The All-Time Great Bantamweights: No 8: Panama Al Brown
8. ‘Panama’ Al Brown 131-20-13 (59 KOs)
What to do with ‘Panama’ Al Brown? A controversial but nonetheless beloved figure in his own time with a title claim that ranged from iron clad to hotly disputed in his 15-year run amongst the world’s best bantams.
It would be seen as a blatant exploitation of today’s elongated weigh-in process for a six-foot fighter with a reach comparable to a heavyweight to lord it over the bantams. Yet, in the 1920s and 30s Alphonso Teofilo Brown did just that, first traveling to the U.S after finding the sheer scale he possessed made it hard to come across paying gigs in his homeland.
Ranked as the best bantam in the world for years, Brown could box, he could fight, and he was a ring general as well. Sounds like he should be higher up the list, right?
Perhaps, but we find ourselves in a quandary with Al Brown. He lost non-title bouts against both smaller and heavier men. He also missed out on some of the best bantams of his time and spent most of his career in Europe fighting lesser contenders. He fought not just at home but in the United States, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain and Norway, but the very best bantams were in the USA, and for much of his career he traded blows thousands of miles away.
Brown was not the easiest sell in boxing’s more celebrated venues either. For reasons covered in far more detail than I will attempt in this in-ring centred analysis (most notably in Jose Corpas’ excellent book ‘Black Ink’) Al Brown’s life outside the ring was as colourful as his style inside of it. It might have been one of many reasons he did not manage to get all the biggest names to duke it out with him.
Brown didn’t avoid anyone. He was a road warrior who just took a few sidewalks along the way.
First as a lanky flyweight but most prominently as a rangy and powerful bantam, Al Brown fought in arguably the greatest ever era for little men. Before he’d even fought for a title he’d faced former world champ Abe Goldstein and former world flyweight title claimant Pinky Silverberg, losing one and winning the other.
The depth of the fly and bantamweight classes at the time had never been seen before and quite possibly not since, with the best eight stone battlers (there were many of them) taking on the best bantams (there were also many of them), and the best bantams taking on the best featherweights. In fact, the flyweights sometimes fought the feathers too, rarely disgracing themselves.
These men fought often, and often fought each other. No one came out a series unscathed.
The best scalp of Al Brown’s early bantamweight days was undoubtedly Kid Francis, an Italian-born Frenchman who was rated by writers as one of the leading little men of his day.
Francis had lost just two bouts when he ventured to America to take on the world’s best. One of them was on points when he was just 15 years old, the other a close one for the European title. He had held the domestic title, beating the excellent future world featherweight champion Andre Routis. In the States he went 11-0-1 in a little over a year, earning rave reviews from the New York press.
"Francis gave a remarkable example of sharpshooting, landing every conceivable punch from the most inconceivable angles".
The Bantamweight title
Brown then, looked like the class of the bantams, but it would take him a while to gain distinction as the best. The aforementioned Charles ‘Bud’ Taylor was a dangerous puncher who had faced a wide range of excellent fighters before he outgrew the weight. Through no fault of Brown’s own he missed out on what would have been a legacy defining bout when both Kid Chocolate and Fidel Labarba opted out of making the bantam limit to contest for the vacant NYSAC championship. They’d both be featherweights before long.
The excellent Bushy Graham was also unable to make the limit, so instead Brown was finally given the opportunity to win the belt against Gregorio Vidal, a tough fighter who had lost a close one to Cuban great Kid Chocolate in his prior bout. His name has not gone down in history as an all-time great, but he was a highly impressive fighter for Brown to add to his ledger.
Contemporary writers and fans rated Vidal. The Philly fans that saw the Spaniard take a close loss to Kid Chocolate felt he was hard done by. The Associated Press report felt that Vidal was comparable to the great lightweight champion Battling Nelson, with a non-stop aggressive style that wrecked havoc on evasive boxers.
Prior to the bout, writer Ed Hughes opined for 'The Brooklyn Daily Eagle' that although Brown was the favourite, Vidal’s excellent showing against the lauded Cuban Kid Chocolate should see him through:
“In the Spaniard (Vidal) Brown is going to encounter the most aggressive and rapid-hitting opponent he has yet faced. You can say I wrote that. Gregorio’s speed, lightning hitting and general whirlwind tactics, I think, will prove too much for the Brown jab. And I think he’ll prove enduring enough to sample Brown’s best knockout punches.”
You think Hughes would have learned not to pick against Brown after the Kid Francis fight.
Whilst Brown’s height and length were given their deserved respect, Vidal’s come forward style, durability and gas tank were felt to be the deciding factor. Kid Chocolate - also a large bantamweight - had been forced back by Vidal consistently over ten and suffered a battered body whenever he failed to evade the Spanish swarmer. Ed Hughes hypothesised that the famous Kid Chocolate and Panama Al Brown were about level pegging in terms of class.
The day after the fight, in which Brown dropped Vidal multiple times and won an easy decision over 15, Hughes sang a different tune:
"Gregorio was the disappointment. He did not put on a tenth of the fiery, savage exhibition that characterised his actions against Chocolate.”
If it seems like Hughes put all the blame on Vidal whilst refusing to give credit to Brown, it isn’t the case, for he also added:
“Brown was so much more effective, so much better than Chocolate that Gregorio was made to look worse than he really is. Unless Chocolate is terrifically overrated Gregorio must of necessity possess something to have outpunched the kid.”
Consider that Kid Chocolate went on to be the main man at feather and super featherweight, and Hughes looks bang on the money. The same writer went on to call Brown the best of the bantams and picked him to whip both Fidel Labarba and Kid Chocolate at the bantam limit. A cartoon of the time portrayed Brown as a peerless fighter but in a problematic fashion; as a lanky ‘sambo’ caricature, with other contenders (all white, naturally) imploring him to leave the United States forever.
But those bouts never would happen. A cartoon of the time portrayed Brown as a peerless fighter but in a problematic fashion; as a lanky ‘sambo’ caricature, with other contenders (all white, naturally) imploring him to leave the United States forever.
Ostensibly this was meant to portray Brown’s excellence not allowing anyone else to get a look-in at the top of the tree. But Brown’s race and the open secret of his sexuality did not endear him to everyone. Brown would struggle to get top-notch opposition in the ring with him for the rest of his career.
The excellent British bantam and ‘Pride of Poplar’ Teddy Baldock was mooted as the number one contender in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1931 that Brown got him in the ring. Originally set to take place in New York under the auspices of the New York State Athletic Commission for their world title (the NYSAC stated that Brown could not be seen as a legitimate champion until he faced Baldock) Brown instead travelled to Baldock’s back garden, schooling him and forcing the only stoppage loss of the tough as nails Englishman’s 81-fight career.
The footage of the bout shows what a nightmare Brown must have been to face: rangy, but as comfortable in close, whipping in uppercuts and crosses that were nearly impossible to defend due to his range, hand-speed and power. The London-based 'Daily Herald' said Brown’s "long telescopic left scored time and time again" and that his "tricky tactics, lightning leads and his fleet footwork" had got the job done for him.
But Baldock was not favoured to win by this time, and both men came in above the bantam limit. The scalp would have been more significant two years earlier when Baldock was bang in the middle of his prime, but the ease of Brown’s victory suggests the outcome might not have been much different.
Brown beat many of the best Europeans of the day. British and Commonwealth champion Johnny King was a comfortable win for him, former world flyweight champ Emile ‘Spider’ Pladner didn’t last a combined three rounds in two contests and France-based Tunisian Young Perez (also a former world flyweight champion) didn’t win a bout with Brown in three tries.
The highly-regarded flyweight Eugene Huat was also whipped thrice by Brown. European flyweight champ Valentin Angelmann and European bantam champ Domenico Bernasconi couldn’t even manage a draw with him in multiple tries. He also beat Kid Francis again, this time over 15, and in a much tighter fight than the one in New York. The French rioted. Brown retained.
Norwegian Pete Sanstol was arguably the best of these European men. Moving to boxing hub New York, he had made himself an attraction over the border in Montreal. He had claimed a version of the world title in the midst of a 15-fight undefeated streak, with wins over the aforementioned Huat, as well as former world title challenger Archie Bell. Sanstol was not a big hitter, but a hard worker in the ring blessed with an incredible pain threshold and fast hands.
A crouching, swarming fighter, Sanstol was perfectly equipped to deal with Brown’s tall frame and long, straight jab. Sanstol was not some caveman though; he knew his way around the ring.
'The Ring' magazine wrote that Sanstol was not only a "pretty" fighter (in regards to his boxing ability) but that "in every sense of the word, Sanstol looks and fights like a real champion. He is of the old type, that school that brought personal patronage to the clubs through the medium of gong-to-gong battles".
Sanstol could certainly mix it up. Brown was not one dimensional though; he could tie up his man and throw brutal body shots on the inside. The bout was closely-contested through much of the early going, with 'The Montreal Gazette' reporting from ringside that:
"As the rounds were counted off they threw caution to the winds and battled in a more determined manner."
A firefight had broken out north of the border. Both men had their moments, but as the bout went on, Brown’s class and experience showed. His arsenal had Sanstol holding on at times and the champion tried his best to score a knockout, at times "flailing" according to the ringside reporter.
However Sanstol’s craftiness at crouching underneath Brown’s blows and his toughness at absorbing his body punches saw him not only survive the full 15 but push the Panamanian stylist back and trade with him on the inside in an apparently thrilling final round. Sanstol’s early effort and in-fighting had won him the early rounds, and his gameness throughout saw the decision rendered a split one with Brown retaining and both men leaving with their heads held high.
Brown had been "extended to the limit of his fighting ability" by the game Norwegian and wouldn’t add too much to his bantamweight legacy over the next few years. He flitted between different versions of the world title depending on where he was fighting. The NYSAC eventually stripped Brown (with Sixto Escobar eventually proving himself a worthy champion who barely missed out on this list) but he continued defending the lightly regarded IBU version, which had not been as prestigious a strap for the best part of two decades.
Brown eventually lost his world title claim to one of his more uninspiring challengers, and retired after a rematch loss to Sanstol, coming back a few years later to win the title, but in unremarkable fashion. He ended up back across the Atlantic, and died in New York City three months shy of his 49th birthday, destitute.
In summation, ‘Panama’ Al Brown is not defined by those he didn’t meet in the ring, or by the non-title bouts he lost, or even by the sometimes disputed nature of his title claim, which wasn’t much of a concern for the writers of the time, with The Ring Magazine ranking him the number one bantamweight in the world five years running.
Instead he is defined - at least by his placing on this list - by his 67-10-5 record during the time he first had a title claim in 1929 to the loss of his IBU title in 1935.
His record in those bouts generally recognised as being for a version of the world title? 11-1 (2KOs). Only one of those losses took place within the bantamweight limit, although the losses to Newsboy Brown and Speedy Dado -both top-class bantams - are a concern when evaluating his legacy.
I have come to the conclusion that whilst beating those two within the limit would have seen Brown even higher on this list, losing to them at a higher poundage should not exclude him from it.
As for the seventh-ranked fighter on this list, he was a savage who had none of Brown’s grace or style. Like Al Brown’s rival Pete Sanstol, he was a Scandinavian who made his name on the other side of the Atlantic...
This article was originally published on boxingmonthly.com and was edited by Luke G.Williams. You can purchase Luke’s excellent book Richmond Unchained here