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Boxing Clever: The mad, sad, and crazy life of Battling Siki

In the first of a weekly series looking at some of boxing’s greatest characters, we remember former light heavyweight champion Battling Siki.

There are two words that adequately describe Louis Mbarick Fall, known forever to the boxing world by his chosen ring name of Battling Siki (60-24-4). The first would be “fearless”. Characterised by travelling as a callow 15-year-old from French colonial Senegal to metropolitan France, where life for a young immigrant could be relentlessly unforgiving. 

Newly arrived he launched an initially mediocre boxing career that was interrupted by the first World War. A theatre where he proved his fearlessness by being awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre, for his courage in battle. 

Honourably discharged he returned to the fight game where his power and aggression allied with his take on all-comers attitude led him to the world light heavyweight title via a knockout victory over France’s great hero Georges Carpentier (90-14-6). 

But the fortune, fame and respect for the son of Senegal was only ever destined to be fleeting. His fearlessness was wrapped in a thin blanket of recklessness that was destined to unravel all his strengths and virtues and send them spilling towards the gutter. 

“Recklessness” will forever be the second word linked to Siki. Reckless in the way he fought, approached his dealings with both authority and criminality, the way he lived and ultimately died alone in a New York street, ten days before Christmas 1925, aged just 28.

Path to the title

Siki’s career can really be compartmentalised into three phases. The first, whereas a teenager he fought unsuccessfully for two years in the small clubs of Marseille and Toulouse. Upon the outbreak of war the 17-year-old had amassed a record of 6-8-2 against limited local opposition and looked anything but a future champion.

When peace ensued, and he returned from the French Army, he began with a couple of wins and a 10 rounds points loss to the long-forgotten Frenchman Felix Leonard (47-39-12). As a new decade opened, Siki was suddenly transformed. Between January 1920 and his title fight with Carpentier 33-months later he recorded 42 wins from 44 contests, including just a solitary defeat.

With a modern lens this level of activity feels faintly ridiculous. This was a world before MRI scans and other health considerations. Many of Siki’s fights were less than a week apart with a substantial number being over a 15 round distance. 

Suddenly, his once teenage frame developed into an imposing physical specimen as evidenced by the ring and publicity photos from this time.  Something that in retrospect contrasted significantly with so many fighters of this early era. With primitive training methods and virtually no understanding of nutrition they mostly lacked the physical definition of today’s superstars. All this despite it being suggested that the only roadwork Siki ever undertook was on the dance floors of Paris nightclubs. 

In 1922 there were only eight divisions and a solitary world champion in each. With titles so scarce, they held considerable monetary value, and thus jealously guarded and infrequently defended by their holders. 

The legendary bout with Georges Carpentier

When Siki met Carpentier at the newly re-opened Stade Buffalo in Paris, it was Carpentier’s first defence of his light heavyweight title in three years. “The Orchid Man” was nearing the end of a glittering career following a battering at the hands of Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title. His failure to land the richest prize in sport was followed  by a win over British all-time great Ted “Kid” Lewis, in the months prior to the fight. 

There are so many overlapping legends surrounding the meeting at the Stade Buffalo that it is almost impossible to isolate the truth from the distance of nearly 100 years. The prevailing myth is that the fight was intended as a fix, with Siki paid to be counted out. A deal that Siki entertainingly accepted under the condition that “The Orchid Man” wasn’t allowed to hurt him. The Senegalese was fully prepared to lose but would not countenance being beaten up in the process. Whether Carpentier knew of this deal is a matter of permanent conjecture and may help explain some of his subsequent actions in the ring.

The early rounds went to script with the challenger dropping to a knee in the first and falling theatrically to the canvass from light punches in the third. As Carpentier’s attack intensified, the legend has it that at this point Siki reminded the champion that “you aren’t supposed to hit me.” As the Frenchman continued his assault Siki was incandescent with rage. He came out blazing in the fourth and dropped the Frenchman with a fast handed combination. The fifth saw the fighters stand toe-to-toe and trade punches in a classic phone booth dust up. 

With Carpentier becoming increasingly aware of Siki overpowering him, he resorted to fouling and at one point decked Siki with a head butt. The end came swiftly in the sixth with Siki scoring a knockout through a hard body shot. The alternate truth is that Siki felled Carpentier with a carefully placed knee to the midriff. This was a view endorsed by the referee but the grainy old fight footage makes that seem doubtful.

The referee awarded the fight to a prostrate Carpentier on a foul, but amid near rioting from the 50,000 crowd the decision was overturned. 

Walking his pet lion on the streets of Paris

This marked the high watermark of Battling Siki’s career. In the months after his victory he returned to the nightclubs and dressed in a top hat and tails whilst incongruously walking his pet lion cub up the Champs-Élysées. Caring little for convention he would transport his pet monkey on his shoulder whilst visiting upmarket restaurants. He spent liberally and after several bottles of champagne was apt to fire indiscriminately his revolver in the Parisian streets.

In the manner of Jack Johnson, his dalliances and enduring relationships with white woman caused scandal and his lion-taming excesses could be perceived as a precursor to the unrestrained days of Mike Tyson.

Siki travelled to Dublin the following year to defend his title against the unfancied Irishman Mike McTigue (77-26-8). With all his training seemingly confined to the cocktail lounge he lost a heavily disputed 20 round decision. 

Two bullets in the back

Siki, sought to reignite his career in the US and based himself out of the tough Hells Kitchen. In a country theoretically locked down with prohibition he sated his thirst among the city’s plentiful array of speakeasies. Having long since given up on even his limited training schedule his ring performances deteriorated to an extent he lost considerably more fights than he won. 

By the time he fought for the last time, losing a 12 round decision, any hope of another shot at the title had long since vanished. A little more than a month later he was dead. They found him face down on New York’s 42nd Street with two bullet holes in his back. The murder remains unsolved with the last sightings of him reporting he was staggering around drunk.

By that time the money had long since vacated but Siki still liked to drink his fill in the speakeasies. Unable or unwilling to pay the bills he came to a novel solution. The fearless and reckless ex-champ simply fought his way back out from the bar into the night. The debts eventually had to be paid and ultimately they were on that cold New York street.

At the final outcome, it was not surprising that life provided Siki with not one but two bullets in the back. It is likely that for the boy from Senegal, who lived fast and laughed at mortality, that this was the way it was always meant to end. 

Who would you compare Battling Siki to in today’s boxing world? Comment below…

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Garry White

I am a freelance writer focusing on the very different sporting disciplines of Boxing and Cricket. I live close to London and grew up on tales of the ancients: Dempsey, Louis, Harry Greb et al. I have an avid interest in the history of the sport as well as what is happening on the current domestic and international scene.

I am strongly influenced by the stellar work of the late Jonathan Rendall.

Boxing Clever: The mad, sad, and crazy life of Battling Siki

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