Analysis: the first international sporting event held in the Free State was a world light-heavyweight boxing title clash on St Patrick's Day 1923

The first international sporting event in the Free State took place in Dublin on St Patrick's Day 1923. The world title boxing match pitted a French-Senegalese boxer against an Irish-American boxer. Tensions were running high in the capital as the Civil War was still raging and there were fears that the fight would not ahead or that people would be injured as the anti-Treaty IRA made a last-gasp attempt to prove their mettle. The fledgling Free State government did all it could to ensure that the fight passed off without incident knowing that the eyes of the world’s press were on Dublin because of the match.

In the red corner was Senegalese-born Battling Siki, the first African light heavyweight boxing world champion. He won the title after beating Georges Carpentier in Paris in front of crowd of over 50,000 spectators in September 1922. Siki’s birth name was Amadou M’barick Fall but he was known in France as Louis Fall. His nicknames in the ring included 'Battling Siki’ and ‘Singular Senegalese’.

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From British Pathé, Battling Siki Arrives in Cork in 1923 and receives an enthusiastic welcome

Siki told journalists that 'Siki' was a term of endearment in his native Wolof and could be translated into English as ‘darling’. In those days, many fighters had the title ‘Battling’ in their name, such as the American light heavyweight champion Battling Levinsky or the Danish-born American world lightweight champion Battling Nelson.

How Siki ended up in France is not clear. One story says that a French woman brought him there from Senegal as a child. She planned to adopt him but, when that arrangement fell through, he remained in the country. He worked in restaurants cleaning dishes before getting involved in the boxing world and soon made a living out of it, earning 10 francs a match. He enlisted in the French army in 1914 and fought on nearly every front. His bravery during the War earned him the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille Militaire.

After traveling from Cherbourg to Cobh, Siki arrived in Dublin on March 6th. At the time, it was said that he could not get a visa to fight in England and that the Free State was chosen as a close second. He stayed at the Claremont Hotel (later Howth Lodge Hotel) near the fishing village of Howth

Battling Siki and his sparring partner Eugene Stuber outside the Claremont Hotel in Howth. Photo: National Library Of Ireland

He followed a fairly strict regime. Every morning between 8am and 10am, he would go for a run. This was followed by a hot shower and he also had a cold bath or a sea bath every day. At 2pm, a car would arrive to bring him to his public training session in the Rotunda in the city centre, where fans would pay in to see him spar with his sparring partner, a Frenchman by the name of Eugène Stuber, and two Irish boxers. Siki would be in bed every evening by 9pm.

Siki's opponent in the title fight was Mike McTigue, who was born in Kilnamona, Co. Clare in 1892. The fight took place in La Scala Theatre on O'Connell Street (now home to a branch of Penneys) on St Patrick's Day. Full of himself, Siki predicted that he would beat McTigue by the fifth round but, in reality, it lasted for a gruelling 20 rounds.

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From British Pathé, profile of Mike Mctigue who took on Battling Siki in Dublin in 1923

Security was extremely tight. Before the bout, a French newspaper expressed fears that Siki would be kidnapped by "Sinn Feiners". At the time, it was common for French papers to describe all Irish republican elements as "Sinn Feiners". The New York Times reported that Siki received a death threat written in Irish.

Both boxers were given armed guards and armed plainclothes police were present at the fight in case of any trouble. Troops were also on standby outside. The only attempt to disrupt the fight came to nothing after an IRA bomb targeting the power source to the venue exploded, but did not cause any significant damage.

Siki's old adversary, Georges Carpentier, received a "tremendous reception" from the crowd when he stepped into the ring to be introduced to them just before 8pm. The Postmaster General, J.J. Walsh and the Attorney General, Hugh Kennedy sat in ringside seats.

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Mike McTigue vs. Battling Siki, Dublin, March 17th 1923

McTigue walked into the ring wearing a slate blue coat over his green shorts, while Siki wore a purple dressing gown over his white shorts which had a French tricolour belt. McTigue was declared the winner on points and this made him the first Irishman to win a world title on Irish soil.

Siki departed Ireland from Cobh for Cherbourg. He was charismatic and maybe even eccentric. Newspapers enjoyed reporting on how he used to walk a pet lion down the streets of Paris or fire a shot from a pistol after leaving a nightclub. After some fights in France, he moved to New York which was becoming the fight capital of the world. There, he had a patchy record made up of 11 wins, 17 losses and one draw. Sadly, he was shot dead in New York two years after his Irish adventure at the age of just 28.


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