis who I was supposed to carry awhile. 

I can’t let a bum like that last more than two rounds, I say. I was champion of the world.

You’re the bum, some guy says at the bar.

I drop him with a left hook to the body. I take out his friend with a right hand. I level the bartender with my stool. I punch a guy in the head, and he falls out of his chair at a table, and I pick up his chair and throw it at the mirror behind the bar. Broken glass explodes onto broken battles. This is better than the Great War. Give me another one.

I’m not staying in this hospital, I tell doctors and nurses. Step aside. 

In my pajamas I get up and leave. Everyone’s staring at my face and neck stitched up from knife slashes. I don’t know who did it. Maybe some guys were mad about the Jimmy Francis fight or that speakeasy or the sidewalks. I’m not worried about them. I’m banned from fighting in New York. Then I’m banned in New Jersey. In November I fight in Baltimore. It doesn’t matter where I fight, I guess. I’ve lost four of five fights and seventeen my two years in America. Why’d I come here? I was a king in Paris. I wonder how Lijntje and little Louis are doing.

I’m going out with the boys tonight, I tell Lillian. 

I may go to the movies, she says, but we can’t afford it. 

We’re fine. They can’t ban me from calisthenics and hitting bags and telling customers how I once beat the great Carpentier. Go on to the movies. 

I don’t remember what I did earlier this December night. Right now I’m staggering but fine. Don’t worry, I tell the policemen who asks. I’m heading home. 

I move on. I don’t feel good. Drink like this and you won’t either. I’ll sleep it off. First I’ve got to get home. Pop. What’s that? I stumble on. I’ll be fine. Pop. Again. Do I feel something? My back stings little but I’m fine. I’m going home. I’ll get there. On my belly I’m crawling in the gutter. I’m crawling in a Hell’s Kitchen gutter. 

Sources: “Battling Siki,” a book by Peter Benson; “Battling Siki,” an essay by John Lardner; Wikipedia; BoxRec.com. 

George Thomas Clark is the author of Uppercuts, a collection of boxing stories available as an eBook at Amazon.com and other Digital Stores. His short story collection, The Bold Investor, is also available. See the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.

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Battling Siki, Newsreel

Battling Siki vs. Marcel Niles, KO2, 7-8-1923

Georges Carpentier vs Battling Siki - Full fight

Mike McTigue vs. Battling Siki, W20, 3-17-1923

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  1. nicolas 10:15am, 01/15/2014

    For those interested, there is a book ‘Battling Siki’ by Peter Benson, originally published in 2006.

  2. George Thomas Clark 09:44pm, 01/09/2014

    Leon is suffering from pugilistica dementia and, had he lived, Siki probably would’ve had the same malady…

  3. Eric 06:23pm, 01/09/2014

    Siki and his life outside the ring read like an antiquated version of Neon Leon Spinks on steroids.

  4. George Thomas Clark 01:53pm, 01/09/2014

    CG - Thanks for the information.  Anyone who makes a pilgrimage to the new grave can stay at the Siki Hotel in Saint Louis, which I’ve read is very nice and has excellent service.  But take your umbrella.  Saint Louis get about 350 inches of rain annually, which is desert-like compared to the 500 per in the capital of Dakar.  Right here in lovely Bakersfield, we get seven a year.

  5. Clarence George 06:06am, 01/09/2014

    Battling Siki lived at 361 West 42nd Street and his body (shot to death) was discovered in front of 350 West 41st Street.  I have yet to visit these sites, though there may be nothing left to see.

    Another unsolved murder from the 1920s was that of Dot King, “The Broken Butterfly,” killed in her home on West 57th Street:


    When I went to visit, I discovered to my dismay that the building was torn down, replaced by some modern monstrosity.  Gone too was a nearby Horn & Hardart:


    Siki was buried in Queens, but he was disinterred about 20 years ago, the remains shipped to Senegal for burial.  Pity.

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