ONE of the all-time greats of the bantamweight division is Panama Al Brown, active between 1922 and 1942 and the winner of 129 of his 160 contests. He is consistently ranked by experts and historians in the all-time bantamweight top 10, and in a 2016 article on the Boxing News website, Mike Lockley placed him at number four.
He was a complex character out of the ring, and he led a colourful and interesting life before tragically dying in 1951 at the early age of 48. He was a gay black man and so he had to contend with a lot of prejudice, and I suspect that this might account for his choosing to spend a large part of his life in Paris, a city notable then, as it still is today, for its tolerance. Brown fitted easily into French society where, as well as being an extremely well-known boxer, he was also an accomplished tap-dancer, part-time actor and flamboyant socialite.
Born in Colon, Panama, in 1902, Brown made his name in New York City, where he picked up the vacant world title in 1929 by beating Vidal Gregorio over 15 rounds. This made him the first Latin-American world champion and he is revered all over South and Central America, to this day, for that achievement.
He toured the UK on three occasions, with six contests in 1931, three in 1932 and another six in 1933. He only lost one of these, when he was disqualified in the eighth of a 15-round bout against the then-British featherweight champion, Johnny Cuthbert, in 1931. The following year, Nel Tarleton, who had recently beaten Cuthbert for his title, held Brown to a draw, again over 15 rounds, in front of 30,000 at Anfield football ground, Liverpool.
One of the more interesting aspects of Brown’s contests in the UK was the fact that he was prepared to box in the most unlikely of places. As well as boxing at some of the most important halls and stadiums in the country, including the Olympia, Kensington and Belle Vue, Manchester, he also boxed at Blundell Park, the home of Grimsby Town FC, at the Pavilion in Mountain Ash, and in Royton, then a busy little fight centre on the outskirts of Oldham. He would certainly have been well paid for these fights and he packed the places out every time.
When he first arrived in Britain, he defeated two top-flight Geordie bantams in Billy Farrell and Douglas Parker. He beat Farrell easily in three rounds. I met Billy about 45 years ago and, although I did ask him about this contest, I cannot remember now what he said about it, other than that Brown was outstanding. I wish I had taken a tape recorder! He then boxed at the New St James’ Hall, Newcastle – a famous boxing venue that was located directly across the road from the Gallowgate End of Newcastle United FC’s ground – where he knocked out Parker.
Brown boxed twice at The Ring, Blackfriars. This venue is the most iconic small hall in the history of the game, as far as I am concerned, and the crowd there really knew their boxing. They watched the Panamanian, unusually tall for a bantam, defeat Johnny Peters of Battersea and then Tommy Hyams of Kings Cross, in early 1933. His following fight was against a substitute, Arthur Boddington of Wellingborough, in Royton, and Brown toyed with him before opening up and stopping him in the fourth.
The Grimsby contest was his next and, at a time when there was so much boxing taking place up and down the land that it could not all be reported by BN, the old bible managed to miss this one. Imagine that happening today! A world champion, and an all-time great, boxing in Grimsby and it not being covered by BN. Brown richly deserves his place as one of the greatest-ever bantams.