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Al Brown: Strikes Again

A documentary brings to life the story of the first Ibero-American to win a world boxing title: Alfonso Teófilo Brown, who paved the way for the twenty-nine world champions who have come out of Panama during the history of the sport. He dazzled Paris in the 30s with a chiaroscuro life that reads like a novel.

By: Álvaro Sarmiento Meneses
Photos: Cortesia Sinapsis

In a country that made boxing its greatest sport and passion, Teófilo “Panama” Al Brown returns to the ring with filmmaker Carlos Aguilar, whose documentary reclaims, especially for Panama’s youth, the recognition owed this unsung hero.The boxer became the focus of Aguilar’s cinematic aspirations after he read a series of articles on Brown’s “parallel” lives. That was in the early 90s, when Aguilar was a student at the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños (Cuba). The filmmaker’s interest was understandable given the Panamanian boxer’s status as the first Ibero-American to win a world boxing title. On June 18, 1929, in New York, he won a battle against Gregorio Vidal that lasted fifteen rounds. During his career, Brown achieved an extraordinary 165 professional victories, including sixty-three knockouts.

“I don’t follow boxing per se, but I have followed Panamanian boxers since I was a boy. During the 70s, I was always the first one in front of the TV to watch fights with Roberto Duran, Eusebio Pedroza, ‘Maravilla’ Pinder, and ‘Peppermint’ Frazer… boxers who at the time could bring an entire country to a halt. My mom would send me letters with newspaper clippings so I had some idea of who Brown was. I began to wonder if there might be something more interesting in the man’s experience and when I returned to Panama twenty years ago, I started doing some research,” says Aguilar excitedly.

Parisian Party Life

Riding the wave of ephemeral fame, “Panama” Al Brown traveled to Paris and was quickly dazzled. He felt at home among the Bohemians, dancing, singing, playing music, and even leading a cabaret house band; he moved among the people easily as a speaker of several languages: he learned English from his father, Horace Brown, a freed slave born in Nashville (United States); French from his mother, Esther Lashley, whose roots were in Martinique; and Spanish in his native Colón. He made money boxing, but also demonstrated his altruistic spirit by not charging for certain fights such as the 1930 fight to benefit the Trocadero Ethnographic Museum. This fight against French champion Roger Simendé was held at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris before more than 12,000 people. Proceeds were donated to a North African expedition organized by the Museum.

In the United States, the 1930s were a time of turbulence due to racial segregation, while in France the intelligentsia argued that Western culture had stagnated and looked to Africa for inspiration. Brown felt welcome in France and stayed. “Although his agents exploited him —he received only 25% of his winnings— at one point he owned racehorses and a mansion in Maisons-Laffitte. He sent his many outfits to London every week for ironing because he said, ‘they don’t know how to iron in Paris’ and was well known for his elegant and impeccable style of dress, which broke with stereotypes. In fact, designer Coco Chanel was one of his closest friends,” recalls Aguilar, seated in the studios of his production company, Sinapsis. Al, short for Alfonso, was the bantamweight champion for six years, during which time he successfully defended his title ten times. The Parisian community welcomed him; he posed for painters and even fired the starting gun at the prestigious Tour de France bicycle race. Paris was experiencing an effervescent period of artistic, literary, philosophical, and conceptual expression, which later became known as the “20th-century Avant-Garde.” A number of great writers from the United States known as the “Lost Generation” lived in Paris at the time, including Dos Passos, Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

Panamanian’s have an oft-used saying that refers to someone famous who comes upon hard times: “What goes up, must come down.” This is an apt description of what happened to Brown on June 1, 1935, in the Valencia Bullring (Spain), where he faced the Spanish challenger Baltasar “Sangchili” Berenguer and lost on points after a fifteen-round battle. “Sangchili” became the first Spaniard to win a world title. The defeat was controversial; even today people claim Brown was “robbed” and that his manager “spiked” the bottle in Brown’s corner with bad water, weakening him.

Brown fell on hard times, fighting in minor challenges, and he began to pile up debt. He traveled to Denmark, but decided to return to Paris. “He worked in the Caprice Venua cabaret with an act that mixed dancing and jumping rope. In 1936, Jean Cocteau, acclaimed writer and essayist and a member of Parisian high society, visited the cabaret with a group of friends and recognized Brown. They shook hands and Cocteau convinced him that he could once again be the world champion. Cocteau, who was close to Edith Piaf and Pablo Picasso, persuaded intellectuals and the Parisian aristocracy to pay for Brown’s training. Coco Chanel offered her farm on the outskirts of Paris so Brown could train far from the nightlife,” says Aguilar, as if reading from the script of the documentary.

Spain, Blessed Spain!

“In 2014, I began looking for biographer Eduardo Arroyo and finally got him on the phone in early 2015, but I couldn’t convince him to work with me. In late February, my phone rang and I heard his voice on the other end saying: ‘It’s Eduardo Arroyo… Have you got something to write with? My address is such-and-such Street, between the Madrid Opera and such-and-such… I’ll see you on March 12.’ I was shocked and thought, ‘what do I do now, after chasing him for so long?’” says Carlos, who was used to things being more planned and still had no financing for the project.

Spain played a major role in the boxer’s life: he won his title by beating a Spaniard in New York, then lost it to a Spaniard, in Spain, and, finally, was vindicated in an affectionate account of the boxer’s ups and downs written by a Spaniard. In fact, painter and writer Eduardo Arroyo wrote two books about him: Panama Al Brown: 1902-1951 and Cocteau-Panama Al Brown: A Story of Friendship.

“I decided to use some of my savings, because this was my dream and the interview with Arroyo was one of the project’s key phases. I went on my school’s alumni Facebook page and wrote: ‘Friends, I’m working on a script about Al Brown; I have no money and I need a cameraman who will come with me, backpacker style.’ School friends started to write back: ‘I’ll help you in Madrid,’ ‘I can help in Paris,’ …even some people I didn’t know.” Aguilar traveled to Europe, where he was able to get access to all the places he needed for the film.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Baltasar ‘Sangchili’ accepted the challenge and, on March 4, 1938, entered the ring at the Palais des Sports in Paris. When the boxers finished, exhausted at the end of fifteen rounds, the decision went to “Panama” Al Brown. The title was recognized by the International Boxing Union based in Europe, but was ignored by US federations. Soon after came the skirmishes that would lead Europe into the Second World War and Brown left France, without glory or fortune, his reputation tinged by his homosexual relationship with Cocteau and an opium addiction. He traveled to New York, where he continued fighting then later returned to Colón (Panama) where he spent several years participating in the nation’s boxing activity before returning to New York.

Carlos Aguilar’s fascination with this story initially inspired the screenplay for a fiction film, completed in 2000; however, after calculating the costs, he shifted gears and concentrated instead on a documentary script. The current cost of the project is approximately $120,000 USD, for a 90-minute film he hopes to release in theaters later this year. The tentative title is  “Panama” Al Brown: When a Fist Opens.

Aguilar is currently shooting the film’s final scenes in New York: a “farewell,” which when narrated by Aguilar is poignant: “The police find him alone on a street and think he’s fallen asleep. They take him to the station, but when he doesn’t wake up, they transfer him to the Sea View Hospital in Staten Island where they discover he’s in a coma. Days later he wakes up and realizes his end is near: he’s been diagnosed with tuberculosis and syphilis. He asks a nurse for a piece of paper to write a letter to the New York Boxing Association, reminding them of the money donated from his fights to help boxers fallen on hard times, and asks them to provide him with a decent burial. The letter is sent and he dies the next day: April 11, 1951.”

“Although the Association was located in New York, the letter was delayed several days and when nobody appeared to claim the body, the hospital decided to bury Brown in a mass grave, in a simple pine box. However, several of his nightlife buddies claiming to be relatives came for the body. But rather than taking the coffin to a funeral parlor, they carried it into the bars once frequented by the now-defunct boxer, asking for donations for the ‘Former World Champion’s’ funeral and using the money they raised to continue drinking. At dawn, out of money, they returned to the hospital and left the coffin in the entrance. The hospital again contemplated the idea of a mass grave until representatives from the New York Boxing Association claimed the body and buried it in a cemetery on Long Island. The following year, the Panamanian Boxing Council had the body exhumed and taken to Panama. It’s an amazing scene, very cinematographic. It really caught my attention. I thought: ‘They took advantage of the champ, even after he was dead.’ Al Brown deserves a better end: recognition of his athletic career.”