Back around the time of the American Civil War, a king of Siam sent to England for a governess for his children, a gentlewoman named Anna Leonowens whose story has been celebrated in the book Anna and the King of Siam and the Broadway and Hollywood musical The King and I.
In 1955 the king of Siam, now Thailand, sent to America—to Lou Still-man's Eighth Avenue boxing gym, to be exact—for an instructor of another sort, a prizefight trainer to indoctrinate the youth of his country in the arts and mysteries of the prize ring, Western style.
It is unlikely that the romance of Al Silvani's trip to Thailand will ever inspire any Broadway musicals, although he did write a book, a manual on the virtues of the left jab and the body punch as keys to victory. For all that, Al, a dough-handed, broad-backed ex-pug, who learned his trade by training brawlers Tami Mauriello, Rocky Graziano and Jake La Motta, lacks the grace and elegance and general background of the gentle Anna. Al, in plain truth, did not even know where Thailand was when the summons came, or, for that matter, who was king.
But Al's trip and his tenure in the stately monarchy were not without their own sort of success, a success dramatically underscored last week in the half-filled Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. There one of the beneficiaries of the Silvani system of modern mayhem, a sleek Thai youth with the jawbreaking name of Mana Seadoagbob and a ring nom de plume, equally hard to lay a glove on, of Pone Kingpetch, consolidated his claim to be Thailand's first bona fide, undisputed boxing champion of the world. Kingpetch (the name is derived from a camp where he trained in his native land, and the surname of Pone signifies the flight of an eagle) scored a technical knockout over former champion Pascual Perez, a venerable slugger from the province of Mendoza in Argentina.
Kingpetch had lifted the title from Perez in April. But that was in Bangkok, and on a split decision. The Thai judge involved had voted for Kingpetch. The Argentine judge, naturally, had voted for Perez. It was boxing's Boswell, the ubiquitous Nat Fleischer, editor of The Ring magazine, who cast the deciding ballot—for Kingpetch. Since Nat was, in effect, the guest of Thailand at the time, the supposition could be pardoned that the vote was at least in part simple good manners. At any rate, the issue of Kingpetch's superiority was still in doubt.
There was no doubt after seven rounds of action at the Olympic. The fight was as one-sided as a Castro rally. Referee Mushy Callahan's action in stopping it was that of a man who flags down a train a mile before it gets to a broken bridge. Callahan stopped it not so much because Perez was badly beaten but because he was going to be.
Perez, a sallow, blue-jowled little man, both of whose parents emigrated from Spain to Argentina, had had high hopes of regaining his title. It was his insistence alone which had located the fight in "neutral" Los Angeles. Los Angeles was neutral almost to the point of being blasé, and barely 5,000 straggled into the arena to see a bout which would have drawn upward of 30,000 in either Bangkok or Buenos Aires. Perez explained he was willing to suffer financial sacrifice to get unbiased officiating.
But when the match started Perez came out of his corner in the manner of a man who intends to make both judges and referees superfluous. He clearly aimed to score a quick knockout. Shorter than his Thai opponent by seven inches (Perez is less than five feet tall, and Kingpetch, at 5 feet 6½ inches, is the tallest flyweight champion in history), Perez tried to leap over the outthrust left jabs of the champion to score with roundhouse hooks and crosses.
Tutor Silvani, who never directly taught Kingpetch but who inculcated a belief in the left hand as the ultimate weapon ("They were right-hand-crazy down there, you know what I mean? And they couldn't hit with it, even") and who taught the men who taught Kingpetch how to move, how to slip a punch, how to press an opponent and the other skills of a tough trade, was not satisfied with Kingpetch's early strategy. "He should keep Perez pressed," he growled from time to time. "Them old guys you got to press. The legs give out on them first, and they give out worse going back."
Kingpetch at first seemed more rattled by his environment than by Perez. The arena was loaded with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (the undercard was salted with local neighborhood Latino favorites), and they quickly identified with Perez. A delegation from Argentina took up the peculiar chanted, bullfight type of cheering often affected by Latin-American crowds, and it was not until well into the middle of the third round that a row of Negro fans, in a spirit of fair play, undertook to hurl counterencouragement to Kingpetch. Their noisy urgings, ornamented by misnomers ("C'mon, Kingfish, ya got 'im hangin'," or, "Work on 'at eye, Kingpin"), ultimately encouraged the small, shy delegation of Thai students and their girl friends, who had sat in awed silence for a few rounds, to open up, and by mid-fight the auditorium was a multilingual babel of high excitement.
The language barrier may have hastened the end of the fight. In Kingpetch's corner were three eager but rattled Thai handlers, led by his manager, Thong Thos Intratat, a pharmacist in his native land, whose grasp of English, fragile at best, was hopelessly shattered in the cacophony at ringside. In Perez' corner no one spoke enough English to ask for a streetcar transfer. When Referee Callahan came to the handlers between rounds seven and eight to advise them that he proposed to stop the fight unless Perez began to throw more punches, no one, including Perez, had the faintest idea of what the hell he was talking about.
Perez' manager, Lazaro Koci, an Albanian-turned-Argentinian and an antique dealer whose most valuable antique has been Perez, was clearly astonished when the fight was halted at 2:33 of the eighth round. But so, for that matter, were Kingpetch's green handlers. They jumped with dismay as the referee pulled Kingpetch off Perez and escorted Perez to his corner. They seemed quite positive that some form of unforeseen infraction had occurred and that the referee and "neutral" city were out to restore the championship to a thoroughly beaten Perez.
Fortunately, Thailand's Father of Boxing ("That's what they call me—I'm kind of like George Washington in boxing there"), Al Silvani, was on hand, suited up, at ringside. "They only allow three men in the corner, but I'm here in case the fighter gets cut, ya know?" he explained at the opening bell.
Al had demonstrated some disgust at the uncertain techniques of the Thai handlers ("Get that stool up on the ring apron," he would scream as the timekeeper struck the ring floor to indicate 10 seconds remaining in a round). He had leaped from his seat several times during the fight to give advice to Manager Thong Thos. And now it was Al who bawled out an explanation of the fight's abrupt end and shoved Kingpetch's handlers up into the ring.
"Get in there!" he screamed. "Your boy's won! They've stopped the fight!"
Even then it was some minutes before Kingpetch himself perceived that all was well. Once convinced, he took to bounding around the ring, hands clasped prayerfully and head bowed, to acknowledge the applause of the crowd.
The now undisputed champion of all the flyweights is an earnest, shy youth (he turns his back to undress in his locker room before and after fights) who once studied for the Buddhist priesthood and was actually ordained before forsaking the temple for the ring. He explained that he became a priest at the behest of his grandmother, who was interested in the remission of sins granted those whose sons or grandsons enter the priesthood. However, he quickly added, his grandmother cheerfully sacrificed her guarantee of salvation when he chose boxing.
In a land where fighting with the feet is more commonplace than the Marquess of Queensberry variety, Kingpetch has never fought any way except Western style. "There is no opportunity to become famous all over the world in Thai fighting," he said.
He also said that he might move up into the bantamweight division. Even finely trained, he barely came in under the 122-pound limit against Perez. There is the further consideration that in this day of the full dinner pail there are fewer and fewer areas of the world where men grow small enough to qualify as flyweights. One of these places is Japan, where Kingpetch's next defense will most likely be made. After that he will await an NBA elimination tournament for a successor to the retired bantam title-holder, Jose Becerra. He will challenge the survivor.
Meanwhile, his clear-cut ascendancy leaves boxing firmly in the clutches of the pure in heart. A Mormon elder is middleweight champion; a convert to Catholicism is heavyweight champion; a onetime Buddhist priest is flyweight champion. There is no bantamweight champion but, with the trend the way it is in the manly art these days, chances are he will be someone who is good to his grandmother, takes up the collection in church, needs a passport to travel in the U.S.—and who owes his success to the secrets his mentor learned in long, blasphemous afternoons in Stillman's Gym.