Introducing Georges Carpentier
The Basic Facts
Georges Carpentier was born January 12, 1894 in Liévin, in the north of France, the son of working class parents. The family moved to the nearby town of Lens when Georges was less than year old and it was there that he grew up. While the primary industry of the region was coal mining and most of the Carpentier’s neighbors and friends were mining families, it appears that Carpentier’s father was not himself a miner, working as a “chauffeur-malteur” in a brewery. By Carpentier’s own description, the family was poor but never lacked for food.
Carpentier was “discovered” by boxing instructor François Descamps at a young age. Accounts of the “discovery” of Carpentier’s prodigious pugilistic talents vary, as do the ages at which it occurred; all accounts agree, however, that Carpentier did possess considerable natural talents, that Descamps recognized and nurtured them and that the process began when Carpentier was quite young (probably around ten years old). Carpentier’s first official public bout took place December 4, 1906, in the context of a regional championship tournament in Béthune. Carpentier, just twelve years old, astonished the crowd by defeating an Army corporal, much older than he and weighing literally twice as much. This exploit was quickly followed by a trip to Paris, where Carpentier took third place in the amateur “world” championship of boxe française, on March 9, 1907. The following December, Carpentier, not yet fourteen years old, becomes boxe française champion of the Pas-de-Calais region of France, and in March 1908, in Paris, the “world” featherweight boxe française champion. Significantly, this would appear to be the first instance of Carpentier’s name having been cited in Paris newspapers (in “elegiac terms,” according to one Carpentier biographer).
It is important to note that these first victories were in the sport of boxe française, sometimes referred to as savate, in which both fists and feet are used. The sport Anglophones call “boxing” the French have traditionally (and significantly) called boxe anglaise (literally “English boxing”); it was virtually non-existent in France before the turn of the century. The governing body for boxe anglaise, the Fédération Française de Boxe, was founded in 1903. Indeed, Carpentier’s career and the rise of boxe anglaise in France are roughly synchronous; it has often been asserted that Carpentier nearly single-handedly ensured the establishment and popularity of the sport in France.
Georges Carpentier’s first boxe anglaise bout—and first professional bout of any kind-- was held November 11, 1908. Carpentier, at fourteen, fought an English jockey named Salmon in a bout that ended in Salmon’s disqualification; the rematch a few weeks later ended with Carpentier’s corner throwing in the towel after eighteen grueling rounds. In spite of the outcome, the press was full of praise for the young Carpentier’s “heart” and lauds him as an up-and-coming champion. Carpentier earned his first title as champion of France (bantamweight) December 22, 1909, with a victory over Paul Til.
A mere four months later, Carpentier, who continued to move up in weight, won the middleweight championship of Europe (he was in fact the first European champion in this weight class), in a stunning second round KO of Jim Sullivan. With this victory, Carpentier firmly established himself as a genuine pugilistic phenomenon and was acclaimed by both French and British spectators and newspapers. Carpentier’s losses in 1912 to legendary and extra-tough American middleweights Frank Klaus and Billy Papke only served to reinforce his aura. He was said to have come out of the loss to Papke “grandi par sa défaite” (“made greater by his defeat”).
By 1913, at the age of nineteen, Georges Carpentier had moved up into the category of light heavyweight (Carpentier would remain a true light heavyweight for the remainder of his career, in spite of the fact that most of his most famous bouts would take place in the heavyweight division). On February 12, Carpentier knocked out British champ Bandsman Rice in Round 2 and won the European light heavyweight crown. The stunning early KO, made possible by lightning speed and a devastating right hand, became Carpentier’s trademark.
It was in that same year, 1913, that the first of Carpentier’s truly legendary fights would take place. Said to be “the greatest boxing event ever organized in Europe,” Carpentier boxed British heavyweight Billy “Bombardier” Wells for the European heavyweight title at the Universal Exposition in Ghent, Belgium, on June 1, 1913. Huge, perhaps record-breaking, crowds were present, having arrived on special trains from London, Paris and Carpentier’s home region in the north of France. Stakes were high for the French fans: this would be the first time a Frenchman had had a shot at the European heavyweight title, the symbolic weight of which is considerable. The dramatic stakes were equally high. Carpentier was considerably smaller than the colossal Wells (a full eighteen pounds lighter and 9 centimeters shorter) and, at nineteen, six years younger. The scenario was David vs. Goliath and many fans were appalled at the prospect of what they assumed would be a massacre. Carpentier was in fact sent to the canvas for a count of nine within the first minute of the bout. In the second round, Carpentier was down again, not once but twice, and the outcome seemed inevitable. As of Round 3, however, Carpentier had figured out that he would never win a long-distance boxing match with the long limbed Wells and proceeded to work his way in close, under Wells’ guard. He had also discovered that his opponent’s weak point was his stomach. So in Round 4, Carpentier KO’d Wells with two terrific body blows in succession. David had defeated Goliath, France had defeated England, science and technique had defeated size and strength. And Carpentier had taken his place once and for all among the legends of European boxing.
In the rematch, which took place on December 8, 1913, Carpentier proved that his victory over Wells was no fluke. On the contrary, this time the result was even more stunning: Carpentier KO’d Wells only 73 seconds into the first round. British fans went wild over the slim, blond Frenchman who had just decimated their national champion and the frenzied throngs of French fans that met Carpentier at the Gare du Nord upon his return to Paris were even more numerous and more frenzied than they had been in June. In both countries, Carpentier-worship had become a collective mania.
July 1914 found Carpentier in London again, again the recipient of lavish outpourings of adoration from British crowds, this time fighting the American heavyweight Gunboat Smith for the farcical title of “White Heavyweight Champion of the World.” Carpentier won on a controversial disqualification in Round 6 and left on a boat for France mere hours after war was declared.
Georges Carpentier’s meteoric career as a boxer was of course interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. His legend, however, would only be enhanced by the war. Carpentier became a celebrated aviator, twice decorated by the French government (with both the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire) for heroism in battle. The symbolic warfare of the boxing ring had given way to the actual warfare of the battle field and the notion of Carpentier as a genuine national hero has been cemented in the minds of both the French and the British.
Carpentier fairly quickly regained his pugilistic glory after the end of the war. Fittingly, his comeback bout was a British affair, a fight against British heavyweight Joe Beckett, the new European heavyweight champion, in London, on December 4, 1919. Carpentier’s KO of Beckett only 77 seconds into the first round vividly recalled his dramatic KO of Wells in their 1913 rematch and won him the European heavyweight title once again. Wildly embraced by the British, from the Prince of Wales (present at ringside) on down, as well as by his fellow Frenchmen, Carpentier was a truly European champion once again. Logically, what this meant was that a trip to the United States was in order. Clearly the best boxer in Europe, Carpentier needed to test himself against the best America had to offer as well. First, there was an exploratory trip to the US in May 1920, during which he starred in a movie, “The Wonder Man,” which—along with copious newspaper coverage of his every move—gained him considerable fame and popularity among Americans. During a second trip to the US, in the fall of 1920, Carpentier fought American champ Battling Levinsky for the world light heavyweight title. On October 12, 1920, Carpentier became the first-ever French world champion boxer, by KO’ing Levinsky in Round 4.
Newsreel footage of Carpentier, from around the time of the Dempey fight
Heavyweight champion of Europe, light heavyweight champion of the world, clearly the only laurel left for Carpentier to obtain was the title of heavyweight champion of the world. This would mean squaring off against the current titleholder, the formidable Jack Dempsey. The fight that ended up taking place is one of the most remarkable in the history of the sport, an historic event in any number of different ways. Perhaps more than anything, it is a landmark event in the history of publicity, celebrity and marketing. Relentlessly (and cannily) hyped for months in advance by brilliant promoter Tex Rickard, the Dempsey/Carpentier fight was at once boxing match, dramatic spectacle, international relations event and literary inspiration. More words were written about the fight than had been written about the Battle of Verdun just five years earlier; by one estimate, 2.000.000 words were filed on the subject. Huge crowds gathered in cities and towns all over the world, not just in France and the United States, to await the results with levels of anxiety and anticipation normally reserved for more serious world events. The fight was the first heavyweight match and the first title fight in any division to be broadcast on the fledgling medium of radio and is widely thought to have played a significant role in popularizing the medium. Newspapers published, with excruciating levels of detail, accounts of everything either fighter did or said for weeks before, during and after the fight. Journalists and intellectuals of various stripes were inspired to produce reams of prose, the fruits of their labor ranging from the blatantly silly to the sickeningly sentimental to the truly profound and eloquent.
Much of this attention was due to the fight, as pitched by Rickard, as a study in contrasts: Carpentier handsome and urbane, Dempsey beetle-browed and churlish; Carpentier smiling, Dempsey scowling; Carpentier a scientific boxer, Dempsey a ferocious puncher; Carpentier a “knight”, Dempsey a “caveman;” Carpentier David, Dempsey Goliath. Carpentier was a certified war hero, while Dempsey had recently been tried (and acquitted, a fact which seemed at times to escape popular attention) on a charge of draft dodging. Underscoring it all was the matchup between nationalities: the fight was the ultimate showdown between French-ness and American-ness and every essentialist stereotype imaginable was put to use in the service of the colossal publicity campaign. What is perhaps most remarkable is the fact that Carpentier was marketed as the good guy, as the hero of the story, to the public in both France and America. Fight fans in both countries did not hesitate to jump on the bandwagon.
The fight itself contained few surprises. With the exception of a few seconds in Round 2, when, with a crashing right to the cheekbone, Carpentier had Dempsey in trouble, Dempsey’s size and strength allowed him to dominate Carpentier, who was knocked out halfway through the fourth round.
Carpentier-Dempsey, 1921, full film
Carpentier-Dempsey, 1921, fight only
The post-fight coverage in the US press was even more surprising than the pre-fight outpouring had been. Commentators in the days following the fight insisted on praising—at great length and in flowery detail-- Carpentier’s valor, courage and other chivalrous virtues. He was transformed by this prose into a tragic hero, who had lost the fight but displayed his greatness in doing so. The general idea underlying press accounts of the bout, and this more so in the United States than in France, was that Dempsey’s banal victory was a minor accomplishment in comparison to Carpentier’s glorious defeat. According to an editorial in the New York Times, Dempsey had won but Carpentier was the better man. As Dempsey himself very accurately remarked years later in his autobiography: “I read the stories about the fight in the next day’s papers and felt that I hadn’t won. Carpentier was the hero. Never before had anyone seen such courage. I was just a butcher who had happened to win.” For his part, Carpentier, writing some thirty years after the fact, said that he still had considerable difficulty apprehending all the hype surrounding the fight and that in fact it seemed to him “even more stupefying with the passage of time.” In defeat, the Idol of France truly became, for a time anyway, the Idol of America.
In September 1922, Carpentier—who had not fought in Paris since July 1919 and whose French fans were clamoring to see him in action — was matched with Senegalese light heavyweight “Battling Siki” (Louis Fall). Siki, himself a decorated World War I veteran, had had some success in the prize ring in Europe but was not considered a skillful fighter and certainly not a worthy adversary for the great Carpentier. After a puzzling first few rounds, during which Siki appeared to be cowering from Carpentier (he was admonished by the referee at one point for having dropped to the canvas without having been hit), the tide turned unexpectedly. Carpentier injured his right hand on Siki’s head and was rendered impotent. Siki of course capitalized on this turn of events and proceeded to batter Carpentier around the ring before finally knocking him out one minute into the sixth round. Astonishingly, the referee nonetheless awarded a decision to Carpentier, disqualifying Siki on the highly questionable pretext that he had tripped Carpentier. Smelling a rat, the crowd went wild with indignation and the decision was soon reversed. Carpentier, carried out of the ring with his battered face covered by a towel, had lost not only the fight, but also the world light heavyweight title, the French light heavyweight title and the European heavyweight and light heavyweight titles. More much important, he had lost the respect and affection of his countrymen and of boxing fans everywhere. Carpentier the idol was no more.
Following this devastating loss of status, Carpentier nonetheless continued boxing. In 1923, he defeated Marcel Nilles, thereby winning the title of heavyweight champion of France. Several months later, in London, he trumped his 1919 KO of Joe Beckett with an even more spectacular KO in a rematch: 48 seconds into Round 1 (the Prince of Wales, at ringside, famously complained that he was relighting his cigar and consequently missed the entire fight). In 1924, he was matched against the then-light heavyweight Gene Tunney, whose two subsequent wins over Dempsey would become perhaps the most famous fights of all time. Tunney succeeded in knocking Carpentier out after a grueling fifteen rounds. Carpentier retired form the ring in 1926, after a few lackluster bouts in the United States against little-known opponents.
Within a matter of months, however, Georges Carpentier was (literally) in the spotlight again, this time as a music-hall performer. A little singing, a little dancing, a little boxing in the form of on-stage exhibitions with sparring partners, Carpentier’s performances were unremarkable. But the dishonor that followed the Siki debacle seemed to have faded and people wanted to see their idol again. In the years that followed, Carpentier toured in Europe and America in various music hall revues and appeared in several films (at least one made in France and two or three in the US).
In the early 1930’s, there was occasional talk of a Carpentier comeback but this never amounted to much. In 1934, Carpentier starred in what would be his most famous film role, that of boxer “Georges Romanet” in Henri Decoin’s Toboggan. The film is the story of an ex-champion who returns to the ring to reclaim his former glory. Realistic in both style and content, it includes a montage of actual footage of Carpentier in the ring in his heyday. The ultimate result is not altogether successful as a work of art (among other things, Carpentier’s acting is less than impressive) but constitutes a fascinating mélange of fact and fiction, “Georges Romanet”’s story eerily and poignantly echoing Georges Carpentier’s.
During the Occupation, Carpentier’s name was again in the news. Although subsequent versions of the story told by Carpentier in 1954 and 1975 would have us believe that he was the victim of a series of circumstances and misrepresentations, the fact is that Carpentier agreed to a gala in honor of his fiftieth birthday (January 1944), during which he put on an exhibition with former amateur and Olympic champion Roger Michelot, sponsored and heavily touted by La France Socialiste, a collaborationist propaganda organ. As if this were not damning enough, there is newsreel footage of Carpentier making an appearance at a boxing show put on for the entertainment of French workers in Berlin, at the height of the war, and a curious number of appearances by him in other, more “innocent”, newsreels of the period as well. There is no record of Carpentier’s having publicly or even privately made any pronouncements in favor of Vichy or the Germans, and his ideological position per se is thus unknown. What is known, however, is that he allowed his image to be appropriated for propaganda purposes by the publicity machine in Occupied France. For the Germans and collaborating French, eager to put a distinctly French face on the Occupation, Carpentier, erstwhile Idol of France, symbol of Frenchness throughout the world and World War I hero, made a particularly useful icon. It is indeed a perverse testimony to the enduring power of Carpentier as an icon that his image should have been manipulated to such ends more than twenty years after his last significant victory in the ring.
Following World War II, Carpentier continued the career on which he had embarked following his retirement from show business in 1935: bar/restaurant owner. In several different watering holes (always in chic Right Bank neighborhoods—the Champs Elysées, the Madeleine), each of which bore his famous name, Georges Carpentier held court as patron de la maison from 1935 until approximately 1970 Boxing aficionados of many nationalities made the pilgrimage to Carpentier’s bar for a handshake, an autograph, perhaps a few minutes of genial conversation with the legendary fighter.
Georges Carpentier died on October 28, 1975. He was widely eulogized as a national hero, as an example of the rare species of gentleman boxer, and as a symbol of another era. Perhaps especially he was remembered as a celebrity, an icon, as someone who was famous for having been famous, celebrated for having been celebrated.