On October 14, 1928, his last day as president of the National Boxing Association, Tom Donahue sent out a press release listing each of the reigning champions. The following day, before Paul Prehn, the new president, moved in his belongings or placed any personal photos on his desk, he released a statement with the sole purpose of taking away from a fighter what was earned in the ring — his title. Panama Al Brown, a boxer whom the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau described as "a poem written in black ink," was an unwanted champion.
In the years that followed, Brown danced circles around the best boxers, eventually becoming the undeniable king of the bantamweights. Yet boxing officials continued to look for reasons to deny him his status. His title reign was filled with dubious suspensions and blatant refusals by state commissioners to acknowledge that he was the best in his class. Eventually, Brown packed his bags and sailed to Europe. The fans there embraced him at first, but when they too caught wind of the whispers that swirled behind his back, most came to his fights hoping to see him lose. He was jeered, slurred, and spat on during his ring walks. After one fight, the Parisian fans surrounded him as he left the ring and beat him bloody and unconscious amid the ringside seats. The reason for the suspensions, the boos, and the hate on both sides of the Atlantic, was all because Al Brown, boxing champion, loved other men.
He was born on July 5, 1902, just as the Thousand Days' War neared its end in a country known as the waist of the Americas. The coastal city of Colón, Panama, was a rugged place nature didn't intend for habitation by large populations. Even the land-hungry sailor the area was named after, Cristobal Colón — Christopher Columbus — took one look at the hostile terrain and shook his head "no" before settling 50 miles to the west. Later, the quest for gold and the travel shortcut across this narrow isthmus attracted the masses in the mid-to-late 19th century. Plans were drawn up for a railroad. Workers came from all over the world, including Brown's maternal ancestors. Later, among the droves who came for jobs working on the construction of the Panama Canal was Brown's father, Horace, a freed slave who arrived in Colón with nothing but the clothes on his muscular shoulders.
After the U.S. took over construction of the canal, roads were paved, social clubs opened, and mosquito breeding areas were doused in oil, eradicating the pests but leaving much of the area smelling like a five-minute lube shop. Along with the improved infrastructure came segregation. Despite there being two schools closer to their home, young Al Brown had to attend one of the blacks-only schools on the other side of the dusty town. He read from English-language textbooks and developed a love of music from playing with rusted instruments. After school, he washed his white button-down shirt in the sink because, for many years, it was the only school shirt he had.
"Miserable" was how Brown described his childhood. He was 13 when his father died. His mother swept the dirty floors and scrubbed the soiled clothes of others to provide for the family. Brown did his share, bringing home prizes — a can of powdered milk — he won from his amateur boxing matches.
Boxing was one of the more popular forms of entertainment during and following the canal construction. Hall of Fame caliber fighters like Sam Langford and Kid Norfolk headlined throughout the country. Boxing back then was a world where broken noses were fixed by the guys carrying the spit bucket. Orange peels were used as mouth guards, to prevent the teeth from shredding the insides of lips and leaving them looking like twisted pasta noodles. To prevent biting their tongues while fighting, boxers bit down on wooden matchsticks. The pre-fight and post-fight medicals consisted simply of the question, "How do you feel?"
The Strand Boxing Gym was where Brown started. It was a humid place where trainers smoked, drank, and everyone's idea of fresh air was flapping a musky towel in your face. Pounding the bags with a dingy pair of Maynard boxing gloves, he found solace.
Following World War I, most of the top boxers left Panama. Prospects were few, so Brown hesitated only slightly before leaving Colón behind. He spent time at the docks, sometimes working as a stevedore. Mostly, he paced back and forth and studied the routines of the ships the way he would opponents in the ring. He looked for an opening where he might be able to slip in.
When the Alvarado passed through the canal on May 21, 1923 on its way to New York, Brown lined up on the docks with a loading crew. Wearing two shirts, two pairs of underwear, and his father's cap pulled down over his eyes, he joined the crew as they loaded the ship, his eyes scanning every corner of the vessel. Before the last round of goods were loaded, they nodded silently to him. Brown took one last look at Colón, and, under his breath said, "Goodbye Mom."
Once underway, he was found and put to work in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Seated in a trench with a carving knife in one hand and a potato in the other, he twisted and turned the potato while chalky, foot-long spirals fell and filled bucket after bucket.
A few weeks later, on Ellis Island, sweat coated the palms of his hands. Suspicious border agents seated behind elevated desks awaited with a round of questions, occasionally stopping to ruffle through papers and fix their eyes on him. The young boxer kept his cool and his answers short.
When he stepped out into the sun-drenched street, he asked, "Which way to Harlem?" A stranger's finger pointed north. It was about nine miles of brick and concrete from where he stood. With no money, he followed the trains that rumbled above on the Ninth Avenue El.