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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"It was M. Cocteau who impressed upon Al Brown again that the hour of his final retreat was sounded. It was natural, therefore, that M. Jean Cocteau should occupy the seat of honor at the Palais des Sports. He appeared during the Rabak-Cerdan match, which preceded the great encounter. He was with M. Jean Marais, who played Merlin the magician in Cocteau's latest play, Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde.

"With his chin supported on his two long, pale hands and tapering fingers, Jean Cocteau followed the fight in a sort of ecstasy. From time to time the hands would come together in brief applause, crisp and energetic. One had the feeling that everything about Al Brown delighted the poet: his swinging punches and his balletic footwork.

"To some of the spectators the struggle between the slinky jaguar and the small, rusty bull might have seemed rather long for the first seven rounds—a bit monotonous and sometimes disappointing. But Jean Cocteau had no doubt that his friend Al Brown would win. So you can imagine his enthusiasm at the stunning K.O. in the eighth round, which proved Cocteau right and unleashed universal admiration. Placing on his head a minute reddish-brown hat, Cocteau wedged his way through the crowd, followed by Merlin the magician and a crowd of frantic youngsters, to go and crown with its last laurels the black head of the champion who had just died, as a champion must die, apotheosized and beautiful."

But if Al Brown's return to the top was, in a sense, poetic justice, a great poetic injustice was to follow. The world does not let a boxer die while a king. Hear, then, the headlines in the Paris press: AL BROWN QUITS IN TOP FORM, AL BROWN CANNOT LEAVE THE RING AFTER SUCH A DAZZLING SUCCESS, AL BROWN MUST DEFEND HIS TITLE.

Cocteau's advice to Brown unleashed a whirlwind of passion. Paris was divided into two camps. One, determined to preserve this moneymaker, considered that Brown was wrong to abandon boxing; the other, which included those who had appreciated the unenthusiastic and disillusioned air of the champion during the Angelmann fight, approved Brown's decision. Jeff Dickson, for his part, declared he could convince Al Brown to fight again; that he had engaged the well-known British boxer Peter Kane, and that such a match would bring in a million francs. Former champions declared that Brown could not quit "like that" and the Angelmann fight referee himself, when interviewed, made a similar statement.

Advised on the one hand and lectured on the other, Brown was wavering. "If Jeff Dickson offers me 150,000 francs to meet Peter Kane, I shall accept," he declared. At the same time, Cocteau was helping Brown organize a circus act that would launch the fighter into a new career. Cocteau got Brown an engagement with the Cirque M�drano for more money than he had made in the Angelmann fight. In a single day a group of jazz musicians was found to accompany Brown, and Cocteau devised an act. He arranged everything—the lighting, the entrances, the original dance routines. He invented a shadowboxing dance and worked into Brown's act an image of Antigone. Behind a rope—an evocation of the boxing ring—the fighter danced and then, taking the rope, executed a series of rhythmic leaps, accompanied by castanets and jazz music. This dance, which brought the act to an end, recalled the gestures of the champion in training. The act was a great success, and Brown proved he could be a star in another profession.

On the day after the debut of Al Brown, the newspaper campaign for the return of the champion to the boxing ring started up again.

Henri Desgrange, the publisher of L'Auto, devoted one of his famous editorials to it. Addressing himself to Jean Cocteau and heading his article What is he meddling with? he wrote, in part:

"We sportsmen would like to know why this M. Cocteau, for whom I may say we have all due literary respect, should choose to deprive us from now on of the fighter, Al Brown. It is true that it was he who brought him back to us, but hew can we be grateful to him for this restoration if it is to deprive us of Al Brown for good? If M. Cocteau is taking upon himself by this coming and going of the black boxer the role of director of his conscience—and of his muscles—it must be agreed that he is bringing an excessive influence to bear on the situation.

"Does he want to depress us all, deprive us of the extraordinary sights Al Brown has to offer us? Would it not have been better to leave Brown to his bottles of champagne?

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