"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.
"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.