New York

NYF Recalls Panama Al Brown



NYF Recalls Panama Al Brown

Just find Kid Norfolk.

That was the instruction Panama Al Brown was given when he left Panama. With no money in his pockets and no idea just how large New York City could be, Brown set off on the first of many journeys without knowing what to expect.

When you hear about all that he endured in his life, you get the impression that had he known what awaited – syphilis, a stabbing, a mob beating, drug addiction, and jail time – he would have still gone.

The first champion born in Latin America was born on July 5, 1902, in Panama.

He grew up on the second floor of a weather-beaten wooden home on Sixth Street in the coastal city of Colón.

Alfonso Téofilo Brown was his given name, and he shared a bedroom with three brothers, their beds divided by mosquito screens.

His maternal ancestors had arrived from the French Antilles when the Panama Railroad was built along the old Camino Real path that connected the Caribbean with the Pacific.

Later, when the French attempted to dig a hole through the middle of Panama so that ships from the Atlantic would have a shortcut to the gold in California, Brown’s father, Horace, a freed slaved from Tennessee, made his way to Colon along with a brother and only the clothes on their muscular backs.

In a Spanish interview that took place when he was champion, Brown looked back on those early days and described his childhood as being “miserable.”

It is no surprise then that when the opportunity came to travel to New York, penniless and without a place to stay, Brown hesitated only slightly.

The “address” they gave him was “Harlem.

Nothing else.

But the rest of the world was about to find out what those in Panama already knew. Al Brown never met an obstacle he didn’t like.

Somebody will know him,” they said of Kid Norfolk and Brown agreed.

Norfolk, a former resident of Panama, was one of the most popular fighters in Panama in the years before the first world war. Alongside fighters such as Sam Langford, Harry Wills, and Abe Hollandersky, he headlined often and even held the local championship.

When Brown was thirteen, he started boxing and soon found himself training alongside his idol at the Strand Boxing Club. After Norfolk left for New York, Brown regularly checked the sports pages for updates on the boxer.  

On May 21, 1923, Brown lined up on the shipping dock in Colón 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 Alvarado.

Brown’s eyes scanned every corner of the vessel, looking for a place where he could hide until the ship left the dock because once it did, they wouldn’t turn around.

Before the last round of goods were loaded, the other workers nodded silently to him. That was his cue. Brown took one last look at Colón.

After weeks of peeling potatoes, Brown stepped out into the sun-drenched street and asked, “Which way to Harlem?”

A stranger's finger pointed north. Harlem was about nine miles of brick and concrete from where he stood. With no money, Brown walked, following the path of the trains that rumbled above on the Ninth Avenue “L.”

When he arrived in Harlem, it was dark, the stores were closing, and the realization that his first night in New York would be spent on the streets soon hit.

For two weeks, Brown roamed the streets and avenues, mostly looking for someone who knew Norfolk, but also looking for a place to sleep. He slept in alleys and park benches and ate discarded food.

Tired, hungry, and lost, he found a wall to lean on one day and closed his eyes while the sun warmed his face. “I do not remember what I was thinking of but, when I heard his voice, I thought I was dreaming.”

The voice belonged to a former gym mate from back home, a featherweight named Bobby Risden.

He too had followed Norfolk to New York and even had the same manager, Leo P. Flynn.

Risden arranged for an audition before Flynn and trainer Dai Dollings, telling them that Brown was the champion of Panama.

Risden didn’t have to do much selling. Flynn never met a fighter he wouldn’t manage, and Brown was blessed with the skills of a legend.

Brown impressed both and, within a year, always dressed in violet-colored trunks with his initials on the front, he was ranked among the top three in the flyweight division by Ring Magazine.

Then his career stalled like a clogged toilet.

Flynn fell ill and moved to Arkansas and at almost the same time, Dollings returned to Wales to attend his son’s funeral.

The rumors about Brown’s personal life began to spread like mange throughout Lenox and Saint Nicholas Avenues and made their way into the boxing gyms.

Brown was gay and many in the boxing world wanted nothing to do with him. Brown 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. His brother Jess, the grandfather of the WWE’s Vince McMahon, promoted wrestling. 

McMahon was putting on weekly shows at the Commonwealth Athletic Club in Harlem and was always on the lookout for fighters to fill his cards.

After working out a deal with Flynn, Brown became a headliner, popular with the uptown crowds, which included Langston Hughes.

Despite winning often and sensationally, and easily selling out the small arena, Brown had little luck securing the more lucrative and important fights that were held below 125thStreet.

He began boxing with the enthusiasm of a man stuffing envelopes.

On the west side of Manhattan, there was a French bistro owned by a former cycling champion that was frequented by boxers visiting from France including Battling Siki.

Brown, who was fluent in French because of his mother, was a regular there.

In December of 1925, Siki and a lightweight named Gaston Charles convinced Brown that he would be better off in Paris. The pay would be better and the racism much more toned down. If Brown had any doubts, they were erased the morning of December 16, when word spread that Siki had been murdered.

After serving as a pall bearer for his slain friend, Brown, Gaston Charles, and the bistro owner penned a letter to Jeff Dickson, who was then the preeminent promoter in Europe. Weeks passed and no reply. Brown, listless and demoralized, won only one of his next four fights. In the spring of 1926, they received a reply.

Georges Carpentier was headlining a fight in Madison Square Garden that May and Dickson had gotten Brown a spot on the undercard that would serve as an audition. Few opponents stood a chance against a motivated Brown.

“It was my second voyage but this time I had luggage and a passport,” Brown said about his trip to France. Instead of a random finger pointing uptown, a chauffeur greeted him in Le Havre and drove him to a five-star hotel in 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 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 would become champion and effortlessly juggled that responsibility with dancing gigs, eventually performing onstage with Josephine Baker’s La Revue Negré.

Well-known in many parts of the city, once again, 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.

He was almost killed in 1934 by an angry mob that rushed the ring, kicking and punching him until the riot police arrived.

When the attack was broken up, Brown had a dislocated clavicle and streams of his blood covered the ground. No arrests were reported, and one writer wrote that Brown was to blame for the fracas.

The following year, Brown was an ex-champion. Unlike the first time he was champ, in 1928 when he won the NBA title and was stripped for an unknown reason, Brown lost his title in the ring.

He spent the last three rounds crying and unable to properly defend himself because, he said, someone in his own corner had slipped rat poison into his water bottle.

Disgusted with the sport, he dedicated himself to tap dancing and playing his sax to crowds that became smaller by the night.

When not on stage, Brown spent his days clutching his opium lamp.

By all accounts, he had been an addict since 1932, the same year he contracted syphilis. It was also the same year his mother died. Ashamed of what she might think when she saw him, riddled in chancre sores and at the mercy of alcohol and drugs, he fell into a depression that European writers described as suicidal.

Seated in the dark during one of those gigs was the poet and playwright, Jean Cocteau.

Al was a poem in black ink.

Those are the words Cocteau used to describe him. Cocteau, who was one of the leaders of the surrealist movement, convinced Brown he needed to regain his championship and that he, for no money, would become his manager.

With the financial backing of Cocteau’s close friend, Coco Chanel, Brown underwent detox and soon regained his title in one of boxing’s most unlikely comebacks – an over the hill drug addict managed by a gay poet with no boxing experience.

Rumors once again spread, 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.”

Under the guidance of Cocteau, Brown redeemed himself. He retired as champion and life was good until the beginning 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.

When Cocteau wrote that Al Brown was a poem written in black ink, he did not specify what type of poem.

If he was talking about his ability to float and sting in the ring long before anyone in Louisville did, we can say he was a ballad. If Cocteau was describing Brown’s habit of buying a new hat every day or mailing his suits to London from Paris to be pressed, we can say Brown was a free verse.

Perhaps Cocteau was thinking about all the tribulations Brown overcame and maybe he had an inkling that Brown was destined for a tragic end. In that case, we can say Brown was an epic written in the darkest of ink.

In 1951, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden, a cop poked his club at an unresponsive homeless man who was curled up on a mattress of litter.

They tossed him in a jail cell and when he didn’t wake up, they rushed him to a hospital.

A few years earlier, Cocteau had asked Marcel Cerdan to find Brown and ask if he was interested in returning to Paris. Before the message could be delivered, Cerdan died tragically in a plane crash.

The next time Cocteau heard about Brown was when he was informed that he was on his deathbed, riddled with tuberculosis.

Cocteau recorded his memories of their time spent together and sent the tape to Brown 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 only a few was followed by a burial witnessed only by the guy holding the shovel. Brown died alone in an empty hospital room. With the tape player to his ear, according to Cocteau.