‘Bedlam broke in the crowded arena’

Editor’s note: With this post, we return to the tale of Eddie “Kid” Brown, a member of Louis Armstrong’s semipro baseball team, the Secret 9, which blazed across the New Orleans black ball firmament in the early 1930s. While Brown was an adept ballplayer, his primary talent — and source of athletic glory — was his boxing career.

Here, we jump into Brown’s pugilistic exploits in early 1932, when he frequently ventured across the mighty Mississippi to the westbank of the NOLA metro area, where he engaged in a series of fights at the Westside Arena, a subject touched on in my last post here. The bouts were mostly victories for Kid. …

The New Orleans dailies did cover those encounters at the Westside Arena between Brown and a series of foes, albeit in tiny news briefs; the Times-Picayune’s reportage leading up to his Jan. 31, 1932, clash with local lightweight Teddy Jackson noted that the bout headlined the second weekly boxing “stag,” or card lineup, organized by promoter (and reputed mobster) Tony Tripani at the Westside A.C.

The featherweight fight — boxers frequently jumped from weight class to weight class — was slated for 10 rounds between “capable fighters.” Stated the Jan. 27 T-P:

“Brown is popular with the over-the-river fans and has rung up a long winning streak in his last six bouts in and around Louisiana and he will be out to add Jackson to his list. Jackson is a rugged two-handed battler and carries dynamite in two hands and a pleasant scrapper.”

Kid Brown won that clash on points, and he went on to claim victory in several more westbank bouts in early 1932.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana Weekly dived in a bit deeper in its coverage of the 1932 bouts at the Westside Arena. In the paper’s Jan. 23, 1932, issue, reporter Henry O. Bryant Jr. issued a dispatch about a multi-fight card on the westbank headlined by a scheduled 10-round clash between Kid Brown and Fast Black. Brown used his flashy hands and quick feet to decisively beat Black and, according to Bryant, Kid “added another victim to his long string …”

“Brown, the aggressor throughout, outclassed Black whenever he chose to fight, and that was most of the way,” Bryant wrote. “He was all over his opponent storming him [fl]urries of punches, fighting most of the time in the open.”

Bryant added:

“So terrific was Eddie’s speed that Fast Black appeared to be standing still most of the time. Brown played the ropes masterfully, bouncing on and off landing solidly to Black’s face.

“Black accepted Brown’s challenge to fight but was outclassed most of the way. …”

The fisticuffs brought about 300 folks to the arena, which isn’t a packed house, but it’s still decent for the middle of the Depression.

Then came Brown’s encounter with Teddy Jackson, for which Weekly assistant sports editor Eddie Burbridge himself took a ferry ride across the river to the westbank to cover the bout, and Burbridge ended up seeing what reporter Bryant saw a month earlier — a speedy Kid Brown who dominated the featherweight bout for an easy victory.

“Brown clearly demonstrated that he is the fastest featherweight slinging leather in this neck of the woods when he won practically every round over Jackson, who is a rather speedy boy himself,” Burbridge said in the Feb. 6, 1932, Weekly. “Jackson fought a good battle and proved to be in great condition although he couldn’t catch the fast moving Brown.”

At the end of his article, however, Brown added a blurb that reveals a glimpse into the general social setting at play in early 1932. Burbridge penned:

“The arena was pretty well filled, the whites outnumbering the colored fans four to one.”

Such a fact might show how, economically, white New Orleans and all of America was significantly better off, or at least less worse off, than the black population less than three years after the stock market crash. But deeper than that — and building off what my friend Derby said in my earlier post on Brown and the socioeconomic challenges faced by black fighters — perhaps African-American men felt that the only legitimate (i.e. non-illegal) way they could make a living and provide for their families was as athletes, as gladiators performing for the entertainment of whites, beating the crap out of each other just so white fans would give them scraps or pennies.

Louisiana Weekly, Feb. 6, 1932

I think there could very well have been that dynamic in action at that place and time — black men being reduced to simple amusements via blood sports for white society — but it also ignores the fact that some black men — and, indeed, also some white men and some women, too — just liked or like boxing as a competitive pursuit. The physical challenge and the mental chess game involved in each fight was thrilling and self-enriching on a spiritual level. Some folks just love to box, like I love to write.

But I digress. Back to Eddie Brown and the Westside Arena, because there’s one more significant fight — or, shall we say, non-fight — that went down in McDonoghville in early March 1932 that set the stage for something special a little later on.

Eddie was slated to fight Charlie the Kid — lots of “Kid” nicknames floating around, and it can be quite confusing — on March 6 of ’32 at the Westside. Charlie (sometimes listed as Charley) was a New Orleans lightweight who scuffled around the local pugilistic scene for a few years to middling success. A little way into his career, he signed on for a bout against none other than Eddie Brown in March 1932, setting up a promising little scrap both the fighters and the fans.

Louisiana Weekly, March 12, 1932

However, according to the official line, right before the gong ran, Charlie backed out because of illness, leaving the Westside promoter (likely either Tony Tripani or Lou Ovalasiti) scrambling to fill the suddenly one-sided bill. He (whoever the promoter) found a familiar face to climb into the ring — Kid Phillips, against whom Kid Brown launched his career in 1929.

Eddie ended up outpointing Phillips once again, this time using his speed to withstand Phillips’ improved attack. Wrote Burbridge in the March 12, 1932, Louisiana Weekly:

“These two boys went the route of ten rounds at top speed. Although hit hard and often by Philip [sic], who surprised everyone by going the distance without appearing to tire, Brown put on a spurt to take the last three rounds and the [decision]. Brown once more proved that he is the classiest boxer of his weight performing in this neck of the woods. He made Philip miss frequently by his clever ducking. At one time Philip swung at him and hit ropes where Brown had stood. Brown’s speed helped him out of danger often, although he proved he could take ’em. He took all Philip had to offer and kept boring in, leading the battle throughout.”

But here’s the deal: Charlie apparently wasn’t “ill” when he jumped ship. According to Weekly head sports editor Earl M. Wright, Charlie actually balked at the relatively paltry purse he was predicted to receive from (what he felt) an apparently underwhelming crowd size. Allegedly, Wright wrote, Charlie didn’t want to risk tarnishing his reputation with a possible loss to an up-and-comer like Brown, especially what probably would have been a less-than-stellar payday.

Wright stated:

“Charlie has fought what has been termed ‘important’ fights for a great deal less than he would have received for his end Sunday, we know that to be a fact. But Charlie knew that he was the pulling power for that fight and that, although Brown’s name and ability did go a long way towards attracting customers, he was the underdog, and a mighty terrible one at that. Dangerous enough to haul down the decision.”

All of this might seem life a goofy minor detail, but it actually helped set the stage for arguably the most intense rivalry of Eddie “Kid” Brown’s boxing career, as you’ll see a little bit later. 

I’ll wrap up the discussion of Brown’s experiences on the westbank of New Orleans, with one caveat. It’s possible that Brown enjoyed further engagements at the Westside, especially in 1935, when the daily newspapers either hyped upcoming matches staged by Lou Ovalasiti that included Eddie, or reported that Ovalasiti was seeking Brown and other fighters for cards at the Westside Arena. However, after checking BoxRec and doing a cursory database search, I find no immediate record that any Westside featuring Brown ever took place between after early 1932. I also didn’t have a chance to go through the Louisiana Weekly archives — a process requiring squinting at microfilm, because the paper’s old stuff isn’t online — in depth for this period, and of what of I did find post-1932, none of Kid’s bouts took place in the time period.

The second caveat about the Westside Arena and Kid Brown’s experiences there is that there’s a possibility that Brown fought at other venues during this time period in addition to the Westside A.C. Indeed, at times he engaged in two or even three fights a month, much like many other scrappers of his day, making it likely that he did take to the ring elsewhere, too. There’s evidence that he did get between the ropes at places like the San Jacinto Club in the Treme district, as well as at something called the Pelican Arena, during this stretch.

Now, jumping ahead a year or so in Eddie Brown’s career and hopping back of New Orleans proper, one of Brown’s most, shall we say, eventful fights came on Oct. 1, 1933, when Eddie “Kid” Brown climbed into the ring for a main event against none other than Charlie the Kid, who, it seems, eventually did square off against Eddie Brown sometime after the no-show in March 1932. That fight did not go well for Brown, crushed by Charlie, who knocked Eddie out.

Louisiana Weekly, Oct. 7, 1933

So, entering autumn 1933, the bad blood between Charlie and Eddie was already boiling, and it spilled over on Oct. 1 when they foes squared off in a thrilling rematch.

And this conflagration is worth examining. It wasn’t a championship bout of any sort, neither locally nor regionally (at least officially speaking), but holy cow, some seriously wacky stuff went down that Sunday night.

The Brown-Charlie rematch included the type of spectacle and celebration that African-American boxing garnered within the black community, including in New Orleans. And Eddie Brown — along with regional luminaries like Wesley Farrell and Kid Chocolate — was a huge draw and reason for excitement. Reported the Louisiana Weekly sports editor Earl M. Wright in the Oct. 7, 1933 issue:

“Brown wore a blue silk bathrobe and trunks of the same material, while Charlie sported trunks of silk pea green and a bathrobe of yellow gold silk. Bedlam broke in the crowded arena when the two little gamecocks rushed into the ring. A lot of unnecessary bla-bla preceded the battle while the fans yelled for it to begin and the speeches left for last.”

(I’m guessing “bla-bla” means good ol’ trash talking.)

The drama continued to virtually the point of theater, when the referee accused Eddie of delivering a low blow to Charlie and tugged Brown to the side of the ring while sending Charlie to his corner. According to Wright, the crowd watching the mix wasn’t happy, Charlie himself appeared like he wasn’t sure what was happening, and Brown, infuriated at the accusation of dirty fighting, climbed out of the ring and worked his way through the crowd and right out of the arena. Eddie’s manager persuaded his fighter to come back and finish the scuffle, but Brown did so only after the ref was replaced.

Brown earned the decision victory by completely dominating the early rounds, surprising Charlie and the crowd — who were expecting Brown to use quickness, lighting jabs and perimeter punching — by attacking from the get-go and battering Charlie over several rounds. Although Charlie turned the tables by the end of the fight, even flooring Brown at one point, Eddie’s commanding control of the early frames brought him the victory after six rounds. Wrote Wright: 

By demolishing Charlie that night, Eddie snatched revenge a few months after a previous fight between the two gladiators, in which Charlie had embarrassed Eddie by knocking him out.

The dose of vengeance left Brown ecstatic, as per Wright:

“At the bell Brown dashed over Charlie’s corner, lifted him from his stool, and carried him bodily around the ring. He was gleeful. A moment later Brown was yanked to the center of the ring and his hand raised in token of victory. His early fighting had won the fight for him.”

I think what’s most exhilarating about reading the reportage of the sweet science is how breathless the Weekly’s scribes could be in the prose. Like Wright’s coverage from this bout, the verbiage was colorful, and the scenes were set gorgeously, especially when the writer captured the emotions and passions of the fight fans in attendance. It was the intersection of black society, athletic prowess and economic enterprise that seems to have made fight night in the African-American community in New Orleans so thrilling. 

Which mirrors the place baseball and baseball games held in black society at a time when segregation was still rigid but being chipped away slowly until Jackie Robinson came along in 1947. Going to a Negro Leagues game was an event; men, women and kids turned out in their Sunday finest as a celebration of cultural unity and social resilience. Cheering for the athletes on the field or in the ring represented the pride that existed in the African-American community during the often crushing period of repressive Jim Crow.

But I digress. The Charlie the Kid vs. Eddie “Kid” Brown actually evolved into one of the most heated and repeatedly-enjoined rivalries in 1930s black boxing in New Orleans — they clashed at least three times. In March 1934, Brown repeated his winning ways over Chuck at the Coliseum Arena and proving that, according to a Louisiana Weekly headline, he was “the most clever and scientific boxers in the South.”

In yet another bout with Charlie, this one if August 1934, Eddie battled back from two knockdowns from Charlie’s fists to gain a third straight win by decision over his familiar foe. The Weekly stated that Brown “wag[ed] a brainy battle” to complete the comeback.

Other than Charlie the Kid, Eddie Brown squared off against several other regionally and nationally prominent fighters. Arguably the most famous opponent faced by Kid was lightweight Wesley Farrell, another New Orleans native who was a shade younger than Brown. Over a six-year career in the 1930s, Farrell went 31-24-8, with 14 knockout wins to his credit.

Wesley Farrell

Farrell actually began his career on the West Coast, fighting in Los Angeles and Santa Monica before returning to his hometown for a string of a couple dozen or so bouts in the Big Easy, including a pair of wins over Eddie Brown in 1934 at the Coliseum Arena. In 1936, Farrell shifted his home base to New England, where he engaged in a bunch of bouts in Holyoke, Mass. (where I myself worked for a couple years in the late 1990s); New Haven, Conn.; and West Haven, Conn.

After a year-long stint back in NOLA, Farrell ventured north again for a slew of fights throughout the Northeast, including several in New York City; Newark, N.J.; Providence, R.I.; Boston; Fall River, Mass. (a town I discussed in my post about Louis Sockalexis); Worcester, Mass.; North Adams, Mass. (also discussed in my Sockalexis piece); Holyoke; Portland, Maine; and even one in Montreal, Canada.

Farrell concluding his career at home in New Orleans with a few bouts in 1939.

Kid Brown’s pair of clashes with Farrell proved memorable and garnered a large amount of attention in the fighters’ hometown. In May 1934, Farrell picked up a TKO win over Brown, and the return engagements took place a little less than six months later. Prior to the rematch, the Weekly stated:

“Farrell is claimant of the Negro Southern lightweight title and states that he will prove his claim justified by repeating his K.O. victory over Brown, who is a much improved fighter in every respect. Eddie has piled up many victories over some of the best lightweights in the South … since his defeat at the hands of the cock Farrell … Yet, with all these factors in his favor the local boy [Brown] will likely go to the post Friday night [Oct. 26, 1934] an underdog in the betting odds, with Wesley a 2 to 1 favorite at the ringside.”

That prophecy came true, unfortunately, with about 4,500 fans at the Coliseum Arena watching as Farrell knocked Brown out in the sixth round of a scheduled 10-rounder. Brown fared well in the first round or so, after which, reported the Weekly:

“… Farrell cut loose on Brown, shaking the local boy with hard smashes to the body and head. When the sixth round came around it was just a question as to how long Brown could stand up under the punishment Farrell was dealing out. …”

(I need to mention some of the fighters on the various undercards to this “Southern championship” of sorts, because the names are glorious — Battling Siki, Kid Spibbens, Wildcat O’Conner, Newsboy Brown, Kid Carl and Baby Wills, among others.)

Post-note: We wrap up Eddie “Kid” Brown’s story in my next installment, which will hopefully be posted next week …

3 thoughts on “‘Bedlam broke in the crowded arena’

  1. Pingback: Kid Brown’s saga comes to a conclusion | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  2. Pingback: An influential photographer, a mysterious vanishing | The Negro Leagues Up Close

  3. Pingback: The Photo: The Secret 9 wraps up (for now) | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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