The county of Clare has produced many fine sportspeople over the years including a World Light Heavyweight champion in the form of Mike McTigue. The Kilnamona native won his world title in an incredible bout against an opponent from Senegal called The Battling Siki, whose life spiralled downwards after his encounter with McTigue.
As the Civil War raged across Ireland on St.Patrick’s Day during 1923, a different kind of fight was taking place in Dublin’s La Scala Opera House – a world light heavyweight title fight.
The decision to hold a world title fight in a war torn city between Mike McTigue and The Battling Siki, two big names in the boxing world at the time, was deemed inappropriate by a number of Irish political figures while the Catholic church poured scorn on the fact that a sporting event was taking place on the feast day of the country’s patron saint. But for all the objections against it, the World Light Heavyweight fight in Dublin between a man from County Clare and a man from Senegal went ahead anyway
Mike McTigue who had been boxing in America for years came home to Ireland in order to take on the famous Louis M’Barick Fall who was better known as ‘The Battling Siki.’
Michael Francis McTigue was born in Kilnamona on November 26th 1892 and at the age of 21 emigrated to New York where he got involved in the boxing scene in the Bronx. He worked his way up the ranks and in 1923 got a shot at the World Light Heavyweight title and his opponent was the impressive albeit eccentric Battling Siki.
Louis M’barick Fall was born in the city of Saint-Louis in Senegal on September 16th 1897. In 1913 he took up boxing and caught the eye of promoters in France who decided to coin the term The Battling Siki as a connection to his colonial roots in Senegal.
In 1914 Siki was conscripted into the 8th colonial infantry regiment of the French army when WWI broke out. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire for his displays of bravery and received an honourable discharge after the war. He then went to Amsterdam where he continued to craft his boxing career.
In 1922 Siki was given the chance to fight in a world title bout but on condition he throw the fight. At the age of 25 Siki fought reigning world champion Georges Carpentier in Paris and ignored orders by the corrupt boxing promoters to take a dive. The fight proved to be a dirty one with Carpentier shouting racial slurs at Siki in between punches. The World War One veteran grew angry by Carpentier’s racism and instead of letting him win, Siki knocked out Carpentier in the 6th round to become the first African world champion boxer. The bout can be viewed on YouTube and you can clearly see the anger and frustration of the corrupt boxing officials sitting outside the ring when Siki knocks out Carpentier to win the title, fairly.
Siki took full advantage of his new found fame and went on an excessive lap of honour around the finest nightclubs of Paris. He would stroll down the Champs Elysees dressed in a tuxedo with his pet lion cub on a lead and a plethora of ladies hanging from his arms when his wife wasn’t with him. At the same time Siki was basking in his glory, Mike McTigue and his boxing coaches were also in Paris and it was proposed to Siki that he defend his title to McTigue on St Patrick’s Day in Dublin.
Siki refused to fight the Irishman in the Irish capital on St Patrick’s Day. He knew too well how such a bout could play out against him, but his manager decided his fate for him. Apparently Siki’s dodgy manager took the boxer, his wife and friends on a road trip where he got Siki so unbelievably drunk that he passed out and, in cahoots with Siki’s wife and friends, the boxer was carried onboard a steamer bound for Ireland. When Siki woke up, not only had he a shocking hangover but, he also found himself in the middle of the sea on route to a bout in a war torn country.
The fighter and his entourage which included his blond haired Dutch wife arrived on Irish shores on March 5th 1923 and made their base at The Claremont Hotel in Howth.
The purse for the fight was £2,000, the winner recieving £1,500 of it. Over 100 journalists arrived in Dublin to cover the world title bout but this was a sporting event held in unusual circumstances and it provided journalists with plenty to report on.
The Civil War meant that Ireland was in a state of conflict, Dublin was essentially a war zone, society was deeply divided and the Free State authorities let a high profile sporting event take place in the middle of it!
Both McTigue and Siki receieved death threats which were duly ignored by the boxers. A death threat written in Irish was delivered to Siki at his hotel room by a messenger boy but Siki dismissed it because it was written in a language he couldn’t understand!
Siki was escorted everywhere by armed guards but it did not put off his manager opening his training sessions to the public in the Rotunda Hall, for a price of course. The cost to see an hour of Siki sparring, skipping and shadow boxing was between one to three shillings and by all accounts it proved a profitable venture as long lines of people queued daily outside the Rotunda to see the exotic boxer amid their gloomy war weary city.
Just hours before the fight was to take place on St Patrick’s Day, a bomb went off outside the venue on nearby Moore lane which shattered windows and injured two children, but it didn’t stop the fight from going ahead.
The fight was a sell out and among those watching were Free State government TD’s, senators and George Carpentier who was there to cheer on McTigue against the man who took his title in Paris. An armed sentry was stationed in each corner of the ring. After the fight Siki told American sports journalist William White: “The Irish Solidiers told me if I hurt Monsieur McTigue they would shoot me!”
News reports indicate that the fight was a slow burner, one which didn’t get heated until the 14th round when Siki started getting tired and worn down by McTigue’s heavy punches. During one such punch which landed on Siki‘s forehead, McTigue dislocated his thumb. The Freemans Journal reported that Siki was the stronger of the two: “it was Siki who rushed and charged, slammed, bashed and punched.”
The fight went to 20 rounds before McTigue won on points to take Siki’s title away from him. It would be the beginning of a downward spiral for the Battling Siki.
Mike McTigue went on to defend his title for two years before losing it to Paul Berlenbach in 1925. During his boxing career which spanned 16 years, McTigue fought in over 170 fights and at the age of 38 he retired. In his retirement, McTigue opened a bar on Long Island but when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s his fortune was wiped out. McTigue died in poverty in New York on August 12th 1966. The man he won his world title from in Dublin suffered a much sadder fate.
After losing the fight, Siki went to America to reinvent himself in the ring, but his form was poor and he lost the majority of his fights.
In a typical case of bigamy, Siki left his wife in Europe and took on another one in America, marrying a Memphis girl not long after his arrival in the States. It was there that he found himself at odds with segregation laws when he was arrested for entering a ‘whites only’ diner with her. It would be the first of many runs ins Siki would have with the law and society in America.
Siki was well known for his antics outside the ring in Europe but in America he became much more of a magnet for the gossip pages. Before leaving for America, Siki got into a brawl with waiters in a Parisian cafe when they taunted him for losing to McTigue. This belligerence did not change once he relocated to America. In fact, upon making the move, Siki entered into more melees with anyone who teased him.
In an age when racial slurs were commonplace and in a country like America where segregation was part of life in some states, the Battling Siki had to battle more opponents outside the ropes rather than inside them. Siki was a proud individual who had won medals for bravery on the battlefield in World War One and had won a world title in the boxing ring. Yet, when it came to being accepted in society as a man of colour he was knocked down as a second class citizen and this did not sit well with the lofty Senegalese.
Siki became a notorious figure in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in the few years he lived there. He was stabbed in a bar brawl which saw him hospitalised for a week while numerous fines and nights in jail for drunken behaviour became a common concept of his New York life.
In the Summer of 1925 Siki was arrested for slashing a policeman’s face with a pocket knife. Deportation proceedings were then made against him but before he could be deported, the Battling Siki was murdered.
Just a few short years after losing his world title in Dublin, the Battling Siki lost his life at the age of 28. On December 15 1925 Siki was shot twice in the back on a dark New York street. He managed to crawl almost forty feet in the direction of the home he shared with his wife before he collapsed and died. The murder of the Battling Siki was never solved but it was common knowledge he had gained many enemies in the short time he had set up life in the Big Apple.
On the night of his murder, Siki left his wife at home informing her he was going out to see his drinking pals. Hours later he stumbled out of a bar and got into a fight with a cab man over the fare. He then staggered homewards on foot when a hoodlum approached him from behind and extinguished his life with three bullets. The law weren’t really interested in solving the murder of Siki, for them it meant one less trouble maker on the streets.
In the aftermath of Siki’s shooting, the strong rumour doing the rounds in Hells Kitchen had the gunman identified as a smalltime gangster who had previously met the end of Siki’s fists during a bar brawl and now was determined to extract revenge, even if it meant doing so in such a cowardly way.
Siki was buried in Harlem but in 1993 his remains were repatriated to his homeland of Senegal. It can be considered that the Battling Siki’s downfall began with his loss to a Clare man in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day but it was the rough streets of Hell’s Kitchen that eventually tamed this erratic yet brilliant character.