Siki's strange and victorious encounter in Paris

By Mike Dunn - The victory of the “savage” of Senegal, Battling Siki, over beloved Frenchman Georges Carpentier in September of 1922 was bizarre, controversial and significant all at the same time.

It was significant because the woolly-haired, dark-skinned Siki earned the light-heavyweight championship of the world with his convincing six-round KO before a packed crowd of 50,000 throaty onlookers at the recently constructed Velodrome Buffalo south of Paris. It was significant because Siki, whose birth name was Baye Phal, became the first native African to claim a boxing crown. And it was significant because it marked a downturn in the ring fortunes of the wildly popular Carpentier..

It was bizarre because the fight started with Siki almost refusing to fight while displaying a palpable fear of being thrashed by Carpentier. In the first round and through much of the second, Siki literally winced in anticipation of Carpentier’s blows every time the Orchid Man advanced toward him. At one point, Siki went down to one knee without being hit.

It was bizarre because Siki turned things around completely with one measured right hand to the chin of the unsuspecting Frenchman late in the second round. And it was bizarre because immediately after the fight was stopped in the sixth round with Carpentier laying tangled in the ropes a bloodied mess, referee M. Bernstein proclaimed Carpentier the winner. Bernstein told the unbelieving crowd that Siki was disqualified for tripping Carpentier.

It was controversial because of the referee’s obviously partisan and unjust decision. The French Boxing Federation held an emergency meeting at ringside after the verdict was rendered and reversed the referee’s decision within five minutes. The 50,000 who had crammed into the stadium had come to see their native son Carpentier perform his craft and hopefully win, but the crowd was also rightly incensed when Siki was not awarded the title and they jeered the referee loudly.

That was not all the controversy surrounding this bout, however. A few months after knocking out Carpentier and winning the crown, Siki publicly accused Carpentier and Carpentier’s manager Francois Descamps with “framing” the fight. Siki told reporters that he was supposed to go down in the third round but refused to do so. Siki, portraying himself in a courageous light, dramatically said that he could not betray the 50,000 witnesses at the Velodrome by faking a kockout.

Siki offered a sensational story but no proof. Most people didn’t believe him then and the same holds true for boxing historians today.

The saga of Siki is a mixture of sadness and savagery, of great courage and equally great recklessness, of earning fame and fortune and dying violently and infamously.

He was born Baye Phal on Sept. 16, 1897 in the port city of Saint Louis, French West Senegal. As a teen, he moved to France and changed his first name from Baye to Louis. Shortly after that, he began his fighting career. From 1912 to 1914, Phal had a mediocre ring record of 8-6-2.

Phal, now known as Battling Siki, enlisted in the French army during World War I and, like many of his Senegalese countrymen, exhibited uncommon valor and fearlessness. For his efforts, Siki was awarded the Croix De Guerre, France’s highest military honor, and the Medaille Militaire.

After the war, Siki returned to France and traded the violence of war for the controlled violence of the ring. In time, Siki built a reputation as a crude but effective slugger with an aggressive windmill style. He lost only once in 45 fights before being matched with Carpentier for the title on Sept. 24, 1922.

Neither Carpentier nor Deschamps took Siki seriously. Siki, although he had a record of 53-7-4, was simply the vehicle that was used to allow Carpentier to appear before his adoring fans in Paris for the first time in three years. Carpentier, who had challenged Dempsey for the heavyweight title two years before and had knocked out many of the top heavyweights of the day, was superior in every way to the crude two-fisted battler from Africa. Or so it seemed.

The 50,000 who poured into the Velodrome that fateful Sunday afternoon expected to see Carpentier make short work of the Senegalese challenger, just as he had made short work of England’s Joe Beckett and Ted “Kid” Lewis and Australian heavyweight George Cook in recent bouts.

From his actions early in the fight, it might be that Siki himself expected the same thing. He didn’t display any of the recklessness, aggressiveness and fearless infighting that was expected of him. Indeed, Siki seemed to be anticipating his own doom at the heavy fists of the mighty Carpentier.

For his part, Carpentier seemed almost embarrassed by Siki’s running tactics.

In his report of the encounter in his excellent book “Boxing’s Unforgettable Fights,” Lester Bromberg wrote that Siki crouched and cringed from the opening bell.

“For the better part of two rounds it was a travesty – Georges seemed too proud to lead, Siki too terrified to do so. When Carpentier finally dropped his hands in the second round in a gesture of disgust, Siki leaped in, hitting Carpentier on the jaw with a swinging right. The Frenchman’s knees went and the African rained punches on him.”

Carpentier had momentarily forgotten the cardinal rule of the prize ring: Protect yourself at all times. It cost him dearly.

Siki continued his two-fisted assault in the third round. Carpentier did finally find the range with a ringing right cross, and Siki felt all its fury. The challenger went down hard. But a strange thing happened. Siki realized that he could be nailed by Carpentier and survive. Secure in that knowledge, he leaped to his feet and began to stalk the champion anew.

Before long, Siki landed another right like the one that had found the mark in the second round – only this one was even harder. Carpentier went down to one knee. He got up but he was visibly shaken. By the end of the third round, Siki was dominating the action.

In the fourth and fifth rounds, the gallant champion took a fearful pounding from the African challenger and didn’t seem able to find a way to effectively counter the attack. Carpentier, who was like Siki a French war hero, was a sad sight as the fifth round ended. His right eye was cut and he was bleeding from the mouth. He was a thoroughly beaten man. Carpentier’s manager Deschamps, who had so little regard for Siki before the right, was actually seen weeping at ringside.

In the sixth round, Siki kept up the merciless assault. A right to the head caused Carpentier to spin and then go down near the ropes. As he spun, Carpentier’s legs accidentally got tangled with Siki’s and the champion tripped, making the fall to the canvas a heavy one. The champion appeared completely out.

The ref, apparently at Deschamps’ request, didn’t count over Carpentier but stopped the fight and declared that Siki was disqualified.

The pandemonium that followed was finally quelled with the announcement that the decision had been reversed. Siki was subsequently carried around the ring on the shoulders of his handlers. He was officially the first world champion to hail from Africa.

Siki’s stunning and rapid descent into a banal and self-destructive lifestyle has been well-documented. Bromberg, in his final paragraph of his chapter on Siki vs. Carpentier, said it this way: “Early in the morning of Dec. 15, 1925, a patrolman spotted a body in the street (of Manhattan’s West Side). He rolled it over. He recognized Siki, apparently dead from two bullet wounds in his back. Twenty-eight years old, he was the victim of a never-solved murder – and his own pitiful lack of self-control.”

Mike Dunn is a boxing historian and writer living in Lake City, Michigan.

Article posted on 11.01.2011

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