On this day December 13: boxing champion Panama Al Brown

Panama Al Brown december 13

On December 13 1922, Alfonso Teofilo Brown won the Panamanian flyweight boxing title, setting himself up for an international fighting career. Panama Al Brown was a kind and generous man, intelligent, multi-talented and a champion boxer, but also black and unapologetically gay. 

Following his 1922 win, Al Brown stowed away on a fruit ship. He was discovered but allowed to work his passage to New York as a galley hand. Despite poverty and periods of homelessness, he joined a gym and began to win fights. Over the next two decades, he enjoyed a remarkable career. Even seventy years after his death, he ranks as the fifth-greatest bantamweight boxer in history.

Black Ink

Jose Corpas wrote the biography Black Ink. He says that rumours of the boxer’s sexuality spread through New York gyms and hurt his career in the sport known as the ‘manly art’.

In 1928 Panama Al Brown became the first Latin American to win a world title. However, within a day of the outgoing association president announcing his title, the incoming president rescinded it. According to Jose Corpas, “There is no definitive record of why he was stripped of the title, whether it was racism or homophobia or merely favouritism for others.”

Panama Al Brown attributed his fighting ability to his reach.

“I can sit in a chair and mighty near touch the floor. My reach is seventy-eight inches.”

However, sporting writers thought he had much more going for him than long arms, including Robert Cantwell in a 1964 article for Sports Illustrated.

“Able to outreach all his foes, he made use of a snappy, tantalising jab and marvellous footwork, inciting his opponents to desperation and recklessness and then finishing them off with effortless mastery in the late rounds.

“But when pushed to it, he could and would hammer out a victory in bludgeon style.”

La Revue Nègre

During the 1930s, Panama Al Brown lived mainly in Paris, travelling back to America to defend his title. He spoke English, French and Spanish from childhood so adapted easily to life in the French capital. In addition to fighting, Al Brown joined Josephine Baker’s La Revue Nègre as a tap dancer. Later, he performed a cabaret song-and-dance show with a live orchestra which he also conducted.

Panama Al Brown became a wealthy man, buying property, expensive cars and renowned for his sartorial style. He also went home to Panama and built his mum a new house.

However, the American press continually attacked him for his race and sexuality. In 1935, the Cincinnati Enquirer described him as washed up.

“Fast living in the gay French capital no doubt took away a lot of his stamina and speed. That seems to be the way of a lot of Negro boys; they just can’t stand the bright lights and pace.”

Note the use of ‘boy’ to describe an accomplished 33-year-old man.

La pédale noire

Jose Corpas took the title of his biography from Jean Cocteau’s description of the boxer, ‘a poem written in black ink’. The openly gay French author and auteur lived with Panama Al Brown during the late 1930s. When Cocteau met the boxer, Panama Al Brown had a drug problem. So Coco Chanel helped him undergo rehab at her farm outside Paris.

Despite what the Cincinnati Enquirer thought, the boxer regained his title.

But conservative French writers, always contemptuous of Cocteau, saw a new opportunity for attack. They derided Jean Cocteau as a  ‘Jewified lover of Negroids’ while tagging Al Brown ‘la pédale noire’. Pédale was a French slur for a homosexual, similar to the English ‘bender’. (No surprise that those writers later became Nazi collaborators. We see you.)

Panama Al Brown fled back to the US as the Nazis advanced on Paris. Black and gay, he risked internment and death in a concentration camp. He abandoned property worth over US$280,000. (Over 5 million today.)

Back in the US, with no access to his French assets, he ended up broke again.

Panama Al Brown died of tuberculosis in 1951. The Panamanian Boxing Council paid to repatriate his body back to Panama City where he is buried.

The below documentary is in French, even the captions, but well worth a look.

Read More: December 12 <— On this day —> December 14

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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