THE coronavirus lockdown has given many of us an abundance of time. For me this has meant more time to read and provided the impetus to get stuck into unread books. The latest is a biography of pre-war world bantamweight champion Panama Al Brown, penned by Jose Corpas and entitled Black Ink (a nod to the French writer Jean Cocteau, who called Al “a poem in black ink”).
Although Brown began his career in Panama and the US, he came to Europe in 1926 and shot to fame on this side of the Atlantic before capturing the world crown with a points win over Gregorio Vidal, in New York, to become Latin America’s first world boxing champion. Broadly speaking Brown split his fighting between New York and Paris, but he also boxed in Canada, Cuba, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Britain.
Brown’s extraordinary talent would be reason enough to learn more about him, but as Corpas’ biography shows there is far more to his story. It was hard enough for a black man to succeed in 1920s and ‘30s America, but for Brown the struggle was compounded by the fact he was gay, which was partly why he based himself in liberal Paris. In addition, Brown had to contend with illness, drug addiction and an unscrupulous manager whose mistreatment of him was nothing short of criminal.
Often the ‘away’ fighter, he was a figure partisan fans loved to hate, and for him hostile crowds were par for the course. But Brown got more than he’d bargained for when he agreed to defend his world crown against French-Italian Kid Francis (real name Francesco Buonaugurio) in Francis’ home city of Marseille, in July 1932. Francis, a top-class talent described as a “sawn-off Hercules”, boasted wins over world-class men such as Fidel LaBarba, Archie Bell, Domenico Bernasconi and Eddie Shea. But he’d faced Brown four years earlier at Madison Square Garden and lost.
Before the Marseille bout, Corpas says Brown was offered money to lose, and at least one ring official was offered a bribe. As the fight entered the latter rounds, Brown, having refused to take a bribe, looked well on the way to winning. At the end of the 14th, someone peered over the shoulder of judge Dr James Sparks, commander of the American Legion in France. Seeing Sparks had Brown in front he thrust a revolver into Sparks’ ribs and seized his scorecard. Sparks leapt into the ring and told referee Carlo Lomazzi what had happened, but the ref called for the fight to continue through the 15th and final round.
When it ended, the other judge made Brown the winner, while the referee, who Corpas notes suffered threats and intimidation throughout the fight, gave it to Francis. Sparks found in favour of Brown but could not produce his stolen scorecard, so the bout was ruled a ‘No Contest’.
The verdict provoked a riot – fists and bottles flew and poor Sparks was badly beaten by the crowd. Sparks, the two boxers and all reporters from foreign newspapers were escorted from the building under armed guard. After an inquiry, the world governing body the IBU annulled the ruling and awarded the fight to Brown.
According to Corpas, the man behind the fracas was Francis’ second cousin and de facto manager, the gangster François Spirito, business partner of Marseille underworld kingpin Paul Carbone. Spirito later became one of the orchestrators of the drug-smuggling operation known as the French Connection.
Kid Francis had a sad ending. During the war he was arrested by Germans in Paris and sent to Auschwitz, where he was forced to fight in gladiatorial bouts for the amusement of guards. He was murdered in the camp some time in 1943.