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Black, Gay and Undocumented: The story of boxing’s first Latino Champion

Black, Gay and Undocumented: The story of boxing’s first Latino Champion

On a very cold Manhattan morning in November 1950, an NYPD police patrol car stopped by 42nd street near Times Square where an unconscious Black homeless man lay huddled against the building.

It was the body of one of the greatest boxers of all time.  

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Transferred to a dilapidated Staten Island Hospital, Alfonso Téofilo Brown—better known as his ring name Panama Al Brown—clung to life for six more months before succumbing to tuberculosis on April 11, 1951.

He died alone and penniless. But Brown’s life wasn’t always this way.

Brown’s triumphant and tragic life is the subject of the 2016 book “Black Ink” by Jose Corpas, a Brooklyn born and bred former prizefighter-turned boxing writer of Puerto Rican and Guatemalan ancestry. Around 2010, Corpas decided to chronicle Brown’s life because he felt his story had become sanitized with time.  

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“Black Ink”—a nod to the French poet Jean Cocteau who referred to Brown as ‘a poem in black ink”—is a testimonial to the Central American boxer’s illustrious career, whose offense was as great as his defense. The six-foot Brown towered over and dominated many of his foes, but could not beat his greatest opponent: Racism.

Book cover of “Black Ink” by Jose Corpas.

The son of an emancipated enslaved man from Tennessee who immigrated to Panama to escape the Jim Crow South, Brown was born in the canal city of Colón, Panama in 1902. Armed with supreme fighting skill, grace and dreams of a better life, Brown stowed away aboard a ship and headed to New York in June 1923.

Undocumented, Black and gay, Brown fought his way out of poverty and made history as boxing’s first Latino world champion when he claimed the bantamweight crown in 1928—he was unjustly stripped of his title a month after winning it. No official reason was given, but many believe it was because Brown was too Black, too gay, too good, or all of the above. Fighting most of his career at 118 pounds, Brown again won the bantamweight crown in 1929 and amassed a hall of fame career record of 131-20-13 and 59 KOs (knockouts). But no matter where Brown found success, racism and homophobia followed.

Corpas authors a classic, inspiring and timely story that is compelling and that needs to be told. Racism waited for Brown as he stepped foot in New York, the discrimination deeply imbedded into the fabric of life in America. The United States was not—and in some cases still isn’t—a place of tolerance when Brown arrived. Immigrants anglicized their names and dropped their customs in the hopes of fitting in. For all the opportunity that awaited, America was a cruel place for those that were ostracized. But for many afrolatinos like Brown—whose mantra became “Si sabes pelear te pagan; Si no sabes te pegan” (If you know how to fight, they pay you. If you don’t, they beat you)—migration was the only cruel option. A hundred years later, thousands of Latino and Black immigrants still continue their trek towards the American border in search for a better life.

But like his father before him, Brown soon found himself seeking refuge elsewhere. Unappreciated and unable to secure meaningful fights, Brown sailed to Europe. As a result, the exiled Brown would spend most of his time fighting lesser-known contenders in Europe, specifically in France, Italy, Spain, Great Britain and Norway.

Panama Al Brown, circa 1927. Courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

It was there in Europe—after losing his title in 1935 to the Spaniard Baltasar Sangchili and being crippled by his addiction to heroin and alcohol—that Brown developed a relationship with French poet Jean Cocteau.

The two became both professionally and romantically involved, with Cocteau convincing the demoralized and strung-out Brown to make one final go at boxing and reclaim his title. As Corpas writes it, what would take place over the next two years was “one of, if not the most, amazing comebacks in the history of boxing…”

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Cocteau—who had zero boxing experience—became Brown’s manager and helped the boxer put down the opium pipe before returning to the ring.

In 1937, Brown scored five straight wins before facing his former foe and champion Sangchili on March 4, 1938, in Paris. Barely able to finish the fight, Brown was declared the winner, and was once again the world bantamweight champion. His boxing redemption was complete.

Panama Al Brown defeats Eugene Criqui on April 2, 1927 in Paris, France. Courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France

Brown finally called it quits in 1942, after successfully avoiding ever being knocked out throughout his long historical career. But a fairytale ending to Brown’s story wasn’t to be.

With exquisite detail, Corpas narrates how Brown was blacklisted from the more acclaimed boxing community and venues of New York, not because of his fighting ability, but because of his life outside of the ring. “Black Ink” spills the often hidden and tabooed information in vivid detail of one of the world’s most talented bantamweight boxers of all time. Secrets that range from being exploited by the predatory American manager Dave Lumiansky, to the vicious racial and homophobic slurs Brown heard while practicing his craft in the ring.

And thanks to Corpas, these secrets are seeing the light.

To learn more about Corpas’ work, follow him on twitter: @CorpasWriter.

El Tecolote is 51 years strong this month!

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