This Latino immigrant moved to 1920s New York with nothing and took on the sports establishment. Then the establishment took him down.
On October 14, 1928, his last day as president of the National Boxing Association, Tom Donahue sent out a press release listing each of the reigning champions. The following day, before Paul Prehn, the new president, moved in his belongings or placed any personal photos on his desk, he released a statement with the sole purpose of taking away from a fighter what was earned in the ring – his title. Panama Al Brown, a boxer whom the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau described as “a poem written in black ink,” was an unwanted champion.
In the years that followed, Brown danced circles around the best boxers, eventually becoming the undeniable king of the bantamweights. Yet boxing officials continued to look for reasons to deny him his status. His title reign was filled with dubious suspensions and blatant refusals by state commissioners to acknowledge that he was the best in his class. Eventually, Brown packed his bags and sailed to Europe. The fans there embraced him at first, but when they too caught wind of the whispers that swirled behind his back, most came to his fights hoping to see him lose. He was jeered, slurred, and spat on during his ring walks. After one fight, the Parisian fans surrounded him as he left the ring and beat him bloody and unconscious amid the ringside seats. The reason for the suspensions, the boos, and the hate on both sides of the Atlantic, was all because Al Brown, boxing champion, loved other men.
He was born on July 5, 1902, just as the Thousand Days’ War neared its end in a country known as the waist of the Americas. The coastal city of Colón, Panama, was a rugged place nature didn’t intend for habitation by large populations. Even the land-hungry sailor the area was named after, Cristobal Colón –Christopher Columbus – took one look at the hostile terrain and shook his head “no” before settling fifty miles to the west. Later, the quest for gold and the travel shortcut across this narrow isthmus attracted the masses in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Plans were drawn up for a railroad. Workers came from all over the world, including Brown’s maternal ancestors. Later, among the droves who came for jobs working on the construction of the Panama Canal was Brown’s father, Horace, a freed slave who arrived in Colón with nothing but the clothes on his muscular shoulders.
After the U.S. took over construction of the canal, roads were paved, social clubs opened, and mosquito breeding areas were doused in oil, eradicating the pests but leaving much of the area smelling like a five-minute lube shop. Along with the improved infrastructure came segregation. Despite there being two schools closer to their home, young Al Brown had to attend one of the blacks-only schools on the other side of the dusty town. He read from English-language textbooks and developed a love of music from playing with rusted instruments. After school, he washed his white button-down shirt in the sink because, for many years, it was the only school shirt he had.
“Miserable” was how Brown described his childhood. He was thirteen when his father died. His mother swept the dirty floors and scrubbed the soiled clothes of others to provide for the family. Brown did his share, bringing home prizes – a can of powdered milk – he won from his amateur boxing matches.
Boxing was one of the more popular forms of entertainment during and following the canal construction. Hall of Fame caliber fighters like Sam Langford and Kid Norfolk headlined throughout the country. Boxing back then was a world where broken noses were fixed by the guys carrying the spit bucket. Orange peels were used as mouth guards, to prevent the teeth from shredding the insides of lips and leaving them looking like twisted pasta noodles. To prevent biting their tongues while fighting, boxers bit down on wooden matchsticks. The pre-fight and post-fight medicals consisted simply of the question, “How do you feel?”
The Strand Boxing Gym was where Brown started. It was a humid place where trainers smoked, drank, and everyone’s idea of fresh air was flapping a musky towel in your face. Pounding the bags with a dingy pair of Maynard boxing gloves, he found solace.
Following World War I, most of the top boxers left Panama. Prospects were few, so Brown hesitated only slightly before leaving Colón behind. He spent time at the docks, sometimes working as a stevedore. Mostly, he paced back and forth and studied the routines of the ships the way he would opponents in the ring. He looked for an opening where he might be able to slip in.
When the Alvarado passed through the canal on May 21, 1923 on its way to New York, Brown lined up on the docks with a loading crew. Wearing two shirts, two pairs of underwear, and his father’s cap pulled down over his eyes, he joined the crew as they loaded the ship, his eyes scanning every corner of the vessel. Before the last round of goods were loaded, they nodded silently to him. Brown took one last look at Colón, and, under his breath said, “Goodbye Mom.”
Once underway, he was found and put to work in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Seated in a trench with a carving knife in one hand and a potato in the other, he twisted and turned the potato while chalky, foot-long spirals fell and filled bucket after bucket.
A few weeks later, on Ellis Island, sweat coated the palms of his hands. Suspicious border agents seated behind elevated desks awaited with a round of questions, occasionally stopping to ruffle through papers and fix their eyes on him. The young boxer kept his cool and his answers short.
When he stepped out into the sun-drenched street, he asked, “Which way to Harlem?”A stranger’s finger pointed north. It was about nine miles of brick and concrete from where he stood. With no money, he followed the trains that rumbled above on the Ninth Avenue El.
When he reached 125th Street, it was that time of the day when the sun gets dunked into the Hudson. Weary and hungry, desperation increased as he looked for a boxing gym, or someone who looked like a boxer. The trolley cars became less frequent, the streets less crowded, and, as the night blanketed the city, it became obvious his first night would be spent on the streets.
For two weeks, Brown roamed Harlem. A chance encounter with a former gym mate from Panama led to an audition before manager Leo P. Flynn and trainer Dai Dollings in a gym filled with many boxers from back home, who told Flynn and Dollings he was the flyweight champion of Panama. Doubting someone five-foot-nine could weigh only 114 pounds, Flynn asked him to strip down to his skin and be weighed. When the shirt came off and they noticed his muscles braided around his bones, they knew he was a future champion. Within a year, boxing in violet colored trunks with his initials on the front, Brown was ranked in the top three by Ring Magazine. Then his career stalled like a clogged toilet.
A series of events coincided to make his life miserable and his story great. His manager fell ill, his trainer’s son died, and the rumors about Brown’s personal life spread like mange throughout Lenox and Saint Nicholas Avenues and made their way into the boxing gyms. Brown was gay. He was “in the life” and patronized places like the speakeasy on 126th Street and Seventh Avenue, where the “rough queers” went, according to writer Bruce Nugent. Or six blocks up and to the right of that, where Edmond’s Cellar was “the place for men to flaunt their sister’s skirts and their mom’s wigs.” Other boxers stopped using the showers when he did. He was barred from the gyms. Unable to pay his rent, he was once again homeless.
Brown showed up at the offices of promoter Eddie McMahon, (whose brother Jess, the grandfather of the WWE’s Vince McMahon, promoted wrestling). Under Eddie, Brown became a headliner at the Commonwealth Athletic Club in Harlem. Though popular with the uptown crowds, which included Langston Hughes, Brown had little luck securing the more lucrative and important fights held below 125th Street.
He began boxing with the enthusiasm of a man stuffing envelopes. Then, following the murder of his friend, boxing champion Battling Siki of France, Brown headed for Paris.
On November 11, 1926 at the Salle Wagram, Europe had its first look at Brown. Hours before the doors opened, a sold-out crowd lined up beneath the bright lights of the Salle and waited anxiously. Brown was the latest in a string of performers who became known as “Harlem in Montmartre.” While Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt ruled the stage, Brown was king of the ring. When he made his way down the carpeted aisle of the Troubadour-style hall in a sky-blue, silk kimono with white polka dots, his beige newsboy cap pulled down to side, he had no idea he was about to embark upon perhaps the most intense love-hate relationship any fighter ever had with his fans.
In his Paris debut, Brown boxed like Muhammad Ali and punched like Joe Louis. A right hand thrown like a spear in the third, simultaneously dropped his opponent and the jaws of the ringsiders. After the fight, Brown hit the cobblestone streets and received congratulations everywhere he went. In Paris, despite being darker than his last name, he walked through the front doors of the pubs.
His fights drew crowds the New York Times described as “fashionable” and, dressed in “evening clothes, with a brilliant display of jewelry, ermine and sables by the women.” In the audience were Picasso and Hemingway. After the fights, along the Rue de Martyrs or Boulevard de Clichy, the seductive sounds of a saxophone often came from Brown’s hands and lips. Having learned French as a child from his mother, who was of French-Caribbean ancestry, Brown easily got around Paris. The athletic boxer took to dance as easily as he did to boxing and even performed onstage with Josephine Baker’s La Revue Negré. Well-known in many parts of the city, once again, the whispers about his lifestyle spread. The premier attraction of the most macho sport was a regular in places where women dressed as men and same-sex couples held hands. Cheers turned to jeers and ring entrances were met with profanity, slurs and spit.
Brown returned to New York and, under a new and influential manager, continued winning. When it came time for the NBA to crown a champion in 1928, he and Italy’s Kid Francis were the leading available contenders, and they met in a match TheNew York Times reported was “calculated to eliminate” one of them from the title picture. On the night of September 13, 1928, they faced off. Francis, called a “sawed-off Hercules and “the most dangerous challenger for the title” by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was no match for the “towering colored bantam with the extension ladder reach.” Brown became the first boxer from Latin America to win a world title, but it was soon taken away from him.
On October 14, 1928, his last day as president, Donahue sent out a press release which appeared in the Times under an AP byline. Brown was listed among the champions. The very next day, the new president, Paul Prehn, issued a press release.
“In the previous list Al Brown was recognized as the bantamweight champion, but now that championship is declared vacant.”
There is no definitive record of why he was stripped of the title, whether it was racism or homophobia or merely favoritism for others, but the decision to award it to him was not a popular one, and few protested it being taken away.
Once again relegated to club shows, Brown began to show signs of depression. He returned to Europe. The wins continued, as did the insults. Eventually, Brown beat everyone in his way and, begrudgingly, was acknowledged as champion in most corners. He came back to New York and defeated the reigning sensation, the Spaniard Gregorio Vidal, in 1929, after fifteen rounds and three knockdowns. But once again, those in charge of the NBA preferred to leave the title vacant.
In contrast, fans in Europe flocked to his fights and the pay befitted a champion. Though he would do most of his boxing in Europe the rest of his career, he traveled often between the continents, keeping apartments in Harlem and Montmartre. In Harlem, he drove a 1929 Packard 645 Sport with six wire wheels. “A magnificent car that I might bring here if I stay long,” he told a Spanish reporter, who noted that Brown spoke with a lisp and dragged every “s.” In 1930, the Afro American reported that Brown, “Set Harlem Styles for Men.” His attire was called “feminine” and his “flowing coats, high belts and tams tickle observers on Seventh Avenue.”With wide belts, polished Oxfords, and colorful fedoras, Brown stood out like a Borzoi in a gym filled with bulldogs and pugs.
In Paris, he kept a stable of slow race horses and once gave away a Bugatti. He also kept a medicine chest full of drugs. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in a Parisian nightclub or a Harlem speakeasy, in a room too dark to see the chancre sores, Brown contracted syphilis. Arthritis set in soon after. Painkillers and mercury pills became a daily routine. When his mother became bedridden, he delayed visiting her.
What would she say when she saw the raw sores that dotted his back, he thought. In those pre-penicillin days, syphilis had no cure. While he waited for the symptoms to fade, she exhaled for the last time. He didn’t attend the funeral. Instead, he stayed in Paris and got hooked on opium.
Because of his illness and addiction, some of his fights were cancelled. When he fought Emile Pladner on November 14, 1932, he was drunk, high and sick. From about the eighth of November, Brown could not get out of bed. His vision was blurred, his head spun, and his stomach had trouble holding anything down. The day of the fight, he awoke with shivers and cold sweats and a temperature of 102. Still, he fought. That night, a Dr. Taubmann was called to his dressing room. The doctor prepared a syringe. “This will last ten minutes,” he said of the rush from the mixture of amphetamines. “Starting now,” he added before sticking the champion in his arm. It was clear to ring siders something was wrong with Brown. He threw few punches and there was no bounce to his steps. In the corner before the second round, his handlers held a fistful of smelling salts under his nose and told him, “Take him out now.”
Brown’s legs quivered unsteadily when he rose from his stool. At the center of the ring, an eager Pladner awaited. When Brown reached him, Pladner unleashed a left with fight-ending intentions towards Brown’s diaphragm. The punch traveled in a slight arc, gained maximum leverage, then, suddenly, was pulled down to the canvas with the rest of his body.
A split-second after Pladner planted his left foot for torque, Brown unleashed a right hand. Both punches were airborne at the same time. Brown’s punch was straight. Pladner’s took the scenic route. The straight punch landed first. It detonated on Pladner’s jaw. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. He looked awful when he got up. Brown looked worse.
When Pladner wound up to throw his next punch, Brown released an atomic right hand that carried every bit of energy he had left. It landed on the temple. Pladner was out before he hit the canvas. Before the referee finished the ten-count, Brown started to faint. He collapsed into the arms of his trainer who rushed over in the nick of time to catch him.
Brown was admitted into a hospital, where he stayed for 48 hours. He woke to find a telegram on the desk beside him from his manager instructing him to check himself out and head over immediately to Sheffield for a December 1 match, followed by one in Brussels on December 3, and then another in Paris on December 8.
One week later, an article in El Mundo Deportivo stated, “bad winds blowing throughout the house of Brown.” He was in a state of depression severe enough that he might quit the game. The cause for the depression was the death of his mother and his inability to visit her. Those close to him said Brown felt his death was imminent and that he wished to be high when it happened.
He was almost killed in 1934 by that angry mob who rushed the ring, kicking and punching him until the riot police arrived. Ringside reporters said Brown had thrown few punches and stumbled around the ring as though drunk. He grabbed and held on to his two-divisions-heavier opponent until the referee disqualified him for “stalling.” When he exited the ring, a mob blocked all paths to the dressing room and shouted at him. Within seconds, they pounced on him. When the attack was broken up, Brown had a dislocated clavicle and streams of his blood covered the ground. No arrests were reported, though one writer declared Brown was to blame for the fracas.
He lost his championship in 1935 in a fight during which he spent the last three rounds crying and unable to properly defend himself because, he said, someone in his own corner had slipped some rat poison in his water bottle halfway through the fight. He returned to Paris with no intention of boxing. He found work as a tap dancer and sax player performing in front of crowds who preferred talking amongst themselves rather than watching him. Brown spent his days clutching his opium lamp. Always warm, that lamp – and that drug – did for him what his vaunted straight right used to: it bailed him out.
Then one night the poet, Jean Cocteau, sat in the audience and asked to meet Brown, who he said comported himself in an elegant manner. Cocteau saw a younger version of himself in Brown. The dependency on his drug of choice, the way he clung to and relied on it like medicine, and the countless hook-ups with nameless individuals equally lost were all part of the road he traveled in his own younger days. Cocteau also knew the path out and would soon give Brown the directions.
Cocteau convinced Brown he needed to regain his championship and that he, for no money, would become his manager – his protector. With the financial backing of Cocteau’s close friend, Coco Chanel, Brown underwent detox and regained his title. Rumors once again surfaced, this time linking Brown with Cocteau. It was no secret that they shared an apartment and Brown was quoted as saying that what he liked most about Cocteau was the way the poet would slide into the bathtub after Brown was done and use the same bathwater the champ had used. They wore one another’s shoes and shirts and though they didn’t publicly confirm the rumors, they never denied them, not even when right-wing and fascist writers such as Robert Brasillach labeled Cocteau a “Jewified lover of Negroids.” Instead, Cocteau wrote a series of affectionate poems and articles about Brown, mostly for the journal Ce Soir. He wrote that “Al Brown’s methods astonished by their indifference to the rules.” Cocteau wrote of his own imprudence when, “adopting young souls who replace the true sons fate owed me but has not permitted me to have.” One of those souls, he wrote, “is so alien to the world of letters that he is almost more of a lyrical creation; I speak of former champion Al Brown.” There were enough writings to fill a book, which is precisely what Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo did, publishing Cocteau-Panama AlBrown Historia de Una Amistad (A Story of Friendship).
Under the guidance of Cocteau, Brown redeemed himself. He retired as champion and life was good until the beginnings of World War II. With the threat of German occupation looming over France, Brown left behind property, savings, Cocteau, and many friends. He returned to Harlem, and despite beginning to show signs of brain damage – headaches, a wobbly gait, slurred speech – he started boxing again. He sparred younger fighters, most of the time just covering up and letting them hit him. He stumbled out of the ring afterwards and, with an unsteady hand, collected his wage of one dollar per round.
He was arrested for possession. Standing before federal judge William Bondy, he said his name was “Alfredo.” Someone in the courtroom whispered into Bondy’s ear. Looking down from the bench, he asked, “Are you Al Brown the former boxing champion?”
Brown lowered his head, and, in a soft voice, admitted he was. The room was silent while he told his story. He had left behind $280,000 in property in France with no way of reclaiming it, he told the court. Someone had recommended heroin, he said, so that the ring beatings wouldn’t hurt as much.
The last few years of his life were spent in hospitals and on the streets. One cold night in 1951, a cop poked his club at an unresponsive man curled up on a mattress of litter on Broadway. It was Brown. They tossed him in a jail cell. When he didn’t wake up, they rushed him to a hospital. He had tuberculosis. When Cocteau found out Brown was on his deathbed, he recorded his memories of their time spent together and sent the tape to him via a reporter from L’équipe. It arrived just in time.
On April 11, 1951, the booing ended, the insults went away, and the slurs stopped. A modest ceremony attended by few was followed by a burial witnessed only by the guy holding the shovel. His death, like that night in 1928 when he first became champion, went largely unreported. At least this time, the writers could be excused since Brown died alone in an empty room. With the tape player to his ear, according to Cocteau.
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This story is adapted and excerpted from Jose Corpas’ book, Black Ink. Sources include “Panama Al Brown” by Eduardo Arroyo; “Monstre Sacres Du Ring” by Georges Peeters; “An Impersonation of Angels, A Biography of Jean Cocteau” by Frederick Brown; “Professional Secrets, An Autobiography” by Jean Cocteau; and “A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939” by Florence Tamagne.