#73: Marcel Cerdan, boxer. July 22, 1916 – October 27, 1949
They compared the scenes to the liberation. At 4am on September 22, 1948, as the eastern horizon began to grow pink with imminent sunrise the streets of Paris suddenly filled with jubilant, cheering crowds.
They filed out of nightclubs, bars and cafés and danced out of apartment buildings. Windows were thrown open and cheering heads emerged in a spontaneous outburst of joy and national pride. Moments earlier across the Atlantic at the Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City referee Paul Cavalier had grasped the gloved hand of Marcel Cerdan and raised it above his head, confirming the French-Algerian boxer as the new middleweight champion of the world.
For a nation still processing the trauma and crisis of national self-confidence of the Second World War this was a landmark moment, an achievement on the global stage that united not only the French nation but also, thanks to the Algerian-born, Morocco-raised new champion, its north African outposts too.
Boxing in the first half of the 20th century was a sport dominated by America. When Cerdan arrived in the US to take on the reigning world champion Tony Zale few gave him much of a chance against a fighter nicknamed Man of Steel. For one thing, it was half a century since the middleweight title had left the US, for another at 32 Cerdan was considered by many to be just a little too past his prime to be a realistic title contender.
For 11 rounds Cerdan attacked Zale relentlessly, unleashing flurries of punches that never allowed the taller, heavier and younger champion to settle into any kind of rhythm. ‘A swarthy, chunky bundle of energy,’ was how the New York Times described the man whose accumulated onslaught led the referee to declare the dazed champion unfit to continue after the end of the 11th round.
It had been a long road to the championship belt for Cerdan. As he sat in the corner of his dressing room, eyes twinkling through the swelling, fielding congratulations from journalists and supporters alike, he was almost half a lifetime into a professional fighting career that had taken him from a gymnasium above a petrol garage in Casablanca to the status of a French national hero, a shining beacon of hope and unity for a war-ravaged nation, the pride of the pieds-noirs.
‘The nation was just coming out of the war and needed a hero for the sake of its self-esteem,’ wrote the French sports daily L’Equipe. ‘This little guy took his fists to America and knocked out Tony Zale to win the world title in the country that had freed France.’
Cerdan was not a tall man, barely topping 5′ 7′, but he was built for fighting. He had wide, powerful shoulders, a cavernous chest mossed with hair and a stance that was always forward, always on the attack, his rugged yet childlike face framing intense eyes and an unruly shock of curly, oiled hair flicking back and forth as he swarmed around his opponents. It wasn’t all unbridled, unsophisticated attack however; Cerdan was an intelligent boxer, quick to identify chinks in his opponent’s armour and able to move like a dancer on the lightest of feet.
He had immense stamina, able to win fights that slugged it out to the last bell as well as producing jaw-juddering knockouts. For Lucien Rouff, who coached and sparred with Cerdan for more than a decade, he was the complete boxer physically and intellectually.
Ordinarily Cerdan’s name would be a constant in conversations regarding the boxing greats, but as the raucous celebrations greeted the dawn in France and North Africa and raised the roof in New Jersey the stocky, quietly-spoken new world champion had barely a year to live.
Seven months later in Detroit Cerdan, or the Casablanca Clouter as he was dubbed by the American press, defended his title against the Brooklyn scrapper Jake LaMotta. It was arguably a meeting between two of the greatest fighters the boxing world had ever seen and while it proved to be a memorable clash it wasn’t quite the contest it should have been. In the first round the two men locked together and fell to the ground, dislocating Cerdan’s left shoulder as he hit the canvas. Somehow he was able to not only continue but slug it out for 10 rounds toe-to-toe with one of the most gifted and mercilessly ferocious boxers in the history of the sport, effectively fighting for a world title with just one hand.
If Marcel Cerdan was a new name to many in the US when he wrangled the championship belt from Tony Zale there were a good few ex-GIs to whom he would have been familiar: thousands of them had been in Rome in December 1944 as Cerdan beat three American fighters in five days to win the Inter-Allied boxing tournament. He was already the talk of Europe having won the European welterweight belt in 1939 and successfully defended his title in Milan against Savero Turiello in front of thousands of Mussolini’s blackshirts.
Cerdan had joined the French navy the following year almost as soon as the Germans invaded. Released back into professional boxing when French forces were disbanded after the invasion Cerdan returned to Morocco and fought several bouts to raise funds for the French Resistance. In September 1942 he travelled to occupied Paris for a European welterweight title defence against José Ferrer, the darling of Franco’s Spain, who climbed into the ring and gave a fascist salute to the crowd from each of its corners. Ferrer was famous for never having been knocked off his feet but Cerdan, roared on by a partisan crowd for whom this fight symbolised far more than boxing, attacked from the bell with such ferocity that he had Ferrer on the canvas no less than eight times before the referee stopped the fight after just 83 seconds of the first round.
It was performances like this and his Inter-Allied success that brought him to the postwar attention of US promoters, and a convincing July 1946 victory over the American Holman Williams at Roland Garros enhanced his world title credentials no end. Cerdan celebrated afterwards at the Club des Cinq where Edith Piaf was performing and their first meeting that night led to an intense romance between the fighter and the singer. Piaf had been performing in America when Cerdan fought Zale and was at the ringside anxiously fingering a religious medal both then and at the LaMotta fight. Ahead of the latter Piaf had secretly holed up at Cerdan’s remote training camp, enabling the couple to continue their relationship away from the public eye.
By no means disgraced in the LaMotta defeat, Cerdan was granted a rematch almost immediately, scheduled originally for the autumn then postponed until December after the champion suffered a training injury. Cerdan had been due to embark for the rematch by sea but as he prepared to make the voyage Piaf telephoned to tell him, ‘I can’t wait another minute to see you. Please hurry’.
Cerdan cancelled his sea passage and booked himself instead onto the first flight available from Paris to New York instead. Late in the evening of October 27, 1949 the Lockheed L-749 Constellation prepared to land in the Azores for a brief refuelling stop but due to a navigation error the plane smashed into the top of a mountain and exploded into flames. All 48 people on board were killed instantly. The following night a devastated Piaf performed the romantic ballad she’d written specifically for Cerdan, L’Hymne á L’Amour, and collapsed in tears as the final notes died away.
Cerdan’s death was a blow that struck at the hearts of three nations: France, Algeria and Morocco. More than 45,000 people filed past his coffin in a Casablanca chapel and 20,000 attended a memorial in Paris’ Palais des Sport as both sides of the French-speaking Mediterranean marked the loss of not just a great champion but a remarkable symbol of national pride, hope and unity.