About this book
Battling Siki (1887–1925) was once one of the four or five most recognizable black men in the world, and was written about in detail by such figures as Ring Lardner and his son John, Damon Runyon, and Westbrook Pegler. One can find his legacy in the name of a popular rock group, one of Che Guevara’s lieutenants, a character on Xena, Warrior Princess, and the Battling Siki Hotel in the fighter’s homeland, Senegal. Peter Benson’s biography of the first African to win a world championshipin boxing delves into the complex world of sports, race, colonialism, and the cult of personality in the early twentieth century.
Born Amadu Fall, Siki was taken from Senegal to France by an actress and assumed the name Louis M’barick Fall. After an inauspicious beginning as a boxer, he served in World War I with distinction then returned to boxing and compiled a most impressive record (forty-three wins in forty-six bouts). Then, on September 24, 1922, at Paris’s Buffalo Velodrome, before forty thousand stunned spectators (including a young Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about the fight), Battling Siki, employing his trademark “windmill” punch, fought and defeated the reigning world and European light heavyweight champion, Georges Carpentier.
The colorful Siki spent a fortune partying and carousing, was arrested for firing a pistol in the air, and was frequently seen on the streets of Paris, dressed in flashy clothes, walking his pet lion cubs on a leash. But he also provoked a scandal by exposing the corruption of the fight game in France, spoke out boldly against racisim, and was arrected for deliberately defying the code of racial segregation in the American South. Siki’s flamboyant image was largely created by newsmen. In fact, the real Siki, while he did certainly like to party, was also an intelligent and socially conscious person, who detested the media’s image of him as a simple-minded drunken savage.
Offers rushed in for him to fight in the United States, maybe even against Jack Dempsey. But in a move many have called one of the strangest a fighter ever made, he fought Irishman Mike McTigue in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day—and lost. After losing his European title he came to the United States and fought without much success. He continued to drink and get into street brawls. On the evening of December 15, 1925, at the age of twenty-eight, he was shot and killed in Hell’s Kitchen in what some claimed was a gangland execution.
Peter Benson’s biography beautifully captures Battling Siki’s amazing boxing career and sheds new light on the scandal surrounding his marriages and public behavior, his alleged participation in ring fixes, and the mystery surrounding his death.
About the author
Peter Benson is associate professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the author of Black Orpheus, Transition, and Modern Cultural Awakening in Africa. He has been a Visiting Fulbright Professor at the University of Dakar, University of Nairobi, and Kenyatta University.
“One of the most comprehensive and intriguing boxing biographies in recent memory, and deserves high marks for refurbishing the image of a worthwhile and worthy champion.”
—Peter Ehrmann, The Ring
—Pat Myler, Evening Herald (Dublin)
“A tremendous book and useful to understanding race, sports, and crime in the 1920s.”
—Sport History Review
“Provides compelling information about a little known yet extremely important fighter, and furnishes an insightful analysis of the impact of racism on both whites and blacks in the early twentieth century. . . . Benson’s research is as impressive as his writing.”
—David K. Wiggins, author of Sport and the Color Line
“Siki’s story is quite a remarkable one, and Benson has done a fine job of digging out that story. . . . [It] sheds considerable light not only on boxing and American sport in the twentieth century, but also on the issue of race, and those shifting boundaries of nations and colonies.”
—Elliott Gorn, author of The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America
“Setting the record straight for a fighter as misunderstood, misinterpreted, and just plain mysterious as Battling Siki is a daunting task. But Peter Benson does it—and much more. At times he seems to put you into the skin of the age, permitting you to see Siki as his friends and enemies saw him and to sense the anger, frustration, and fear Siki engendered. As much as Dempsey and Ruth, Siki was a man of the 1920s.”
—Randy Roberts, author of Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hope and Jack Dempsey, the Manassa Mauler
“The contemporaneous reporting on Battling Siki’s life was often unreliable. But Peter Benson has done what he can to synthesize the truth and fashion a valuable addition to the historical record. ‘Battling Siki’ has all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy set in the Roaring Twenties.”
—Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times and The Black Lights