Wednesday 13 April 2016

The Mystery of the Velodrome: Battling Siki Versus Georges Carpentier

George Carpentier Versus Battling Siki at the Buffalo Velodrome, Montrouge

The history of prize fighting is one that is replete with unending controversy. Were Jack Dempsey's gloves loaded with 'Plaster of Paris' during his world heavyweight title-winning bout against Jess Willard in 1919? Would Gene Tunney have beaten the count had Jack Dempsey not delayed in proceeding to a neutral corner during their world championship rematch in 1927? Did Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, feign being knocked out by Jess Willard under the broiling Havana sun in 1915? And was Charles 'Sonny' Liston ordered to take a dive in his rematch with Muhammad Ali in 1965?

The latter two examples concern the more lurid-based sort of controversy, namely that of match-fixing: the dishonest predetermination of the result of a sporting event.

Boxing is of course not the only sport to have been subjected to rumours of fixes, many of which culminated in scrutiny by administrative and law enforcement officials. The most famous fix in history is arguably that of the 'Black Sox Scandal'; the 1919 Baseball World Series during which eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of intentionally losing games to the Cincinnati Reds. Association Football has intermittently had its share of match fixing scandals as indeed has the gentleman's sport of cricket.

Sports are result based activities which garner the interest of betting syndicates, and it is the area of gambling which has often formed the subtext of match-fixing allegations. Yet, in the popular imagination boxing, with its famous associations with organised criminals, has seemingly always carried a reputation for this particular form of underhandedness.

The story of corruption and the stage-managing of fights memorably received both literary and Hollywood treatment in Budd Schulberg's iconic work The Harder They Fall, the story of Toro Molina, an Argentinian farmer and former circus performer of limited pugilistic skill who rises to the heavyweight championship by illicit means. Using the life story of the Italian heavyweight Primo Carnera as its template, Schulberg laid bare the mechanics of skulduggery and human exploitation as practised by the bosses of organised crime aided by their lackeys in the industry including promoters and pressmen.

Many of the allegations of match-fixing in boxing remain bones of contention. Plagued by rumour and innuendo, they calcify over the years assuredly defying resolution in the manner of the proverbial riddle wrapped inside of an enigma.

Why they remain this way is not necessarily hard to fathom. If it is true to say that underworld figures frequently form the backdrop to such endeavours, then the threat of homicidal retribution for not carrying out the prefigured result or of blurting out the truth looms over the conspirators like a Sword of Damocles.

There are also the matters of legitimacy and reputation. While it may be argued that uncovering the occurrence of match-fixing may provide the basis of a re-validation of the sport in so far as its rigorous adherence to the ethics of probity and fair-play is concerned, the opposite just as surely applies. For confirmation of such a scandal would tend to provide the basis of an affirmation of the underhandedness for which the sport is often accused of being mired in; this alongside the frequent accostment of the inherent depravity of a sport that is predicated on inter-human violence.

The sport of course has it heroes and and one needs to be mindful of this in so far as scrutinizing match-fixing allegations pertaining to its prominent figures. There may be an element of denial especially where such allegations concern the succession to a title. Proof of match-fixing may thus have the wrenching effect of delegitimizing both sport and lauded practitioner.

The world light heavyweight championship bout fought between Georges Carpentier and Battling Siki in September of 1922 provides one such example of a typically hotly debated instance of match-fixing. But it comes with a twist of its own. While most aficionados and historians of the sport do not doubt that the eventual outcome -a victory by Siki- was not fixed, there is disagreement as to whether the fight was made on the basis of a fix; an arrangement from which one of the participants, the challenger Battling Siki, allegedly reneged.

George Carpentier, the reigning world champion was a French idol. A handsome, urbane figure who had served with distinction as an aviator during the First World War, he was the recipient of the Croix De Guerre and the Medaille Militaire. He had unsuccessfully challenged heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey the previous year in boxing's first million dollar gate.

Siki on the other hand was an African immigrant from the French colony of Senegal. Born in the port city of Saint-Louis, he had come to France as the charge of a French woman who later abandoned him. He took up boxing and fought at venues in locations such as Marseille and Toulouse before the start of the Great War. During the war, he served in the French military and was present at various theatres including Gallipoli. Like Carpentier he also received the Croix De Guerre and the Medaille Militaire.

There the similarities between both men ended. Where Carpentier was the Gallic hero; an amiable and civil gentleman able to effortlessly transcend the brutal nature of his trade, Siki was often portrayed in stereotypically animalistic terms. His manager Charles Hellers once remarked that Siki was "a scientific ape"; adding, "Just imagine an ape that has learned to box and you have Battling Siki."

The bare details of the purported fix were as follows: Siki would be dropped once each in the first and second round before Carpentier finished him off in the fourth. In consideration for throwing the bout, Siki would receive Carpentier's purse of 200,000 Francs. Siki assented to the terms of the agreement on the condition that he would not get hurt.

The fight was scheduled for twenty rounds. In the inaugural round Siki temporarily dropped to his knee after a right hand thrown by Carpentier appeared to graze him.

In the third, Carpentier threw a powerful blow with his right and dropped Siki. Siki was quick in getting up and in the sudden rush towards his opponent, Carpentier slipped from the momentum of throwing two left hooks, although he quickly recovered his stance.

Carpentier continually measured his man with his left and unleashed a set of combination punches which caused Siki to lose control of his footing, bending at the knees although not descending to the canvas. Carpentier then chased after Siki until with the Senegalese trapped on the ropes, he unleashed a right hand which put Siki down.

Siki remained on one knee as the referee Henri Bernstein administered a count, but got up to exchange blows with Carpentier until both men fell into a clinch. After this, Siki began to show a willingness to come forward and pressure Carpentier. He unleashed a combination on Carpentier who sank to the canvas while Siki stood glaring at him before Bernstein pushed him back.

The fight resumed with each fighter seemingly wishing to tear the other's head off his shoulders: Siki with an array of short, brutish upper cuts, and Carpentier with a series of desperate right crosses. The round ended with Carpentier trudging back to his corner in a visibly bloodied state. It is claimed that he informed his seconds that he had broken the knuckles of his right hand.

The fourth began with Siki moving menacingly and determinedly towards Carpentier who willingly gave ground. Siki bullied him for some time before Carpentier unleashed a fusillade of punches in a desperate bid to end the bout. It failed, and Siki came back strongly against the champion who seemed as if he could barely stand at the end of the round.

Siki continued to dominate in the next round while Carpentier waned. Frustrated at the punishment he was receiving from Siki, Carpentier resorted to hurling racial epithets at his African opponent. At one point, he charged at Siki, head-butting his opponent to the canvas. Siki's protests came to nothing. Carpentier tried butting Siki while both were in a clinch and soon after charged him into a corner where Carpentier lost his footing. Siki's gesture of helping the champion back to his feet was rewarded with a swiftly delivered left hook to his unprotected face. The round ended with Siki complaining and walking towards Carpentier before his handlers dragged him back to his corner stool.

Siki pounced at Carpentier once the bell sounded for the sixth. He hit him with a series of hooks and uppercuts until he spun the bedraggled champion around. As he did this, Siki's left leg appeared to leave the ground, and whether by design or caused by the momentum, he apparently connected with either Carpentier's mid-section or his shin. Either way, Carpentier sunk to the canvas with his left leg perched on the lower ring rope. Bloodied and exhausted, his nose was broken and his right eye swollen shut.

Bernstein, who did not bother to issue a count, was quick to rule Carpentier the winner by way of Siki's disqualification. The crowd, outraged at this denouement, began to jeer, chanting "Siki is the winner" and "FIX! FIX!" Within the hour, the decision would be reversed and Battling Siki had succeeded in becoming the first African to win a world boxing title.

The question of a 'fix' dogged the fight from the moment Henri Bernstein had disqualified Siki and the reversal of the decision in Siki's favour did little to quell them. It had certainly been a strange fight. Rumours continued to bubble to the surface until Siki himself blew things into the open.

It happened after the federation declared Siki's title as forfeited after an incident which occurred during a bout in which Siki himself had worked as a second in the corner of another fighter. Siki is said to have entered the ring and struck the manager of the boxer his fighter was opposing. Siki made his complaint with the assistance of Blaise Diagne, the representative of Senegal in the French Chamber of Deputies.

It is useful to note that the modus operandi of a fixed-fight may take several forms. Crucially, both fighters do not have to be aware of the fix. For instance, James Napoli, a prominent figure of New York's Genovese family whose operations in illegal gambling intersected with his interests in the field of boxing had a particular technique centering on the compromising of ring officials.

'Jimmy Nap' would sort things out with a match official or two who needed relief from a gambling debt or who just needed an additional injection of cash. The thinking behind this was to favour an underdog who would be in a good position to get a win on points so long as he remained standing at the end of the bout. This was precisely the method used when Paddy DeMarco, a seven-to-one betting underdog, dethroned the lightweight champion Jimmy Carter by a surprise decision in 1954.

Napoli was also involved in another alleged fix in the 1969 world light heavyweight title bout between Bob Foster and Frankie DePaula. Federal Bureau of Investigation wiretaps suggested that DePaula had deliberately lost in the first round in order to secure a betting coup.

Perhaps the most famous dive was that taken by 'The Raging Bull', Jake LaMotta in a bout with Billy Fox who was under the charge of both Frankie Carbo and 'Blinky' Parlemo, the mafia figures who controlled boxing in the 1940s. LaMotta had been compelled to take this action in order to secure a challenge for the world middleweight championship.

In this case, Siki had reported that the conspirators in the endeavour were Georges Carpentier, Francois Descamps who was Carpentier's manager and Hellers. Referee Bernstein was also said to have been involved. Siki was alleging that both he and Carpentier had with the connivance of their managers effectively played a pantomime for a while.

An investigation conducted by a committee set up by the French Boxing Federation declared in January 1923 that it was "absolutely convinced that the match on September 24 (1922) was not preceded by an understanding the object of which was to arrange the events of the match and fix the result."

The federation based its findings on what it considered to be the discredited talk by a boxer named Georges Gaillard who later denied making them during his testimony. The committee also put a great deal of weight on the decision of Siki not to testify before it. The decision was, it announced, underscored by the use of deaf mute lip-reading experts who reported nothing incriminating in the words spoken by Descamps and Hellers which were captured on film of the bout.

Nonetheless, there are those who challenge the findings of the federation as a whitewash intended to preserve the reputation of the sport and some very important names in French boxing. The most compelling evidence of an intended fix which in the end did not materialise comes from Siki himself.

Siki's accusations were detailed and remained unchanged. He proclaimed the intended fix in the offices of the newspaper L'Auto while Heller was present. Heller, he admitted, had declared him capable of taking Carpentier only when others around. It was different when they were alone. He emphatically told him: "You told me to take a dive."

I avenge myself. They disqualified me by inventing lies. They deprived me of my living. I have a wife, I have a kid and me. I was too good to the French, and it is the French who have attacked me. I avenge myself, but I don't want to (do it) against you Hellers, and if they hadn't attacked me, I would have kept your secret.

Siki is then said to have gone on to recapitulate his allegations which his manager did not contradict but only argued over certain details.

The Italian Gazetta dello Sport purported to correct early impressions given in French newspapers of a fix in Siki's favour to that of a fix which had Carpentier scheduled to win by a knockout before Siki had abandoned the ruse. One manager and two trainers who frequented La Chop du Negre, a cafe favoured by the boxing crowd visited the offices of L'Echo des Sports to report on the proof they had of a fix but backtracked when called before the federation's inquiry.

For his part, Georges Carpentier flatly denied involvement in any enterprise to have the fight fixed. The investigating committee reported him as saying, "I never in my life faked a fight nor prolonged one for the sake of the moving pictures."

Part of the resistance to accepting the idea of an intended fix lies in the image of Carpentier as an upright gentleman soldier and pugilist. His image as a war hero had been sold to the American public by the promoter Tex Rickard, as a contrast to the 'draft dodger' reputation of heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.

The idol of France was in the public estimation beyond reproach. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that as co-promoter of the bout and the part owner of the Velodrome, he could afford to dispense with the winner's fee of 200,000 Francs in return for an easy workout against a dangerous opponent. Siki's story had Hellers conveying Descamps' deal as having Carpentier contenting himself with Siki's officially proposed share as well as with the receipt of newsreel royalties. If, as has frequently been believed, Carpentier failed to train properly for his bout with Siki, could the reason for this have been related not to overconfidence in his ability to take care of Siki, but to laxity on his part so far as the assurance that Siki would engage in a staged exercise?

When thirty years after Carpentier uttered the following words, it is unclear whether his bitterness emanated from a miscalculation of Siki based on his overconfidence or in Siki's 'betrayal' of the agreed course of action.

I've been beaten by Siki. I, Carpentier, have let myself be beaten by this nigger I could have stretched out at my feet....after one or two minutes of combat.

It is also worth emphasizing the damage to the name of Carpentier as well as to French boxing if Siki's version of events were accepted. Those who have watched the movie Paths of Glory a fictionalised account of a real incident during the First World War dealing with how the French High Command sacrificed soldiers in order to protect the reputation of the French army will appreciate the raison detre for such a cover up much in the manner that students of history know of the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain whose innocence of espionage was known to the authorities but regardless was allowed to rot in detention for years.

As with Dreyfus, it was not only a matter of preserving the honour of a French institution, but it was a question of not allowing a 'racial inferior' to expose corruption.

If Carpentier was attempting to protect his good image in a situation involving more than a whiff of scandalous behaviour it would not be the last. During the Second World War while the northern part of France was under Nazi occupation, Carpentier was involved with running a tavern alongside a known French collaborator. Situated opposite the grave of the 'Unknown French Soldier', the establishment was popular among the German interlopers.

Carpentier's close associations with the occupiers did not make for good relations with the French resistance. In March of 1944, the Germans sponsored Carpentier's 50th birthday celebration with a special boxing exhibition. Later that year, an American press report referred to him as a "Nazi chattel".

There was perhaps something of an Albert Speer about him. After the war, Carpentier's denials of pro-German activities were effective enough to at least spare him the fate meted out to collaborators. His service during the First World War had likely played a part in this outcome.

But if he has largely escaped the taint of match-fixing allegations with Siki, the stench of being a pro-Nazi collaborator remained. Seven years after his death in 1975, Gerard Oury's film L'as des As was an obvious attempt at salvaging Carpentier's reputation. The heavily fictionalised account of Carpentier's life via an anti-Nazi protagonist named 'Georges Chevalier' played by the former amateur boxer turned film star Jean Paul Belmondo can be viewed as an attempt to sanitize a legacy tainted by evidence of collaboration with the occupying Nazis during the Second World War.

And of Siki? His career went downhill after his victory over Carpentier. Siki suffered for blurting out the attempted fix by effectively forfeiting his ability to earn a living fighting in France and the rest of Western Europe. He was banned from fighting in Britain by the Home Secretary Winston Churchill who based the decision on the potentially unsettling effect interracial contests could have on public order across the British empire.

After losing his world title to Mike McTigue in Ireland, Siki travelled to the United States where he lost to the light heavyweights Kid Norfolk and Paul Berlenbach. His life spiraled out of control with alcohol abuse and confrontations with the police. He was found shot to death in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York in December of 1925.

Siki's reputation suffered in death as it had in life. But the lopsided view of Siki as a 'child of the jungle' maladjusted to the pressures of living in a 'civilised' environment is changing. He has been the subject of a number of books in recent years where his life and boxing career have been subject to a higher standard of research and analysis.

The exaggerated stories as well as the myths which for so long had been the staple of boxing wordsmiths have been corrected. For all his faults, Siki was a sensitive human being who contested the dehumanizing effects of racism in society. Unfailingly resplendent in his choice of attire, he was a cultured man who spoke a number of languages including French, Dutch and English.

His life journey has even provided the inspiration for a jazz suite.

As a fighter, Siki will never be ranked among the great fighters in so far as technique and longevity are concerned. But while there is much to agree with the supposition that he was lucky to defeat a champion who was past his prime, there is also much evidence that he was mismanaged and his potential not maximized.

While Carpentier, a respected ring technician, ranks higher in the esteem of boxing historians for his accomplishments both as a middleweight and light heavyweight, there may be a tendency to diminish Siki's victory on the grounds that Carpentier was ageing and physically unprepared.

Carpentier had, after all, not yet reached his thirtieth birthday. His physical appearance, that of a lithe and well-proportioned boxer which was familiar to boxing audiences, betrayed no evidence of excess fat in his abdominal area. Moreover, he would go on to knock out Marcel Nilles the following year; a fighter against whom Siki had only been able to win on points. 'Styles make fights' goes an often used phrase in boxing and it is possible that Carpentier was unable to deal with the problems caused by Siki's 'awkward' approach in the ring. This includes the idea of combating Siki by fighting him 'inside'and hammering away as suggested by Jack Dempsey. Siki was able to effectively close the gap when Carpentier measured him with his left and he also hurt Carpentier when they locked horns 'inside'.

Any summation of Siki and Carpentier cannot fail to grasp the manner in which each man transcended the confines of the squared ring. Where Carpentier was a national icon of France, Siki was adopted by the likes of Ho Chi Minh as a symbol of the struggle against colonialism. Each man was a decorated war hero who achieved a series of 'firsts' in boxing.

It would be a remarkable feat for any fighter to have negotiated a career in the boxing world at the time they were active without having to compromise on what would be considered to as sound ethical standards. Whatever is the truth behind the mystery of the Velodrome, it should be clear that in the final analysis Battling Siki was no more the devil than Georges Carpentier was a saint.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2016)

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of the books DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal (2005) and JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula (2010)

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