Looking At You, Casablanca: Marcel Cerdan
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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