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.
The fight was the first world championship ever held in this capital of Spain's easternmost province. In the streets, in the cafes, on the quaysides, there was talk of nothing but Sangchilli-Brown. The streetcars were entirely covered with posters about it. Lottery ticket sellers, florists and beggars were all peddling seats.
On the morning of Sunday, May 26, great gray clouds were robbing the face of Valencia of its lovely golden color, and it was raining by 11 a.m., when the two champions arrived for the weigh-in at the offices of the boxing federation. Sangchilli was the first to get on the scale. He weighed 116. I noticed that Brown, usually calm before his fights, was tense and nervous. He mounted the scale in his turn and registered 119, which was a pound more than the limit for a bantamweight. It was obvious that Brown was surprised. On the scale at the hotel he had been well within the limit. We learned later that the hotel scale was wrong. The referee declared that Brown had four hours in which to make the required weight. He was led away to a steam bath, did a bit of walking, and at 1:30 p.m. his weight was 117, but he seemed even more nervous and, worse, he seemed weak. It was most fortunate, then, that the rain continued, forcing a postponement of the fight until the following Saturday.
Yet Brown had no use for fortune's favors. That very night he was back in the cabarets, and not once in the next six days did he get to bed before 5 o'clock in the morning. When Saturday came the second weigh-in went much like the first, and Brown had to go back to the steam bath. By the time he got into the ring at the Valencia arena on Saturday evening, Panama Al Brown was unrecognizable. His eyes were hollow, his skin looked gray and his features were terribly drawn. As for Sangchilli, he was greeted by his countrymen with an ovation lasting nearly two minutes. Even before the first gong sounded, those who knew Brown were aware that they were going to be present at his crushing defeat. Time and again he had disposed of adversaries with the slickness of a conjurer making plaster eggs and bowls of goldfish disappear up his sleeve. But we were going to witness the end of the conjurer. He was a mere shadow of himself. His arms hung heavily, his every gesture betrayed physical distress.
The fight began, and round followed round to Sangchilli's advantage. After the 14th Brown returned to his corner weeping. He realized that he was losing everything—his title, his fortune, everything. Minutes later the referee lifted Balthasar Sangchilli's arm, naming him the new world bantamweight champion. In the dressing room Brown fell down in a faint. When I went to say goodby to him there he eventually was able to shake my hand. And then he said, "I think I've been poisoned...."
Brown, convinced that his title had been taken from him by treachery, returned to Paris and the haunts of Montmartre. And there one night in the Caprice Viennois he first met Jean Cocteau. The more Cocteau talked to Brown, the more intrigued he got with an improbable idea: he, Cocteau, would bring Brown back to the championship. Even more improbable, Cocteau convinced Brown it could be done. By now it had been two years since Brown had fought. He had, instead, been living the night life of Montmartre. Brown had to go into a clinic to be disintoxicated, and he stayed there a month. Then he went off to train in the little town of Aubigny, some 110 miles from Paris.
About this time the French promoter, Jeff Dickson, received a letter from the Spanish Boxing Federation. It informed him that Balthasar Sangchilli was still recognized by the International Boxing Union as the world bantamweight champion, but said he was in difficulties in Cuba, having been let down by his managers and left without a match. The director of the federation asked Dickson if he could do anything for the Spanish fighter. The promoter, aware of the plans Al Brown was making for a comeback, immediately had the idea of arranging a rematch of the Valencia fight. It was agreed that Brown and Sangchilli should have three or four trial fights before meeting for the title.
Brown had installed himself at the Aubigny training camp in the first days of June 1937. He was to make his comeback at the beginning of September. For three months he led a life far more austere than he would have liked. But he had to regain form, that demanding lady who does not forgive the slightest fall from grace. Jean Cocteau often came to Aubigny to encourage his friend, but no one in sporting circles believed that a poet could give a boxer back his confidence. It was thought that Brown would win a few victories over adversaries who were no more than his equals but that the Valencia revenge would not take place. Brown took no notice of the forecasts. He trained every day and went to bed early. He gradually got back his wind and that most necessary asset, his timing.
On Sept. 9 Al Brown climbed into the ring at the Salle Wagram, where he had made his French debut 11 years before. A featherweight, Andr� R�gis, was the onetime champion's opponent, and the bout marked the reopening of the boxing season. Brown looked depressed and anxious, and one felt he had his heart in his mouth. The applause, the vicious whistling from the gallery, the raucous shouting of the already wrought-up crowd—all these forgotten noises sounded strangely in his cars. Then he took off his dressing gown and revealed his smooth chest, slim hips without an ounce of fat and long legs—those precious, slender legs with the bandaged ankles. The bantamweight phenomenon from Panama had returned.
The fight lasted only a minute, but during those 60 seconds there was ample time to savor the intelligence, the cunning, the spontaneity of Brown's boxing. A fortnight later Brown fought Maurice Huguenin and beat him by a K.O. in the third round. He again dominated his adversary with ease. The hardest battle of the night was fought outdoors, where 500 people were waiting in the Avenue de Wagram for the result. Then it was on to Geneva, where Francis Augier lasted only two rounds, and, after that, impressive wins over Poppi Decico and Young Perez. Sangchilli, meanwhile, had also been getting ready. The return match for the world title was fixed for the 4th of March at the Palais des Sports in Paris. During the last weeks before the championship fight Brown had somewhat returned to his usual training regimen, which no boxer but he could possibly have withstood. He was smoking more than 10 cigarettes a day and drinking several glasses of champagne, as well as having claret with his meals. He was also staying up late. But this time it did not seem to matter.