A great boxer of yesteryear who even nowadays is a stalwart in most people’s lists of the top ten middleweight boxers ever and yet is rarely discussed at length or fully appreciated for his boxing abilities is MARCEL “Casablanca Clouter” CERDAN, who is still considered as one of Europe’s great champions though his career was interrupted by World War II and ultimately cut short when he was killed in a plane crash en route to America for a world title rematch.
During his eventful career the Algerian-born Frenchman lost just four of his one hundred and ten contests, (two were by foul) and won European titles at 147 and 160 lbs before going on to capture a World title at 160 lbs. Cerdan, the French pied noir world boxing champion is still considered by many boxing experts and fans to be France’s greatest boxer, and beyond. His life was marked by his sporting achievements, social lifestyle and ultimately, tragedy.
Marcellin “Marcel” Cerdan was born on July 22, 1916 (Died October 28, 1949) in Sidi Bel Abbès (in what was then French Algeria). Marcel had two brothers – all of whom had a boxing pedigree.
His fighting prowess was such that after he began boxing professionally on November 4, 1934 in Meknes, Morocco, beating Marcel Bucchianeri by a decision in six rounds. Cerdan then ran a streak of 47 wins in a row.
The Casablanca Clouter was in no way a deception he had powerful arms and shoulders, he was barrel chested and rugged looking. 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. (He had also playing league soccer for Casablanca). 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.
Cerdan campaigned heavily in the French territories of Algeria and Morocco during that part of his career, as well as in metropolitan France, his parents’ place of birth.
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. Cerdan bulled and powered his way to 28 successive wins.
Than in January 4, 1939, he tasted defeat for the first time, to Harry Craster by a disqualification in five rounds in London.
After his first loss, Cerdan recorded five consecutive wins, which led him to challenge Saviello Turiello for Europe’s welterweight title in Milan, Italy. He won the European title by a decision in 15 rounds to continue his ascent towards the championship (back then, it was considered essential to own at least a Continental title belt to earn a world title shot; nowadays, it is not considered as important).
Cerdan’s winning streak eventually reached 23 bouts before he suffered a defeat to Victor Buttin by disqualification in eight rounds in Algiers.
For his next bout, Cerdan put his title on the line against José Ferrer (namesake of the Hollywood star). He knocked out Ferrer in one round, and won four more bouts in a row before facing another boxer with a namesake: James Toney, who shared that name with another boxer who would become world Middleweight champion five decades later. Cerdan knocked out Toney in two rounds to keep this new winning streak alive. The new streak would reach 37 wins.
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. In between, he joined the American allies in World War II during 1944, and he won the Inter-Allied Championship.
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.
He also went up in weight to the Middleweight division, and won the French title by beating Assane Douf by a knockout in three rounds. He later claimed the vacant European title by beating Léon Foquet by a knockout in one round. He retained that title a couple of times before losing it to Cyrille Delannoit by a decision in 15 at Brussels, Belgium. Soon, he went back to Belgium and re-took the title by beating Delannoit, also by decision.
Finally, after the rematch with Delannoit, Cerdan was given a world title opportunity and he travelled to the United States, where he beat world Middleweight champion Tony Zale. Cerdan became a world champion by knocking Zale out in the 12th round in Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, New Jersey on September 21, 1948.
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.
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 cruelest of circumstances. And then he would never come back again.
After two non-title wins in 1949, he lost the crown in bizarre circumstances on June 16th to the legendary Jake LaMotta via a 10th-round technical knockout. Cerdan, who injured his shoulder when the two fell to the canvas during a first round scuffle, fought one-armed, until he finally retired in his corner after completing the 10th round. Most agree that had it not been for the dislocation, Cerdan would have mauled LaMotta.
It would be the last fight of Cerdan’s life. A contract was signed for a rematch and Cerdan went to training camp for it, but before camp began he boarded an Air France flight to visit Piaf (1) in New York, where she was singing. The Lockheed L-749 Constellation crashed into the Monte Redondo (São Miguel Island, Azores), killing all 11 crew members and 37 passengers on board, including Cerdan and the famous French violinist Ginette Neveu, while approaching the intermediate stop airport at Santa Maria.Days later, LaMotta expressed words of condolences, praising Cerdan as a great human being. Cerdan was interred in the Cimetière du Sud, Perpignan, Languedoc-Roussillon, France.
Cerdan’s record was 113 wins and 4 losses, with 66 wins by knockout.
Personal — (1) Although married with three children, during the previous two years Cerdan had become involved with the famous French singer Edith Piaf she was his mistress.
During 1949 Piaf travelled between France and America, and Cedan, fought in Europe. Alone in the States, Edith grew bored and asked Marcel to join her – as soon as possible. Rather than travel by boat on October 27, 1949, he took a plane, which crashed, killing him. Edith, devastated, considered that she had killed him, and resorted to spiritualism and mysticism, and to ease her ‘fault’ installed his wife and children in a hotel. Nothing helped however, and eventually she took refuge in drugs and alcohol. Though she was to continue to work and enjoy success, she never recovered the equilibrium and happiness she had found with Marcel.
Marcel Cerdan, Jr. was the son of former Middleweight Boxing Champion Marcel Cerdan, Sr. who was killed in an airplane crash on October 27, 1949. Young Marcel lived with his father’s legend shadowing him and he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. After a brief amateur boxing career, he turned professional on 21 January 1965, knocking out Antonio Zuniga in 1 round in Neuilly, France. Fighting in such cities as Paris, Tarbes, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lille, and Evreaux he knocked out such fighters as Mac Drevet KO 5, Andre Leguy KO 6, Claude Malezieux KO 1, Robert DiMartino KO3, and Jaime Aparici KO 2. Over the next few years he was undefeated in almost 50 straight fights. His impressive record earned him a bout in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, but his U.S. debut ended in a bitter defeat. Cerdan continued to fight for a few more years, but a loss to Canada’s Clyde Gray ended his days as a title contender.
In 1983, Cerdan and Piaf had their lives turned into a big screen biography by Claude Lelouch. The film, Édith et Marcel, starred Marcel Cerdan, Jr. in the role of his father and Évelyne Bouix as Piaf. He is portrayed by actor Jean-Pierre Martins in the 2007 Piaf biopic La Môme (entitled La Vie en Rose in English-speaking countries).
Herb Goldman ranked Cerdan as the #5 All-Time Middleweight; Cerdan was inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1962 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991