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Great European Lives: Georges Carpentier

Georges Carpentier and his manager Francis Descamps greeting the crowd on their arrival on the liner 'La Savoie' in the port of New York City, United States. (Photo by KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) - Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY looks back at the life of the French boxer, actor and first World War pilot Georges Carpentier, whose dogged determination took him from the slagheaps to the ring.

For all the newsreel footage that exists of Georges Carpentier in action, the elegance of his movement and lethality of his right hand clear even in grainy images a century old, there are two clips away from the ring that possibly reveal most about the man some still hail as the greatest boxer Europe ever produced.

In the first, filmed in 1915, Carpentier is smartly turned out in his air force uniform and képi, sitting at the controls of a stationary aircraft. He’s laughing and joking with a man sitting behind him, hamming it up, performing, playing to the camera. With his dark good looks there’s an air of the young Elvis Presley about him, aware he’s the focus of attention and indulging it playfully and confidently like the celebrity-in-khaki that he is.

By the second clip, filmed in December 1920, Carpentier has emerged from the war a hero pilot awarded the Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire for his valour in the air. He’s been in London to see the American boxer Frank Moran fight Joe Beckett, the British champion, but before returning to France has insisted on paying a visit to the Cenotaph unveiled only a month earlier on Armistice Day.

The snow-white monument is piled high with floral tributes when Carpentier steps out of the car wearing a heavy coat and homburg hat, carrying a large wreath of roses, lilies and white chrysanthemums. He stands absolutely still for a moment, looking sightlessly ahead as if remembering terrible things, and this time there’s no smiling, waving or performing. In contrast to the exuberant, handsome youth in the cockpit of five years earlier his mouth is a tight-lipped, straight line. There are shadows under his eyes and cheekbones. He is completely motionless.

He’s drawn a crowd – Carpentier was arguably the best-known Frenchman in the world at the time – but despite being jostled gently by the shifting mass of grinning men gathered around him Carpentier acts as if he’s entirely alone. Trolleybuses pass slowly in the misty background with faces pressed against the windows as he removes his hat, walks forward and lays his wreath on top of the pile beneath the freshly-chiselled inscription “The Glorious Dead”. On it is a card reading, “From one who fought with them – G. Carpentier”.

He steps back, looks up at the stone catafalque, looks down at his hat, fingers its brim for a moment, turns and disappears into a crowd of which he appears entirely unaware. A young girl is lifted above the hats and caps to watch him go.

Georges Carpentier is best remembered for his clash with Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight championship of the world in front of 90,000 people in Jersey City during the hot summer of 1921, eight months after his Cenotaph visit. Dubbed the Fight of the Century, it ended in defeat for the European challenger who was knocked out in the fourth round of a one-sided contest. But Carpentier’s combination of finely-honed technique, tactical nous and a right hand like a steamhammer has still earned him a place among the pantheon of the world’s greatest fighters. Indeed, despite losing to Dempsey his reputation not only remained unsullied by defeat, it was actually enhanced.

When he arrived in the US it was into a level of attention even the most famous boxer in Europe had never experienced. The fight remains one of the most hyped events in sporting history, the first boxing match to be broadcast coast-to-coast on the fledgling medium of radio and the first to take more than a million dollars at the gate. The reason for the intense interest was the coming together of the two best fighters in the world in a captivating battle of styles, personalities and continents. It pitted the urbane, refined European war hero against the snarling brawler who had been tried (and acquitted) for dodging the draft, and America was utterly captivated by the Frenchman.

“I read the stories about the fight in the next day’s papers and felt that I hadn’t won,” recalled Dempsey afterwards. “Carpentier was the hero, never before had anyone seen such courage. I was just a butcher who happened to win.”

Even in defeat the world’s press was unstinting in its praise for Carpentier. He lost but put up a brave fight, had fought with classical elegance and had taken his defeat with gentlemanly grace and commendable sportsmanship. Carpentier prompted these responses like no fighter ever before. His good looks, stylish technique, intelligence in the ring and exotic Frenchness – he was the first high-profile non-Anglophone to excel in the sport – set him apart from the brawny sluggers who dominated heavyweight boxing in the early 20th century.

“A world hero, a physical marvel and the most learned man that ever stepped into a ring,” gushed one US newspaper, “a student, scholar and gentleman, Georges Carpentier stands for all that is best in manhood.”

The renowned French novelist Colette even reported on Carpentier’s 1912 win over Willie Lewis in Paris while George Bernard Shaw attended a fight for the first time in 35 years when he saw Carpentier in action against Joe Beckett in London in December 1919. “A burst of cheering made me look around again to the gangway; and this time I was startled by a most amazing apparition: nothing less than Charles XII, ‘The Madman of the North’, striding along the gangway in a Japanese silk dressing-gown as gallantly as if he had not been killed almost exactly 201 years before,” he wrote, as if watching something that transcended the mere exchanging of blows in a roped-off canvas square.

Yet Carpentier’s background was far from the world of an artistic gentleman pugilist. The son of a coalminer, he grew up in Lens in the heart of the French coalfields, scrapping among the slagheaps, a prodigy like no-one had ever seen. In 1906, at the age of 12, he took on an army corporal twice his age in a local tournament and won easily. He won his first French welterweight title at just 17, going on to become European champion in 1911 before moving up to middleweight and winning the European title in that division too. This earned Carpentier, still only 18, a crack at the world title where he put up a strong showing against the experienced champion Billy Papke until the fight was stopped in the 17th round. Moving up through light heavyweight to heavyweight, in 1913 he twice knocked out the great British fighter Bombardier Billy Wells to win and retain his fourth European belt in four different weight divisions, all while still in his teens.

Carpentier was in London when war was declared in July 1914, having just beaten the American ‘Gunboat’ Smith in a world title fight, and hurried back across the Channel as soon as he could. After first being commissioned as an officer’s driver his repeated entreaties to train as a pilot were finally granted and he qualified in the early summer of 1915. He made perilous surveillance flights low over German lines, notably at the Battle of Verdun where his plane was so riddled with bullets he later discovered one had passed through the rim of his helmet.

Despite having lost what for many boxers would have been his best years to the Great War, Carpentier emerged after the conflict as strong and successful as ever. In 1919 he won and retained the world light heavyweight crown and knocked out Joe Beckett barely a minute into the first round to recapture the European belt, the fight that threw George Bernard Shaw into raptures of historical allegory.

After his defeat to Dempsey, Carpentier’s career went into slow decline. He lost to the unfancied Senegalese light-heavyweight known as Battling Siki in 1922 after injuring his hand during the bout, and while there were still flashes of his old star quality – a rematch with Beckett in 1923 was over so fast the Prince of Wales said he’d missed the entire thing because he was lighting his cigar – he retired in 1926 at the age of 32.

After boxing he forged a brief and unlikely career as a song-and-dance man, appearing on vaudeville stages and acting in a handful of feature films to reviews best described as ‘mixed’. He saw out the years until his death at the age of 81 as a Paris restauranteur, chatting amiably to diners beneath framed black and white photographs of the days when he bestrode continents while likened to a Greek god. Yet behind all the titles, belts and anecdotes there lurked the young man who’d fought his way out from the slagheaps, horsed around in a plane for the cameras at a time when he must have felt immortal and stood one freezing morning by a stone monument, lost in memories, drawn by the sacrifices of those who never came home from a fight far bigger than anything Georges Carpentier encountered in the ring.

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