Georges Carpentier: A Curious Vintage

By Ted Spoon on April 29, 2013
Georges Carpentier: A Curious Vintage
In 1914 the avoided figure of Joe Jeannette stood in the corner opposite Carpentier.

An unglamorous apprenticeship began in dingy saloons, teaching this gaunt choirboy how to intimidate the uneducated and the quick-tempered…

This writer doesn’t know much about wine, but a decent one promises an intricate mix of flavors while the aftertaste sends winos into contemplative bliss. 

Evaluating fighters requires a similar process; swirling legacies around our palate to see if we can pick up on those favorable notes contemporaries spoke of. Sometimes the aftertaste spoils what was otherwise a tremendous career, but it’s more a feeling than an objective review, and so we continue to sample. 

One of these debated classics grew from the vineyards of Lens, but Georges Carpentier did not have the build of a man who could speak at length about merlot; how to knock a man senseless was a different matter, and his sculpt-worthy physique helped the notion come easily.

At seventy years of age Georges was still in admirable trim (verily, he was the antithesis of letting yourself go) but to see his Olympian body suffer bruising didn’t quite sit right, like witnessing yobs vandalize a cathedral. 

It was in many ways the ideal build, impressive but not stacked; this cultured muscle promised speed as well as strength. A pair of skinny pins is what usually stops a boxer from boasting good symmetry but Carpentier had the whole Manny Pacquiao thing going on with bulging calves.

As a teenage flyweight there was more bone than muscle.

An unglamorous apprenticeship began in dingy saloons, teaching this gaunt choirboy how to intimidate the uneducated and the quick-tempered. Soon enough he was tip-toeing across the ring, moving around as if he’d picked a fight he shouldn’t have; it was a sign of his nature, a slightly devious one, but as he made his journey towards manhood a right cross evolved from a stinger to an explosive.

By 1913 a distinguished career was already visible in the rear-view mirror. Titles had been skewered at multiple weights, plus Georges knew what it meant to lose, consecutively. The oppressive likes of Frank Klaus and Billy Papke put a couple of dents in the fender, but this was a young man at the receiving end. Painful lessons, but lessons nonetheless.

Still in bloom, the serenely titled “Orchid Man” was about to prove hazardous.

The European heavyweight title came into his possession and he defended it with smashing victories over “Bombardier” Billy Wells. Most Brits will think of 5.2% ale if you drop Billy’s alias, but he wasn’t hopeless; to dust him in a single round was good going. Continue to shrug as the cynical may have, you couldn’t sniff at a points win over fierce American Jeff Smith. 

It’s an underappreciated fact that this camera-target wasn’t merely stepping on eggshells, belting out journeyman to fatten that retirement fund. In 1914 the avoided figure of Jeannette stood in the opposite corner. Officially it spelt another loss, though for fifteen this potent member of Black Dynamite was given real trouble.

This reputation as a heavyweight threat wasn’t made out of candy-floss. More newspapers were taking heed and there was even some column space for the prospect of challenging Jack Johnson.  Refereeing Jack’s bout with Frank Moran was as close as Georges would ever get to the defensive giant, but he never forgot how Johnson seemed to “a ghoulish pleasure” in taming his foe. 

The following month WWI erupted and Carpentier eyed the conflict as he would a dangerous opponent. Five years passed without an official bout; this stint was a far-cry from the shameful discharge of Rocky Graziano, socking a captain. Naturally, the charismatic Frenchman would have preferred to be chin-wagging in his beloved Paris, but so proud of his occupation was Georges that he intended to carry on until em>“we have seen to it that the gates of hell have been shut so tight that they will never be flung open again.” 

Sadly he was wrong on the last sentiment, but his dedication won him the Croix de Guerre, a medal for acts of heroism. He also earned the Médaille Militaire after flying his biplane no higher than 200 yards over German lines. It was a manoeuvre which redecorated his small aircraft with fifteen bullets.

“To fly as low as I did was risky, perilous, but the knowledge that it had to be done if I were to be of service to our artillery seemed to fill me with a sense of security.”

Come 1919 this daredevil shtick was reactivated, back inside the ring. Beating Dick Smith saved European honors but there was a new world champion. Two weeks earlier Jack Dempsey had all but killed Jess Willard. Still only a year older than Jack, journalists recognized the promise of this one coming off. In short time whispers boiled over into fiery squabble.

Georges had a little bit of the Jim Corbett in him, well-mannered, tactful and a snappy dresser. England was glad to welcome him back. It was a different affair for Joe Beckett, knocked cold in seventy seconds. Shortly after the victor returned to Paris while a reporter for the New York Sun was lucky enough to nab an exclusive during lunch.

When asked what Beckett was like as a person Carpentier reaped his very own ghoulish pleasure in replying, “I don’t know, I never met the man.”

It had been a long time coming but Georges gutted his wardrobe for America.

Battling Levinsky stood in the way of the light-heavyweight title. He was a distinguished operator, a little too distinguished by 1920. The cracks in the paintwork had become visible to the casual fan; meanwhile Carpentier was in sizzling form. He had the leathery boxer in trouble early. That right hand was doing terrible things to his equilibrium.

Seven seconds into the fourth it flattened him for only the second time in an amazingly hectic schedule. The other man to have turned the trick was Georges’ next opponent.

The Jack Dempsey vs. Georges Carpentier fight was unlike anything in sports. An 80,000 mash-up of the famous, the enthusiastic and the snooping produced a giant bowl formation over an isolated section of New Jersey known as Boyle’s Thirty Acres; as one marvelled at this sea of people the ring appeared the center of the universe.

Clearly it hadn’t affected the bout as a financial success, but there were many who didn’t give Carpentier a prayer. It’s no secret that Tex Richard had told Jack to go easy on the Frenchman so as not to make a mockery of this “Fight of the Century,” and it may be observed how the champion steps off the gas after his first interrogation. 

More like theater than a clash of titans, but it certainly wasn’t scripted when Georges clocked Dempsey in the second. Consequently the ballsy challenger broke his thumb, but for a nail-biting moment his right caused the champion to lose his feet for a trice. 

Dempsey later aged into a complimentary pussycat: “Had he hit me on the chin instead of the cheek…” this gentlemanly persona could lead you to believe that every heavyweight had the beating of him. In all honesty, the Mauler was just too rugged, too strong, and in quick time he bludgeoned Georges out of the first million dollar spectacular.

“I hope the next fight, with Mr. Dempsey, will be his last, win or lose …” exclaimed Madame Carpentier “... so that he may come back to me.”

Many thousands of women agreed, lest Georges spoil his dashing portrait, but nothing is more unnatural for a fighter than to retire, especially a young one. With so much potential for extra dough Carpentier kept punching, though it was this very decision which scars his ledger.

It wasn’t a matter of picking up losses, but undeserved opportunities.

After losing, and convincingly at that, Carpentier went on to enjoy a type of spectator-hoarding reverence that Dempsey did; difference being Georges was not the heavyweight champion and anybody with half a clue knew there were better fighters out there.

It wasn’t a question of excitement (the 1920s was rife with belligerents) but simply because Carpentier had endeared himself to the public he was gifted pay-packets that most would do well to accumulate in a decade. Even in these liberal days you could be too good for your own good, as was Harry Greb after abusing Gene Tunney. Upon learning of this bloodbath Carpentier suddenly lost his appetite for a tussle with the Human Windmill.

The alternative produced Senegal’s Battling Siki.

A fellow war hero, Siki had earned the same awards; the color bar was a while from dissolving but Georges may have held a soft spot for his latest opponent. Of course, empathy is not a desirable trait before touching gloves. Siki’s mahogany muscles looked terribly capable. 

Things got desperate and early, first Siki and then Carpentier hitting the deck. Siki was never much of a stylist, but Georges quickly resorted to throwing his right hand very wide like a drunken lumberjack. 

There were some ugly scenes, indicative of the racial climate. Several times did Siki feel the need to apologize for the slightest thing; all the while Carpentier was practically butting him as he charged forth. With Georges down again in the fifth and sixth the French officials conspired to disqualify Siki.

Justice had the last say, and it pictured the idol of France being dragged to his corner.

Perhaps Georges hadn’t recovered from the “beating Dempsey gave him,” so reasoned his loyal minions, but that didn’t stop him getting into a scuffle with Tommy Gibbons. What followed was one-sided. He also picked up an ankle injury for his trouble.

Losing badly to a Dempsey victim, it’d be difficult to justify facing Gene Tunney, but that’s what happened. 

Defeat followed, familiar bitter defeat, and in two years it was adios to the ring, but Georges’ late-round protesting moved the crowd in a way only boxing can. His most ardent detractors would do well to note that many a canvas soaked up his blood—not that it would cleanse this funny aftertaste.

France’s greatest fighter isn’t a source of confusion, and he was born during Carpentier’s days in the sky. Georges was only too happy to inject his knowhow into the bone-rattling fists of Marcel Cerdan. In 1948 they did their bidding, thoroughly relieving Tony Zale of the middleweight strap, but the following year Paris went into deep mourning after Cerdan tragically checked out.

Carpentier was one of many thousand who blasted out La Marseillaise in honor of the fallen. Killed in a plane crash, it may have dawned just how merciful life had been.

By 1966 Georges reverted to his scrawny childhood except silver pervaded that slicked hair while lines had become crevices. Dempsey and Tunney weren’t looking so hot either, but nothing could mar the spirits of this memorable cast. Muhammad Ali may have been rumbling the media with his funky rap, but these old pugs were beacons of nostalgia.

A meeting was arranged between Dempsey, then managing his restaurant, and Carpentier. There were to be pleasantries and ideally (for newspapers’ sake) some playful banter.

Georges had a restaurant as well, and he had no qualms about getting off first.

“The food in my place is much better.

At least history is with the Frenchman on that one.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Georges Carpentier, Newsreel

Georges Carpentier vs. Dick Smith

Jack Dempsey vs Georges Carpentier

Georges Carpentier vs George Cook

Ted 'Kid' Lewis vs. Georges Carpentier

Georges Carpentier vs Battling Siki

Georges Carpentier vs Battling Siki - Full fight

Georges Carpentier vs Joe Beckett 1923

Georges Carpentier vs. Gene Tunney

Georges Carpentier

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  1. Eric 08:58am, 05/04/2013

    Remember seeing a photo of Dempsey, Tunney, and Carpentier, taken with then heavyweight champ Joe Frazier. I couldn’t believe how frail Carpentier looked standing next to Dempsey and Tunney, who both were several pounds above their prime fighting weights of decades ago. Carpentier had a very aesthetically pleasing physique in his prime and as you noted he didn’t have the more common “top heavy” build of a boxer i.e., Ken Norton, but carried a great deal of his weight in his huge legs. Absolutely huge calves for a man of 175lbs. In the picture I’m referring to, taken with Dempsey, Tunney, and Frazier, the 6-foot Carpentier, looked to weigh about a buck fitty and his suit was hanging on him.

  2. Matt McGrain 12:55pm, 05/01/2013

    Yes, good.  An even-handed effort, even if i could feel you didn’t want certain things to be true you were honest about them.  Love, love that picture.

  3. The Fight Film Collector 09:33am, 05/01/2013

    Thank you, Ted, for this tasteful tribute to one of boxing’s least appreciated all-time greats.  Carpentier is often unfairly written off here in the U.S. as Jack Dempsey’s road kill.  The key to understanding Carpentier was his age.  Born in 1894, his loss to veteran Papke happened when Georges was only 18 years old.  Papke was 26.  From that point until the Dempsey fight in 1921, Carpentier’s only loss was to Jeannette, and even that was close apparently.  Otherwise Carpentier’s prime years spanned an alternative universe while Jack Johnson and then Jess Willard held the heavyweight title.  During that time Georges fought, and mostly beat the best of his era in multiple divisions.  In addition to the great footage above, here are several brief clips I posted of Carpentier vs Wells, Grundhoven and Billy Papke.

  4. FrankinDallas 04:19pm, 04/30/2013

    FFS watch the video…Siki blatantly fouls Carpentier by throwing over his knee. If anything it was Siki that should have been DQ’d and the decision upheld.

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