Marcel Cerdan, a ring great, was more than a contender
August 2, 2005
Tony Zale! The name and mention of the Zale-Rocky Graziano trilogy jumped right out at me as I read Mike Houser’s weekly boxing column, but not for the reason you might think.
Known as “The Man of Steel,” Zale was the world middleweight champion and perhaps best remembered for having won two of three thrilling battles against Rocky Graziano in 1946-48. Zale was a pretty darn good fighter, for sure, yet reading his name triggered memories of another fighter I’d not heard or thought of in a long, long time – Marcel Cerdan.
It was Cerdan who sent Zale into retirement with a shocking 12th round knockout to take the world middleweight title in Jersey City, N.J., on Sept. 21, 1948. The win made Cerdan king of a division that was truly loaded with great boxers at the time, and was memorable enough to be recognized as Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year.
Cerdan – known as the “Casablanca Clouter” – lost his belt less than a year later at the hands of Jake LaMotta on June 16, 1949 on a rainy night at Detroit’s old Briggs Stadium – one of the fights featured in the 1980 LaMotta movie, “Raging Bull.”
That would be Cerdan’s last bout. He was scheduled to meet LaMotta in a rematch, however, his return trip to the U.S. ended tragically on Oct. 27, 1949 when the Air France flight he was aboard crashed into a mountain in the Azores, killing everyone on board.
Cerdan, 33 at the time of his death, left behind a 106-4 record that included 61 knockouts, a world middleweight title and European welterweight and middleweight titles. The Algerian born Frenchman went out as a national hero whose victories revived the pride of a nation trying to recover from the horror of World War II.
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Nor was he forgotten by the boxing world. Cerdan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame in 1991, and In 1999, a five-member Associated Press panel ranked him No. 9 on its Middleweight Fighter of the Century list.
Cerdan turned pro at age 18 in 1934 and won 46 straight fights before he was disqualified in the fifth round of a bout against Englishman Harry Craster in London on Jan. 9, 1939. Six weeks later, Cerdan came back to score a 12-round decision over world ranked Saverio Turiello in Paris. In June, he beat Turiello again, this time in Milan, Italy, to capture the European welterweight title. The outbreak of World War II took a toll because Cerdan did not fight in 1940 and he was limited to appearances in North Africa and France in the three years after that.
Cerdan’s big break finally came in 1948 – after splitting a pair of European middleweight title bouts against Cyrille Delannoit in Brussels, Belgium – when he was given a world title shot. Cerdan, clever and lethal with either hand, hounded the champ throughout. Zale, perhaps still weary from the brutal Graziano series, never looked like his old self and eventually collapsed after Cerdan landed a left hook to his jaw as the bell rang the end of the 11th round.
Cerdan won two non-title bouts by knockout in early 1949 leading up to his ill-fated fight against LaMotta. Cerdan tore a muscle in his shoulder – reports conflict as to whether it was his right or left – when the two fighters fell to the canvas in the first round and basically fought the rest of the way with one arm before his handlers finally convinced him to retire after the 10th round. It was the only time he ever lost by KO.
There’s still more to this story. Though he had a wife and three children living in Casablanca, Cerdan was involved in a three-year love affair with famed French singer Edith Piaf, known as “The Little Sparrow.” Though frowned upon by the boxing fraternity and press at the time, the two carried on a behind-the-scenes relationship shown in the 1983 movie “Edith and Marcel” (Marcel Cerdan Jr. starred in the role of his father).
After learning of fatal plane crash, the grief-stricken Piaf went on stage in New York that night and dedicated her performance to Cerdan. During the show, it is said she sang L’Hymne à l’Amour and then collapsed.
There’s no telling what would have happened if Cerdan had gotten a chance to put on a longer run of his own. It’s possible his name might have been more than a distant memory or the subject of trivia questions. Marlon Brando might have even said … “He coulda been more than a contender.”
And, for a brief time, the “Casablanca Clouter” was just that.
n Contact Dave Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 881-1220.