- William Dettloff
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Panama Al Brown was 48 years old when he died from tuberculosis in New York City in 1951, without a dollar to his name.
They buried him in a little grave in Harlem at first, until some old heads who knew how great he'd been in the ring raised some money, dug up his bones and shipped them to Panama for a proper burial.
If it were any other ex-fighter, no one would have been surprised that the end came as it did. After all, if there was one thing you could count on old pugs to do, it was go broke at the end. And not a little broke; all the way broke, so broke they sold the clothes off their backs and survived on charity born of nostalgia and on the rapidly receding memories of their halcyon days.
Most old fighters of Brown's generation, and of several generations before and after, ended up the same way, and it didn't matter if they were kings, as Brown had been, or cauliflowered journeymen, the true paupers of sport.
You wouldn't have guessed it would end that way for Brown. Not because he was the best bantamweight in the world for almost a decade, or because he was the first Hispanic world boxing champion. You wouldn't have predicted it for him because he'd made a career of being markedly unlike other professional pugs of the day -- or of any day.
You can start with his build. Brown defined the phrase "freakishly tall" a full 50 years before the hyper-elongated limbs and torsos of Thomas Hearns and, later, Mark Breland added the phrase permanently to the boxing lexicon.
Rail thin, 5-foot-11, 118 pounds, and with a 76-inch reach (heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano's reach was a stubby 67 inches by comparison), Brown towered over his opponents, a marvel of complex physicality that, improbably, produced perfect symmetry in a prize ring.
Indeed, when he was at the height of his power in the 1930s, the London Times described him as "a bantamweight 71 inches tall, yet by some miracle of physique, perfectly proportioned."
Alfonso Teofilo Brown was born in Panama in 1902. His first real exposure to boxing came when he was a young adult, clerking for the United States Shipping Board at the Panama Canal Zone. He saw American soldiers boxing and maybe if they'd been playing basketball or squash he'd have gone in a different direction, but they were fighting. Soon he was too.
Brown turned pro in 1922 under the guidance of manager Dave Lumiansky and very quickly established a presence upon relocating to New York in 1923.
His rise was rapid; A year after he moved to New York, The Ring magazine rated him the third best flyweight in the world. Two years later he was the magazine's sixth-rated bantamweight.
It wasn't until June of 1929 that Brown won the vacant bantamweight title with a commanding win in New York over Vidal Gregorio in front of 15,000 fans. But his future had been forged, more or less, two years earlier, when he spent a full year in Paris, France and fell so in love with the city in particular and with Europe in general that he fought on the European continent 40 times between 1929 and 1934.
In his book, Monstres Sacres du Ring, noted French boxing writer Georges Peeters described the atmosphere of the Spanish city of Valencia in May 1935, in the weeks before Brown's title fight loss against Balthasar Sangchili, a Spaniard.
"In the streets, in the cafes, on the quaysides, there was talk of nothing but Sangchili-Brown. The streetcars were entirely covered with posters about it. Lottery ticket sellers, florists and beggars were all peddling seats."
If Brown was right for Europe, he was handmade for Paris. Reportedly fluent in seven languages, versed in the great literature and far more cosmopolitan than typical fighters, Brown was embraced by the French. They adored his unorthodox training regimen, which included smoking 10 or more cigarettes a day, drinking champagne and wine with dinner, and frequenting parties that lasted until dawn.
Moreover, unlike American fight fans, the French did not discriminate against smaller fighters. Heavyweights ruled the sport in America, but the fans in Europe better appreciated the smaller, more skilled fighters. And that was Brown.
There was another facet of Brown's life that made life in Europe amenable to him: he is widely believed to have been gay and to have had a long-lasting romantic affair with renowned French poet Jean Cocteau.
In fact, Cocteau, who had no experience in boxing, became Brown's manager after the loss to Sangchili and is credited with guiding the fighter through a modestly successful comeback.
"[Brown] was a homosexual at a time when such things were not even whispered about in society at large, never mind boxing circles," wrote the great British boxing historian Harry Mullan in the Ultimate Encyclopedia of Boxing.
Writing about one of the ill-regarded, American-based sanctioning bodies that stripped Brown of the title, Mullan continued, "The conservative American establishment in the form of the NBA [National Boxing Association] were glad to find a reason to strip him of the title, ostensibly for his failure to defend against [mandatory contender] Baby Casanova."
Nevertheless, Brown, who ended his career with a remarkable record of 123-18-10 (with 55 knockouts), was the recognized bantamweight world champion for six years and over that time made 11 title defenses against the best bantamweights and featherweights of his era.
His rematch win over Sangchili in 1938 in Paris was his last great night and, bowing to Cocteau's wishes, Brown vowed to retire after one more fight. That came against Valentine Angelmann in Paris (Brown stopped him in eight rounds). Many in the Parisian sporting press begged Brown to fight on. Others knew it was over.
"Al Brown fought with an almost unearthly vitality," wrote G. London in Le Journal. "A fight which could have been a sad one, since it came under the heading of 'Burial of a Boxer.' Al Brown, like the phoenix rising up out of his ashes, has experienced a short-lived revival of his glory – short-lived but certain."
That was 1939 and World War II was coming. Brown moved to the United States, settled in Harlem and tried to find work of the cabaret sort he performed in Paris when not fighting. There was none and before long he was fighting again, but not well. Not like he had as a young man in Paris.
Brown fought for the last time in 1942. Not long after, he was arrested for using cocaine and deported for a year. He went back to New York afterward and, in his late 40s, was serving as a sparring partner for up-and-comers at a gym in Harlem, making a dollar a round. He took a lot of beatings.
Peeters, the French boxing writer, met with Brown in New York 13 months before Brown died.
"What a long time ago that all is!" Brown said to him, recalling his glory days in Paris. "Now I'm an old man. I'm nearly 48. Ah, if only I could get back to Paris and see my friends. Life is too hard for me here."
Thirteen months later Brown fainted on 42nd street in New York. The police thought he was drunk and took him to the station. Eventually he was transferred to Sea View Hospital. He died there on April 11, unaware that not long before, one of the newspapers in Paris had begun talks about organizing a fund drive to pay for his trip home.
Forty-one years later, Brown was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It wasn't Paris, but it was where he belonged, better late than never.
The Ring's senior writer William Dettloff co-wrote the book "Box Like the Pros" with Joe Frazier.
At 5-foot-11, 118 pounds, and with a 76-inch reach, Panama Al Brown was the epitome of a lean, mean fighting machine. William Dettloff looks back on the life of the first Hispanic world boxing champion.