Battling Siki : A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920sby: Peter Benson
ON A DESOLATE STRETCH of West 41st Street, in the early hours of December 15, 1925, someone put two bullets into the back of Battling Siki. Just two years after losing the light heavyweight title, Africa’s first boxing champion and icon of the era was dead. Siki probably never saw the shooter — let alone the gun — on that cold New York morning, and his killing remains a mystery today. Peter Benson’s 2009 biography Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920s concerns Siki’s life but does not spend much time, as the title might suggest, on his untimely death. Ditto for Championzé: Une histoire de Battling Siki, a 2010 French graphic novel by Aurélien Ducoudray and Eddy Vaccaro. But of course Siki’s story is not simply that of a murdered champion boxer; his life stood at the intersection of popular culture, racial politics, and the criminal underworld. Thankfully, his biographers weave together these different plot-lines to offer useful portraits of the fighter.
Champion boxing in the 1920s yielded big figures with big names. Jack Dempsey, the most famous heavyweight of the era, lent his name to streets, sporting events, and even a tropical fish, the Jack Dempsey cichlid, popular with aquarium owners today. Likewise, Luis Ángel Firpo, the Argentine heavy who knocked Dempsey out of the ring in 1923, lives on in Latin America, where many streets and institutions — including a Salvadorean futbol team — bear his name. By these standards alone, Africa’s first sports champion has had a truly global reach. “Siki” was the nom de guerre adopted by one of Che Guevara’s commanders, and during the champ’s lifetime a noted and diverse set of writers spilt much ink over the boxer: Ernest Hemingway (though indirectly) in his short story “50 Grand”; Henry Miller in Plexus; and George Bernard Shaw in his novel Cashel Byron’s Profession. Ho Chi Minh adopted Siki as an anti-colonial symbol and penned “About Siki,” a brief essay on the 1922 title-winning fight against Georges Carpentier. (For Ho Chi Minh and other aspiring anti-colonialists around the world, Battling Siki served as a sort of pugilistic Mithridates striking an emblematic blow against the West.)
Siki was born Ahmadou “Louis” Mbarick Fall under humble circumstances in what is today Saint Louis, Senegal (perhaps in 1897) but, he lived his life like no saint. Peter Benson doesn’t shy away from addressing Siki’s personal failings. Siki originally agreed to throw the Carpentier fight and it was probably not the first nor last time he agreed to take part in fight fixing. Siki was never formally married to his first wife with whom he fathered a child. When deportation loomed Siki simply married an American woman in an utter shock to his Dutch wife in Paris.
Jack Johnson had shocked the world by becoming the first African-American to win the heavyweight championship title in 1908, in part because his defensive technique was far superior to most white boxers of the era. While Jack Johnson’s 1908 victory was seen as a threat by some whites, they were primarily in America. Battling Siki’s win, as his continued influence shows, had global implications. In 1922, when he climbed into the ring for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the W...read more