SI Vault
Georges Peeters
March 02, 1964
The story of Panama Al Brown and Jean Cocteau properly begins in the Spanish city of Valencia at a fight that Cocteau never saw. Brown, the world bantamweight champion, was risking his title against a familiar ring figure of that era, Balthasar Sangchilli, a Spaniard. It was the last week of May 1935, and I can still vividly remember flying to Valencia just a few days before the fight and meeting Brown at the Hotel Regina. He received me gaily and announced that he had organized a party that evening to tour the cabarets of the town. "You're going to hear the best flamenco singers in the whole of Spain," he said to me. He was not at all worried about Sangchilli, and we embarked on a memorable evening. At every cabaret I noticed his manager continually filling Al's glass and, for the first time, I saw Brown get drunk. He was in a happy mood, dancing, taking over the drums in the band, then coming back to drink and listen to the flamenco singers. It was 6 in the morning when we got back to the hotel, even though this was only two days before he was to defend his title.
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March 02, 1964

How Cocteau Managed A Champion

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Jean Cocteau, who had just finished writing Les Parents Terribles, returned to Paris on the eve of the match and was able to witness, not without amusement, the influence he had exerted on the sporting journalists who were doing articles before the title fight. Brown, for example, was less frequently the "black wonder" and more often the "enfant terrible," and many of the newspaper stories read as though they had slipped out of a Cocteau novel. But on the day of the match it was Cocteau himself who brought out an article in L" Auto on the world championship. Cocteau wrote: "The fight to which Jeff Dickson is inviting us at the Palais des Sports lies strangely outside our experience of an ordinary boxing meeting. Al Brown, in fact, after having once given up boxing and having now come back to the ring, finds himself tonight in the presence of a personal enemy, the fighter to whom he owes his downfall and the loss of his title.

" Al Brown has been born: the shadow of himself. The 'black wonder,' as the journalists sometimes call him, is a fragile creature, slim, almost frail, and with the nobility of an icon. When I met him he seemed dead to me, poisoned during his stay in Valencia and halted in his course. It was his ghost I saw jump the ropes, his ghost that languished in Montmartre, and his ghost that I decided to persuade, despite its reluctance, to continue the work of Brown in flesh and bone.

"It was the incredulity of the crowd and of the profession that had to be overcome. He had to believe a poet, unversed in the field, and he had to advance from match to match and from K.O. to K.O. until he stood again face to face with Balthasar Sangchilli, the winner of that atrocious duel in Valencia where Brown abandoned the title of world champion, abandoned his fortune and abandoned boxing.

"Disgust and an enormous rebellion took the place of a first reflex of anger. I repeat, he had died.

"But an Al Brown does not die like a page in the court of Catherine de Medici. His race gives him an almost plantlike resistance. His ghost, his shadow, survive him. It is this shadow that I respect, that I am helping and that I now have the luck to see achieving its aim. Shall I lead Al Brown right to the goal? I believe I am not the only one to wish it with all my heart."

Al Brown will win before the final round, or he will be beaten on points—this was the double-edged prognosis of the sporting journalists. It did in fact seem impossible that the boxer from Panama could hold up through the classic 15-round length of the world championship contest. It had already been noticed that at the end of the 10th round of his match against Decico he had seemed somewhat out of breath. Sangchilli had therefore to play a waiting game, and Brown to force himself to terminate it at the earliest possible moment. This was what the experts foresaw.

During the preliminary fights at the Palais des Sports that night more of a show was taking place outside of the ring than in it. All of Al Brown's Montmartre friends were there. The actors Roland Toutain and Jean Marais were sitting on cither side of Cocteau. Around the ring were to be seen many other celebrities—Raimu, Jean Gabin, Tino Rossi, Alcover, and Paul Aza�s—a marvelous blending of arts and artists. They all wanted to be present at the most extraordinary comeback in the annals of boxing.

In his dressing room Brown tore open the last telegrams from well-wishers, tucked away a small devotional medallion and left for ringside. He seemed to be in a state of high tension. He did not appear to see his friends who surrounded him, shouting, "Good luck." He heard nothing. He was dressed in a beige flannel shirt, dark-blue velvet shorts and a white cap. After he climbed over the ropes and took his place in the center of the ring he removed his cap and waved to the public. And for the first time he may have suddenly felt that the heart of the public was beating for him, that the crowd understood the redoubtable ordeal he was about to undergo, he the aging fighter confronting a still-young adversary.

The moment the Negro left his corner, it was clear to the noisy crowd of 20,000 what Sangchilli's tactics were going to be. The Spaniard, faced with a height and reach disadvantage, had decided to play hedgehog. With head low, chin behind his gloves and forearms over his stomach, Sangchilli was covered in such a way that he would not be open to any blow from the right. Brown adopted the only possible measure, which was one he knew well. He kept his distance and began to hit with straight lefts. Preoccupied with watching Brown's feared right, Sangchilli was unable to avoid these straight blows. Moreover, he did nothing to stave them off. He did not want to take any risks. Once, right at the beginning of the fight, he rushed briskly into the attack, but by a slight step to one side Brown avoided his path and Sangchilli, head down and carried along by his own impetus, was thrown into the ropes. Thinking confusedly that he could do nothing but wait for some miscalculation on his opponent's part, Sangchilli kept himself in cautious reserve. Only one man in the ring was accumulating points. Al Brown registered 17 straight lefts in the course of the third round alone.

By the seventh round the Panamanian fighter was absolutely sensational. For three minutes he went hell-for-leather at his opponent, who was completely overwhelmed. The challenger increased his advantage still more up to the end of the 11th round. He had then, according to the score of the competent critics, such an advantage on points that he could not be beaten, except, of course, by a knockout. But the experts were still wondering anxiously whether Brown could hold up to the end.

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