While the bout between Georges Carpentier and Battling Siki would never be billed as “the fight of the century,” it did garner attention from a 32-year old Ho Chi Minh, evidently a fan of the pugilistic sport. “From a national viewpoint,” he wrote, “boxers are indispensable as an example of, and stimulation to, the physical excellence of the young generation. From the colonial viewpoint, a Carpentier-Siki match is worth more than one hundred gubernatorial speeches to prove to our subjects and protégés that we want to apply to the letter the principle of equality between races.” A very lofty thought, but the fight was quite a sordid affair, in fact, it was “fixed.”
In Carpentier By Himself, “the Orchid Man” admits it was a “phoney” match and adds that he could have finished Siki off in the first round if he had so desired. He wrote that “as a boxer [Siki’s] standard was primitive and no one in his senses could reasonably have regarded him as a suitable opponent for me.” Carpentier, we’ll soon discover, was not the most modest of men. His manager, François Descamps, felt it was necessary to arrange a match for his French fighter in Paris, and Carpentier agreed. In his book he writes—“As I saw the whole thing I was doing the Parisian public a favor and making a deliberate concession to their quite understandable desire to see me fight in the capital again.”
Deschamps and Charlie Hellers, Siki’s manager, got together and planned the details. Siki would hit the canvas in rounds one, two and three, and then in the fourth he would go down and stay down. Peter Benson, in his excellent biography, Battling Siki: A Tale of Ring Fixes, Race, and Murder in the 1920s, states that “Siki hated the whole idea, but if he hadn’t agreed to go through with it, there would have been no bout.” Of course Carpentier’s version is quite different—Siki is absolutely terrified and the only way he can be made to fight is the promise that the Frenchman won’t hit him too hard when the time comes for him to take his dive.
In the first round Carpentier taps Siki lightly and the Senegalese falls to the canvas, and cries of “fix” start to pepper the air. The referee, Henry Bernstein (who knows all about the pre-fight arrangements), angrily tells Siki to get up, that he hadn’t been hit. The next couple of rounds continue, rather tamely, with the crowd getting restless, and so Carpentier starts to swing a little harder, trying to make it look good. It must have felt like the Frenchman was hitting a bit too hard to Siki, who begins to get mad. When he is knocked down, supposedly, in the third, Siki looks up at Carpentier and has a change of heart. His pride is too great—he, according to his own statement, had never been on his knees before to any man and he gets off the canvas determined to now win the fight. He promptly knocks Carpentier down and the bout turns into a real match. The Frenchman gets up, clinches, calls Siki a bastard and tells him to go down. When the bell sounds Hellers asks Siki if he’s forgotten that he’s supposed to lose, but his fighter doesn’t reply.
The fourth and fifth rounds turn into a slugfest and a brawl, with Siki dominating—in his book Carpentier admits that not only hadn’t he trained for a fight that wasn’t really a fight, he had been living a dissolute lifestyle and so now didn’t have the stamina he usually did. In the sixth Carpentier is heading to the canvas for the last time when he trips over Siki’s leg and the referee, obviously very confused by now, disqualifies “the Singular Senegalese,” and awards the victory to Georges. The crowd, who have been throwing their support behind Siki ever since the third round, start to raise hell and the referee’s decision is overturned and Siki finally comes away the winner and the new light-heavyweight champion.
A strange ending to a strange fight and Carpentier never got over how he was double-crossed. Siki was a very good fighter, as was Carpentier, but I think no honor from this fight can really come to either of these two men—a fix is a dirty deal in any sport, and a double-cross doesn’t make it better.
One last episode from Siki’s life needs to be recounted, as it does help us understand this boxer and his times. Nigel Collins, in his book Boxing Babylon (1990), relates a story from Siki’s First World War experiences. Seems that, singlehandedly, Siki surprised a group of nine German soldiers and was holding them prisoner when he started to realize how tough it was now going to be to get his captives back to the French lines. He solves this singular dilemma by ordering the nine men to climb into a hole and then tosses two grenades in after them. I don’t know how much faith can be placed in this story, after all Siki is the only survivor, but France believed him and decorated him with a medal.
We’ll end, as we began, with a quote from Ho Chi Minh, which perhaps sums up how some minorities perceived the 1922 fight. “Ever since colonialism existed, the Whites have been paid to bash in the faces of the Blacks. For once, a Black has been paid to do the same thing to a White.” For the quotes from Ho Chi Minh I am indebted to Andrew Gallimore’s A Bloody Canvas (2007), the story of Mike McTigue, the Irishman who dethroned Siki.
Read Part One