"Battling Siki" was a professional boxer who accepted violence as an occupational hazard, but only when absolutely necessary. As 88-year-old Stefan Lorant tells it, Siki knocked out Georges Carpentier to win the world light heavyweight championship in 1922 because Carpentier was hitting him too hard. Siki had promised to throw the fight, but when Carpentier began landing punches for real, Siki became angry and changed his mind.
Lorant, a longtime photojournalist specializing in biography and history, befriended Siki the year after the fight. At the time Lorant was a cameraman for a German motion picture company that was shooting a movie in Paris called Dunkel Gassen (Dark Alleys), which is about a faithful servant, played by Siki, who rescues a wealthy woman from a murderous relative and then becomes a famous boxer. The film was made to cash in on the boxing renown of Siki, who was born in Senegal but had been adopted as a young boy by a woman in France. She named him Louis Phal and raised him on the Riviera.
"He was a sweetie pie," recalls Lorant. "In the morning he would come to the studio and kiss me on both cheeks. That was his greeting. We were pals and he loved me."
On the day the movie's fight scene—which Variety said "was the only good thing" about Dunkel Gassen—was to be shot, Siki warmed up by punching the light bag. "They put it up, and bim, bim, bim—he made music out of a punching bag," says Lorant. "There was a table in the studio, and he told me to get up on it. He said, 'I am going to exercise my stomach.' So he lies on the floor in his boxing trunks. 'Jump from the table on my stomach.' I said, 'No, no, no, I will hurt you.' I was 5'11" and weighed 175 pounds. He said, 'Do it.' " Lorant did it.
April 23, 1989
"His stomach was like cement," continues Lorant. "He said, 'Again.' " Lorant jumped twice more. "The effect was as if a housefly had landed on him."
As the two men got to know each other on the set, Siki told Lorant his version of the events surrounding his fight with Carpentier, the champion, at the Velodrome Buffalo in Paris on the afternoon of Sept. 24, 1922. Lorant recalls Siki saying, "My manager told me the money would be good. So I said, 'O.K., but I don't want to be hurt.' My manager said, 'You won't be.' In the ring, at the start, we were playing around. And the fellow hit me. I said, 'You aren't supposed to hit me.' He kept doing it. He thought he could beat me without our deal, and he kept on hitting me.
"I was so mad, I started hitting him back, and the next thing I saw, he was on the floor, knocked out, and my manager said, 'My God, what have you done?' I said, 'He hit me.' "
No one had expected Siki to win, because, although heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey had made short work of Carpentier in 1921, Siki was no Dempsey. Despite a 51-6-4 record, there was little to recommend Siki as a challenger, apart from a reputation for bravery he had gained as an infantryman during World War I. Carpentier, who had distinguished himself as a reconnaissance pilot during the war, was a quick and accurate puncher. He had one of the best right hands in the business.
Even though Carpentier knew the fix was in, a film of the bout clearly shows that he attempted to do Siki harm. For his part, Siki seemed to perform a dance, hopping around the ring, bobbing his head, cocking his left as if to deliver a blow and then withholding it. Generally satisfied to keep out of range, Siki would drop to one knee at the merest semblance of being hit. After one such alleged knockdown, he bounced to his feet and went into a full squat, resting for a moment on his haunches. His occasional wild swings looked perfunctory.
But when Carpentier did knock him down with a solid right in the third round, Siki's approach to the fight changed dramatically. He took the nine count, got up and began hammering Carpentier. Before the third round was over, Siki had Carpentier on the floor.
In the fourth they fought toe-to-toe, and Siki pounded him relentlessly in the fifth. Often they were locked in clinches, with Carpentier hanging on. At one point, when Siki tumbled over backward after having disengaged himself, Carpentier helped him to his feet.
Siki was not to be mollified. In the sixth he continued to punish Carpentier. The two became intertwined and then, tottering and defenseless, Carpentier spiraled to the canvas. He lay unconscious at Siki's feet, his left leg caught in the ropes. Either just before or just after the referee finished the count, Carpentier's handlers dragged him to his corner. There they heard the announcement that Siki had been disqualified for tripping. Carpentier was still champion.
The fans were not overjoyed. One report has it that they spat on Carpentier as he left the ring. Siki wept. An hour later the officials reversed themselves, awarding Siki a technical knockout on the grounds that Carpentier's manager had thrown in the towel (a sponge actually) before Carpentier went down. There was talk of funny business and a subsequent investigation. "But nothing was done," says Lorant.
Dunkel Gassen did not impress the critics when it was released in September 1923. "Siki was no actor," says Lorant, but adds that he also made the same judgment about a young woman he had screen-tested in Germany. "Go home and get married and have children," he told Marlene Dietrich.
Lorant left the cinema in 1928 to become editor of a new kind of magazine in Munich, one that told stories mainly through photographs. Called Münchner Illustrierte Presse, it was the forerunner of such magazines as LIFE and Look. After Hitler sent Lorant to jail as an enemy of the Reich in 1933, influential friends in Hungary, where he was born, worked for six months to obtain his release.
As soon as he was set free, Lorant got out of Germany and went to London, where he wrote a best-selling book entitled I Was Hitler's Prisoner. He also edited several magazines and came to the attention of Churchill. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Churchill asked Lorant to make a tour of the U.S. and write a series of articles about America's neutrality. Lorant did, and he decided to stay in the States and write books, which he has been doing, in Lenox, Mass., in the Berkshires, ever since.
As champion, Siki turned into a boulevardier whose frequent companion was a lion cub he kept on a leash. He unwisely elected to make his first defense against an Irishman named Mike McTigue on St. Patrick's Day, 1923, in Dublin. The 20-round bout went the distance but McTigue got the decision.
After that, Siki lived and fought with decreasing success, mostly in the U.S. He had 31 more fights and finished his 13-year career with a 64-25-5 record. According to the New York World, he walked the streets of Manhattan with his retainer, who carried a jug. At a signal from Siki—a slap on the face—his man would pour wine down Siki's throat.
Battling Siki died in 1925 at age 28. His obituary in the World began with the sentence, "Just before dawn yesterday a policeman found a powerful black man dead in the gutter of West 41st Street, near Ninth Avenue, with two bullet holes in his back." His killer was never found.
Roy McHugh is a former sports editor and columnist for "The Pittsburgh Press."