Monday, August 31, 2015

TBG Book Review: Battling Ski by Peter Benson

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review by Peter Silkov

“Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race & Murder in the 1920s”  By Peter Benson.

 “A lot of newspaper people have written that I have a jungle-style of fighting, that I am a chimpanzee, who has been taught to wear gloves. That kind of thing hurts me. I was never anywhere, but in a big city, in my life. I have never even seen a jungle.” Battling Siki

The life story of Battling Siki is one of the darkest and most dramatic of any world champion in boxing’s long history.  Dark, because of the tragedy, which his life became, and because of the thick cloak of rumour, myth, and mystery that surround both his life, death, and his boxing career.

In “Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race & Murder in the 1920s” Peter Benson explores the life and career of one of boxing’s most notorious and misunderstood champions.  Siki rose to fame and won the World light-heavyweight championship, but found only persecution and disdain as champion.   Just a little over three years after he won the world title from Georges Carpentier, Siki was found dead in a dark alley in New York’s ‘Hells Kitchen’, his turbulent life ended by two bullets in the back.

Born Amadou M’Barick Fall on September 16, 1897, (though his exact birth date has also been a subject of dispute) in Saint Louis, Senegal, he would later call himself Louis Phal, and fight under the name of Battling Siki.  From early on, Fall’s life seemed destined to be removed from the ordinary.  When he was around 10 years of age, Fall was ‘adopted’ by a wealthy woman, who may have been either Dutch or German (and either a dancer or an actress) and taken with her to France. For a while, she dressed and fed him and taught him to read, before suddenly disappearing from his life.  As with many aspects of his life, Siki’s benefactress is a mysterious figure, and there are many conflicting stories about how and why she took Siki under her wing, and also why she eventually either abandoned him, or was forced to leave him behind.  Left to fend for himself, Siki went through a range of menial jobs, before eventually coming across boxing.

Siki’s professional boxing career started when he was barely 15 years old, and despite its mediocre beginnings, his early record was just 6-7-2. With the interruption of the 1st World War in which he fought and was awarded medals for bravery, would eventually lead him to the World light-heavyweight championship in 1922.Siki was the first coloured fighter to win a world title since the fall of Jack Johnson, and he was the first African to win a world championship in the sport’s history.

When he went from a boxing unknown, to World light-heavyweight champion, after beating French idol George Carpentier in front of his own adoring French fans, Siki became an overnight sensation.  Unfortunately, almost immediately his achievement was swallowed up by a tremendous backlash of malignant publicity.  The fight itself was controversial, with rumours that Siki had agreed to ‘lay down’ for Carpentier, only to change his mind midfight.  The press generally was horrified by Siki’s victory over Carpenteir, and immediately began to attack Siki with a mixture of ridicule and condemnation, and with the strong racist overtones plain for everyone to see.

Siki, who was a come-forward, free-swinging slugger, was depicted as a savage figure straight out of the jungle.

"Even Siki’s own manager, Charlie Hellers was quick to point out the fighter’s “gorilla’s skill and manners” to reporters. “He’s a scientific ape,” Hellers said. “Just imagine an ape that has learned to box and you have Battling Siki.”
Siki was described either as a ‘savage’ or a ‘clown’ and an illiterate, who grunted and rolled his eyes in the ring, and was barely able to speak.  Siki’s cause was not helped by the fact that his character was not of the shy and retiring type, he was more Jack Johnson in personality, than Tiger Flowers. 

Confronted by a wave of negative publicity almost from the minute that he had won his world title, the new champion, rather than bow down and try to hide away, began to revel in his notoriety and fame. He indulged in long nights of drinking, partying, and walking through the streets of Paris with his pet lions and loaded guns. The press quickly jumped upon this aspect of his personality, which along with his colour, made him even more of a threat to modern civilization in their eyes.

Add to this, Siki’s cardinal sin of being married to a white woman, and soon he was being viewed as great a menace, as Jack Johnson ever was before him.  In the end, even the generally more tolerant French press and public turned on Siki, still shocked and devastated by the fall of their beloved George Carpentier to the hands of a savage.

Siki’s reign as world champion was short and turbulent, with Siki getting in more trouble and fights outside the ring, than inside it. The world championship soon proved to be a poisoned chalice for Siki, who found himself unable to get a fight of any kind, as the boxing authorities around the world turned upon him.  When he did finally secure a place to defend his world title, six months after he had won it, Siki found himself defending his world title in Ireland against an Irishman, Mike McTigue, on St Patrick’s day, in the midst of a civil war.

It almost goes without saying that after the fight had traveled the full 20 rounds, to the sound of constant gunfire outside the building, it was McTigue’s hand that was raised in victory, and Siki left Ireland shorn of his world crown. Many writers over the years have used the story of Siki's St. Patrick’s Days world title defence, in Ireland, against an Irishman, as an illustration of the Senegalese fighter’s lack of intelligence. The truth is that Siki had no other options of fighting and defending his title anywhere else.

Being an ex-world champion did not bring Siki peace from the constant barbs of the press and public in general.  If anything, it intensified the ridicule that he had to endure daily.  Struggling to find fights, he went to America, where his reputation deepened further, as did his wild and reckless nightlife.  By the time he was shot dead in Hell’s Kitchen, Siki’s boxing career was more or less finished, as he had suffered a trail of damaging defeats.  Siki’s greatest achievement in the ring had brought him only personal and professional ruin.

Peter Benson goes through Siki’s life meticulously, trying to separate fact from fiction, exposing the virulent abuse that Siki had to suffer for his achievements, and his wish not to bow down to the constraints of his time.  Siki emerges from this book as a colourful and extrovert character, who found himself, overwhelmed by the mixture of fascination and repulsion, that his exploits generated.  It’s easy to see that Siki’s non-stop carousing was at least in part an effort to block out the reality of the hostility that he had to deal with every day.  He was also stuck in a vicious circle of needing to play on his infamy, as it was the only way in which he could gain fights, and earn money.

More than anything, he was a victim of the racism of the day. He did not have the kind of character to weather the barbs of his time, unlike Tiger Flowers and Joe Louis later on.  Instead, Siki tried to snub his nose at his detractors, in a manner much like Jack Johnson, but unlike Johnson, was in the end overwhelmed by the reputation that he and his detractors had created. 

Siki comes alive in these pages, and the reader finds himself sympathizing with his plight, and admiring his courage. This is an absorbing and engaging portrait of a fighter who has, until now, been much maligned and misunderstood. It is also a searing documentary of the times, and the prejudice’s and hostility that fighters of colour had to deal with on a daily basis.  Most of them dealt with their situation with quiet stoicism. Those that dared to stand up and try to break the constraints of their time ended up like Battling Siki.

Perhaps most poignant in this biography is Siki’s plea that he is not an ignorant beast.  “A lot of newspaper people have written that I have a jungle-style of fighting, that I am a chimpanzee, who has been taught to wear gloves. That kind of thing hurts me. I was never anywhere, but in a big city, in my life. I have never even seen a jungle.” In the end, however, he seemed to give up on himself as he fell into a steady decline of drinking and getting into constant scrapes with the New York police.

“Battling Siki” is made complete by a collection of rare photographs of Siki.  This is a haunting biography that will appeal to any boxing fan wishing to explore the life of one of the ring’s most tragic and enigmatic figures. 

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and
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