By Mike Casey
His was a wonderful, seamless blend of culture and controlled savagery. He stalked and threw punches constantly in the manner of Rocky Marciano, but with far greater education and precision. At his raging best, there didn’t seem to be a single aspect of the game at which Marcel Cerdan wasn’t breathtakingly efficient. Boxing observers looked in vain for any vital physical or mental component that he lacked. He was a natural and versatile predator who could prosper in any given climate.
Cerdan is something of a strange case among history’s greatest middleweights. He is a stalwart member of most people’s top ten, yet is rarely discussed at length and almost never mentioned in fantasy fights between the elite masters. We hear of Ketchel, Greb, Walker Robinson, Monzon and Hagler. Even Tony Zale, Rocky Graziano, Dick Tiger and Gene Fullmer occasionally get into the mix, largely because they were tough and colourful battlers.
I tell you now, with utter conviction, that Marcel Cerdan would have given any member of that first half dozen the fight of his life. I certainly believe that he would have been too clever, too rugged and too hard hitting for Hagler. As for the four names that follow, there is no doubt in my mind that Marcel would have taken Tony Zale at any time in Tony’s career and ripped through Graziano, Tiger and Fullmer.
Perhaps I have already stumbled on one of the reasons for Cerdan’s apparent invisibility. There is a school of thought that Tony Zale was past his best and ready for the taking when Cerdan tore the middleweight championship from his grip at the Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City in 1948. There is undoubtedly an element of truth to that theory, since thirty-four year old Tony was a veteran of 86 bouts by that time and had consistently faced top class opposition. Let us remember too that Zale had lost four years of his career to the Second World War, in which he served as a sailor.
Yet prior to defending against Cerdan, Tony had never looked fresher or more devastating in concluding his vicious trilogy with Rocky Graziano at the Ruppert Stadium in Newark. Stunning Rocky repeatedly with hard and precise punches, Zale brought the curtain down in classic style in the third round with a memorable one-two of a jolt to the body and a smash to the jaw.
Zale was the 8 to 5 favourite against Cerdan, yet the French ace dismantled him with a potent mix of surgical precision and brutality. Marcel was a revelation and the American crowd applauded his hard-edged artistry. He was on top of the world, but then everything went horribly wrong. Tragically so.
He left a sizeable percentage of his earnings from that fight in America as a guarantee that he would return in 1949 to meet Uncle Sam’s selected challenger. Marcel honoured the agreement and made his first defence against Jake LaMotta.
Cerdan injured his left shoulder in the opening round of that famous fight, battling heroically until the pain forced him to retire at the end of the ninth round.
Fighting LaMotta with two arms was a nightmare even for a man of Sugar Ray Robinson’s exceptional talent. How good was a handicapped Cerdan? As one ringsider noted, “Even with one good arm, he gave LaMotta all the trouble he could handle.”
Cerdan, of course, didn’t have to play the good sport and defend against so tough an adversary as Bronx Jake. But that’s the way it was done then. LaMotta himself could have trod water and racked up a few more title defences before entertaining Robinson. Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler could have taken break from sharing each other’s ferocious company. Kid Gavilan could have chosen an easier opponent for his first title defence than the slick and super smart kid from Greenwich Village, Billy Graham. As boxing writer and analyst Al Bernstein once noted, the great fighters of that era consistently fought other great fighters, which is why they are justly celebrated as being among the true giants of the game.
Cerdan and LaMotta were to fight again, and it is this writer’s opinion that the Frenchman would have regained the championship from the Bronx Bull. Then came the tragedy. After saying goodbye to his wife, who stayed behind to look after the family restaurant in Casablanca, Cerdan boarded a plane back to America and quickly met his death. The plane crashed in the Azores and 45,000 people attended the great fighter’s funeral when his body was returned to Casablanca.
Cerdan had come and gone like a flash. To those who simply glance at the record books or read the odd article, the Casablanca Clouter must seem little more than a shooting star that exploded sensationally before quickly dissolving back into the stratosphere. Measured against the vast and rich canvas of middleweight history, he does indeed give the impression of being almost a fleeting ghost. He wasn’t. He was all flesh and blood and was one of the genuinely great middleweights.
Right from his days of knocking out the cream of European fighters, long before he first came to America, Marcel Cerdan captivated everyone who saw him.
For years in Britain, a great and bitter rivalry existed between Jewish promoters, Jack Solomons and Harry Levene. Both men were feisty businessmen and canny talent spotters. I will never forget the day I called Levene to ask him if he really disliked Solomons. I was sixteen years old, with all the innocent confidence that comes with youth. There was a dramatic pause at the end of the line. Harry was very good at dramatic pauses. Then came his answer. “My next presentation will be the British championship match between Henry Cooper and Joe Bugner at the Empire Pool, Wembley. Do you wish to purchase a ticket?”
Solomons in particular travelled far and wide in his tireless hunt for freshly cut fighting diamonds. Jolly Jack was a shrewd judge of boxing talent and not an easy man to impress. When he journeyed to Paris and saw Marcel Cerdan, Solomons was left reeling in admiration. On his return to England, he couldn’t summon sufficient praise for the barnstorming Frenchman.
Jack spoke of Cerdan’s ability to knock out opponents with either hand, with short blasts that travelled a matter of inches and were thrown with great speed and variation. It was Solomons’ belief that Marcel was the greatest fighter France had ever produced, even better than the long-time darling of that nation, Georges Carpentier.
Great promoters, of course, can make a stay in the Siberian salt mines sound like the vacation of a lifetime. But Solomons was pretty much on the mark in his summation of Cerdan. The Casablanca Clouter was in no way a deception with his powerful arms and shoulders, his barrel chest and his gold-toothed rugged handsomeness. He was every inch a furious fighting man at 5’ 7” and 158lbs, a thinking man’s puncher whose strength and hitting power were allied to an imaginative mind and excellent footwork. How could his footwork be anything less? Playing league soccer for Casablanca had honed his speed and agility and taught him how to manoeuvre his way out of tight corners.
Cerdan was durable, tenacious, and could fire his damaging punches in rapid-fire bursts of varying permutations. He would set up opponents with vicious digs to the body and fast cracks to the jaw and required the minimum of leverage for his payoff punches.
A French-Algerian, Cerdan was born in Sidi Bel-Abbes in Algeria on July 22, 1916. His elder brothers all boxed and Marcel decided to follow the family tradition, turning professional in 1934 at the age of seventeen. He was already more than capable of looking after himself, having hacked his way through many fights with street Arabs as a growing boy. In a glittering and tragically abbreviated career, he would storm on to lose just four of his 113 professional fights, scoring 63 knockouts. His sad finale against LaMotta would mark the only time that Cerdan was stopped.
Paris was calling. The boxing fans in the French capital quickly picked up on the exciting exploits of the young Cerdan and demanded to see him. Marcel had campaigned exclusively in Morocco and Algeria for the first three years of his career, bulling and powering his way to 28 successive wins. The Parisiens liked what they saw when he finally shed his cloak of mystery and moved among them to outpoint Louis Jampton in October, 1937.
Cerdan radiated glamour and charisma and quickly attained celebrity status. His mistress, the legendary singer Edith Piaf, would sit at ringside as her boy cut a swathe through the best fighters that Europe could offer. While the overall standard of European talent was never on a par with the finest of American ring mechanics, it was certainly a lot richer in those heady days of stiff and constant competition. France especially had a productive factory, particularly among the middleweights.
Cerdan was preceded by hard man Marcel Thil and followed by Laurent Dauthuille, Robert Villemain and Charley Humez. As late as the seventies there would be the fine trio of Jean-Claude Bouttier, Gratien Tonna and the wildly exciting Jean Mateo.
Like Tony Zale and so many other great boxers, Cerdan’s career was significantly interrupted by the Second World War. He was approaching his twenty-third birthday when he joined the French army shortly after dethroning Saviero Turiello for the European welterweight title. Marcel’s progress was halted for more than eighteen months until France fell to Germany and he returned to the ring in 1941.
The Clouter quickly made up for lost time. He won the French middleweight title and barrelled through the ranks with a series of exciting victories until gaining his first big break in 1946. Before a crowd of 10,000 at the Roland Garros Stadium in Paris, Cerdan gained an emphatic decision over that most able and cagey of craftsmen, Holman Williams. What made that triumph all the more impressive was that Marcel had battled through much of the fight with a broken hand that prevented him from throwing his destructive, one-two combinations with their usual steam and venom.
Holman Williams was a big scalp and Uncle Sam had been watching in the form of promoter, Mike Jacobs. Now America wanted a piece of the Cerdan action. Jacobs assured Marcel that he would get top consideration to meet the winner of the forthcoming first match between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano. In fact the Frenchman would have to wait two years and fight a further thirteen battles before securing his big chance.
There were two harsh truths to the big delay. Zale became locked in an epic trilogy with Graziano, and Rock-A-Bye Rocky was always going to sell more tickets than Cerdan. More significantly, Marcel still needed to prove that he was the real McCoy to the mighty American market, the heartland of boxing. Hearsay and glowing reports from abroad were all well and good, but the Frenchman needed to go to America and parade his wares before the sport’s biggest and most influential audience. His response to that challenge, and the style and panache with which he stated his case, quickly brought a smile of satisfaction to Uncle Sam’s rugged old features.
Cerdan was booked to meet the clever, sharp-shooting Georgie Abrams at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 1946. Training in the sweaty and sweltering confines of the Catholic Youth Organization gymnasium in the heart of downtown New York, Marcel became a great source of fascination to the American boxing writers.
NEA staff correspondent Ned Brown wrote of him: “Cerdan is a rugged mixer, digging in, throwing straight, short punches incessantly from all angles, never clinching, seemingly tireless.”
Brown also noted Cerdan’s incredible quickness and unswerving commitment. “I never saw a fighter train like he does. On a hot and humid day, the five windows of the gym were shut tight and the pungent smell of the sweat of many fighters was in the air. But Cerdan worked and breathed as if he were in a sylvan suburb.”
Marcel had based himself in the Long Island suburb of Flushing and argued that he got all the fresh air he needed there. He didn’t care for crowds and worked quietly in the gym with manager and trainer, Luciano Roupp, who took on the additional role of sparring partner. Wearing big gloves, Cerdan stalked and attacked Roupp with thought and purpose, switching his attack from head to body as Roupp raised his guard or stepped back from punches when necessary.
Marcel pounded the heavy bag with mean intention, but eased up when entertaining several of the amateurs in the gym who volunteered to spar with him. Those in the know saw at once that Cerdan was one tough fellow. Speaking of his youthful street brawls back home with the Arabs who came to test his mettle, Marcel explained simply, “You had to fight or get your head knocked off.”
Older reporters who had seen the past greats began comparing Cerdan to the Australian ace, Les Darcy. Others described Marcel as a French-African Ace Hudkins.
Against Georgie Abrams, in a ferocious and bloody contest over ten rounds, Cerdan thrilled his American audience and surpassed all the high expectations of him. Abrams was nobody’s fool. Five months later, he would lose a split decision to welterweight king Ray Robinson at the Garden, a verdict so disputed by the crowd that Robbie would have to listen to a chorus of boos for one of the few times in his golden career. Ray would remark on how difficult it was to hit Georgie with a clean shot. Abrams was a mean hitter too, having decked Tony Zale in their 1941 fight.
The 30-year old Cerdan hit Abrams with plenty before a crowd of 16,971, even though Georgie, at 28, held the advantages in youth, height, weight and reach. Marcel never stopped throwing punches and rallied viciously whenever the tide turned against him. He was staggered by a right uppercut in the eighth round, but powered back to sweep the ninth and tenth frames with a sustained attack. Cerdan scored the only knockdown of the fight in the ninth when a big left hook to the stomach bent Abrams in half and caused his gloves to touch the canvas.
The speed and power of Marcel’s varied hooking attacks prevented Georgie from making the most of his effective jab and long, stinging right crosses until the second half of the fight. Cerdan had contracted a heavy chest cold in training for the bout, which had given him considerable muscular pain and prevented him from working out with professional sparring partners. The lack of sufficient preparation showed in his wildness. He missed with many of his punches and slipped to one knee in the seventh round after falling short with a right hand haymaker. Yet his pedestrian moments couldn’t mask his very obvious talent. The American fight fraternity was impressed and wanted more.
Cerdan enjoyed contrasting fortunes in his next two American appearances. He won both fights but in very different ways. He was back at the Garden on September 28, 1947, crossing swords with the talented and skilful Harold Green of Brooklyn, who had already fashioned quite an impressive portfolio at the tender age of twenty-two.
Harold had twice decisioned Rocky Graziano, although Rocky had all but balanced the scales in their third match with one booming right that put Green down for the count. Harold had bounced back to win five straight coming into the Cerdan match, but the New Yorker ran into a firestorm against the blazing Frenchman.
It was in this short-lived contest that Marcel proved himself a ruthless finisher. Knocking out Green was not an easy thing to do. Only Cerdan, Graziano, Johnny Greco and Paddy Young managed the feat in Harold’s 88 fights.
The electricity of excitement surged through the Garden crowd of 18,116 when Cerdan struck with a burst of sudden fury in the second round. Mounting a sustained head attack that persisted for some thirty seconds, Marcel broke Green with a crunching right hook to the jaw that spun the youngster sideways and buckled his knees. Harold was in no fit state to continue and the fight was called off after 2.19 seconds of the round.
Cerdan had notched another quality victory and once again his name was praised in sports pages across the great American divide. Here was a Frenchman who fought like an American! He could do it all! Spectacular!
Well, every great fighter has a few bad nights and Marcel most certainly had one of his in his next outing. It wasn’t bad at all for the first nine rounds against the rugged and dangerous Anton Raadik, memorably described by one reporter as a ‘rampaging Estonian.’ Raadik did indeed rage, but Marcel raged more to carry a comfortable points lead into the tenth and final round at the Chicago Stadium.
Then the gods gripped hold of the rug under Cerdan’s feet and gave it an almighty tug. Raadik began to catch Marcel with head punches. Repeatedly so. Worryingly so. Cerdan’s American trainer, Lew Burson, must have felt his stomach bouncing off his shoes.
It had to happen and it did. A right from Raadik knocked Cerdan down and very nearly through the ropes. Marcel jumped up right away but couldn’t get out of the firing line as his hunter surged forward, firing a combination of punches. Cerdan was driven around the ring and decked again for a count of four. Raadik saw his chance of glory and moved in to grab it with both hands. Back-tracking into a trap of his own making, Cerdan was corralled in a neutral corner as Anton let rip with all he had. A left-right combination caused Marcel to bounce off the ropes and fall for the third time. A less rugged fighter would probably have gone under at that point, but the Frenchman was back on his feet after a ‘five’ count. The bell sounded to end the fight and a dazed Cerdan trudged back to his corner. Manager Lew Burson cradled him in his arms and cried on his shoulder. Both men were clearly shattered by the shocking turn of events. The unanimous decision in Marcel’s favour failed to cut through the gloom in his corner.
Maybe the Casablanca Clouter wasn’t all he was cracked up to be after all. Maybe he wasn’t such a threat to world champion, Tony Zale.
Zale at Roosevelt Stadium
Cerdan was made of stern stuff. All those street fights in his youth had grounded him well in the tough discipline of overcoming adversity. He went back to Paris while he continued to wait patiently for his shot at Zale. In January 1948, Marcel retained his European title with a blistering second round knockout of Giovanni Manca. Less than a month later, the challenge of Jean Walzack was terminated by way of a crushing fourth round kayo.
Two more victories followed before the next blip, which might well have been the oddly fortuitous defeat that convinced the Zale camp that Cerdan was a safe enough challenger. Marcel lost his European title on points to rugged Belgian Cyrille Delannoit, who carried the nickname of ‘Tarzan’ and had already gained a pair of decisions over the rising Laurent Dauthuile.
Cerdan quickly balanced the scales, outscoring Delannoit in another 15-rounder, but Marcel’s American admirers must have wondered if he was truly the man to dethrone Zale, Two months after setting the record straight against Delannoit, Cerdan answered the big question in the warm and throbbing atmosphere of the Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.
The powerful Frenchman was never better than on that night of September 21, a raging inferno of aggression and deceptive grace. Attacking Tony with intelligence and viciousness, Marcel took control of the fight virtually from the outset as he repeatedly surged forward with an array of punches that jarred and jolted Zale and never allowed him to settle.
Tony must have wondered where the tornado had come from. He marched from his corner full of confidence at the opening bell, looking relaxed and assured as he fired off punches at his thicker-set challenger. Cerdan, protecting himself ably, waited for a pause in the storm and then erupted with a two-fisted attack that staggered the champion and forced him on the retreat. Zale never got back into the fight. Bewildered by the speed and accuracy of Cerdan’s crashing right hands, Tony was sometimes outpunched by a ratio of three or four to one as the steady beating from Marcel became more intense with the passing rounds. Cerdan would frequently feint with the right, causing Tony to shift into the firing line for the left hook.
Zale never did lose his withering look of the cold assassin. Nor did he stop punching back. He simply couldn’t make any progress. Those of his punches that were not slipped or blocked were unable to check Marcel’s progress. The Frenchman had set a torrid pace and Tony began to wilt. Mustering all his old know-how, the brave champion had no option but to clinch and muddle his way through the rounds, confining his replies to brief and ineffective bursts of punching.
By the eleventh round, Tony was holding and hustling desperately when a right uppercut finally unhinged him. In one of the most poignant vignettes ever seen in the boxing ring, Zale tried heroically to remain on his feet as he slumped against the ropes. Then sheer exhaustion cut his strings and he collapsed to his knees as his handlers rushed to his aid.
It was four o’clock in the morning in Paris when Cerdan’s many fans received the news that their man was the new middleweight champion of the world. In the Montmartre section of town, a big crowd gathered and celebrated joyously. In nightclubs and little street cafes, Cerdan was toasted. People poured onto the streets to discuss the fight after hearing the broadcast on French radio.
In the Roosevelt Stadium, Cerdan was dazed and uncertain how to react as the stunned pro-Zale crowd gradually drank in the greatness they had seen and gave a roar of appreciation for the new monarch. Accompanied by a phalanx of police offers, Marcel took a good ten minutes to hustle his way through the long tunnel from the baseball dugout to his dressing room.
“I go home in about two weeks but then I come back here,” said the overjoyed Cerdan in his broken English. He would come back to lose in the cruellest of circumstances. And then he would never come back again.
When the classic Humphrey Bogart movie, ‘Casablanca’, was made in 1942, Marcel Cerdan was still plying his trade in that neck of the woods, learning the ropes before his graduation to bigger arenas in bigger places. One wonders what old Bogey made of a fellow tough guy like Cerdan.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist and historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).