On the afternoon of September 22, fight fans packed the velodrome to see Carpentier defend his title. Nicknamed the “Orchid Man” for the corsages he often wore with his tailored suits, Carpentier had been fighting professionally since he was 14. Although he was coming off a failed attempt to win Dempsey’s heavyweight title, he’d helped secure boxing’s first million-dollar gate. Fighting again as a light-heavyweight, the Frenchman’s future was still bright—so bright that Carpentier’s handlers were taking no chances. They offered Battling Siki a bribe to throw the fight. Siki agreed, under the condition that he “didn’t want to get hurt.” What followed was one of the strangest bouts in boxing history.
Although Siki later admitted that the fight was rigged, there’s some question as to whether Carpentier knew it. Early in the first of 20 scheduled rounds, Siki dropped to a knee after Carpentier grazed him, and then rose and began to throw wild, showy punches with little behind them. In the third, Carpentier landed a powerful blow, and Siki went down again; when he got back on his feet, he lunged at his opponent head first, hands low, as if inviting Carpentier to hit him again. Carpentier obliged, sending Siki to the canvas once more.
At that point, the action in the ring turned serious. Siki later told a friend that during the fight, he had reminded Carpentier, “You aren’t supposed to hit me,” but the Frenchman “kept doing it. He thought he could beat me without our deal, and he kept on hitting me.”
Suddenly, Battling Siki’s punches had a lot more power to them. He pounded away at Carpentier in the fourth round, then dropped him with a vicious combination and stood menacingly over him. Through the fourth and into the fifth, the fighters stood head to head, trading punches, but it was clear that Siki was getting the better of the champion. Frustrated, Carpentier charged in and head-butted Siki, knocking him to the floor. Rising to his feet, Siki tried to protest to the referee, but Carpentier charged again, backing him into a corner. The Frenchman slipped and fell to the canvas—and Siki, seemingly confused, helped him get to his feet. Seeing Siki’s guard down, Carpentier showed his gratitude by launching a hard left hook to Siki’s head just before the bell ended the round. The Senegalese tried to follow Carpentier back to his corner, but handlers pulled him back onto his stool.
At the start of round six, Battling Siki pounced. Furious, he spun Carpentier around and delivered an illegal knee to his midsection, which dropped the Frenchman for good. Enraged, Siki stood above him and shouted down at his fallen foe. With his right eye swollen shut and his nose broken, the Orchid Man was splayed awkwardly on his side, his left leg resting on the lower rope.
Siki returned to his corner. His manager, Charlie Hellers, blurted out, “My God. What have you done?”
“He hit me,” Siki answered.
Referee M. Henri Bernstein didn’t even bother counting. Believed by some to be in on the fix, Bernstein tried to explain that he was disqualifying Siki for fouling Carpentier, who was then being carried to his corner. Upon hearing of the disqualification, the crowd unleashed a “great chorus of hoots and jeers and even threaten[ed] the referee with bodily harm.” Carpentier, they believed, had been “beaten squarely by a better man.”
Amid the pandemonium, the judges quickly conferred, and an hour later, reversed the disqualification. Battling Siki was the new champion.
Siki was embraced, just as Carpentier had been, and he quickly became the toast of Paris. He was a late-night fixture in bars around the city, surrounded by women, and he could often be seen walking the Champs-Elysees in a top hat and tuxedo, with a pet lion cub on a leash.