Marcel Cerdan

By Timothy Seaver on February 12, 2016
Marcel Cerdan
In the corner of Cerdan there was celebration, as there was in the entire county of France.

Marcel Cerdan had traveled to America and avenged the loss of a national hero, and in so doing, became a hero himself…

The grotesque image of a soon-to-be former champion slumps forward and his once steadfast legs collapse when they no longer obey a head that had been slowly beaten unconscious. Tony Zale loses his senses against the onslaught of Marcel Cerdan’s continued barrage. To pinpoint a single punch that was responsible for the fight’s ending is pointless. Cerdan had sent salvo after salvo of crisp hooks and dynamic right hands all night long. Many of these landed flush on the reigning champion’s face. It was a continued beating that had sapped “The Man of Steel” of his strength, his senses, and his title.

The date was September 21, 1948, and more than a simple victory in a sporting event was at stake. Driving Cerdan in this middleweight title fight was the hopes of the people of France, a nation that had been trampled upon during many hard years of war, whose very existence had been in question only a few years before. Cerdan was from Northern Africa, then within the political sphere of France. And most of his early fights took place in Morocco. His distance from the European continent did not weaken his connection to his country, he was French. And it was the French people who needed a hero in these days of slow rebuilding in the wake of years of bitter half-life when death hung in the air, mingling with the dust of fallen homes.

Also watering the French appetite that night at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey was revenge. Cerdan was looking to avenge the embarrassment felt by his fellow countryman twenty six years previous when the beloved Georges Carpentier lost in his bid to dethrone the great Jack Dempsey.

Cerdan was challenging for the middleweight crown. It was not the grand prize that Carpentier had sought, but there was always something that people respected about the middleweights. They had a size that most could relate to. They were not massive men, they were built like so many people, yet they fought with the grit the big men often lacked.

Media, always looking to enhance the drama of a situation, presented a contrast between the two fighters; Zale the loyal family man, Cerdan the gallivanting playboy; the American against the invading European.

In truth, the courage of the two men and their previous battles in the ring should have been enough of a story. And at the start of the fight the two experienced combatants betrayed no unease at the weight of the moment. Both waited in their respective corners as the event slowly got underway.

The introductions were made with the requisite applause for a reigning champ and a worthy challenger. Both men came to the center of the ring, accompanied by their seconds. This was an era when the referee’s instructions were not just ceremonial noise that preceded the actual event. The two fighters and their seconds remained huddled around the ref for several moments as the details of the rules were ironed out. Dialogue was batted about to make sure everyone was on the same page. From a modern standpoint it can be almost humorous to hear the continued assurance that both parties were on the same page… “You understand that?” Sure, sure.”

With both parties in agreement, the fight began. Zale came out looking taller. Though he was listed as the same height as Cerdan, his straighter stance gave the impression of having the advantage of several inches in height. Cerdan held himself in a crouching position, his head not an easy target under the rounded shoulders.

The first round set the stage for each succeeding round. Cerdan came out immediately with crisp, dynamic left hooks and leaping right hands. Tony Zale had difficulty getting leverage behind his punches. They fall right into a torrid pace with the Frenchman leading and doing the bulk of the damage. Zale does manage the occasional shot to the body, but he is forced to hold after most exchanges.

Immediately it becomes evident that Zale’s nickname, “The Man of Steel” was more than a reflection of a childhood growing up in the shadow of the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. And it did not just happen to be a poetic ditty to accompany his last name (shortened from Zaleski). The man’s chin was uncommonly hard for someone who had logged so many rounds against the best men of his era. And it was that chin of steel that had kept him up as Marcel Cerdan continued his onslaught.

Before this fight the two men had taken paths that shared the trait of being long, but differed in their details. Cerdan had engaged in over a hundred fights. And while his record was remarkable for having only three losses at that point, it was also true that he had faced only a handful of top ten fighters. He had managed to acquire the European welterweight and middleweight titles. This was at a time when the European title was well regarded and seen as a very legitimate steppingstone to the World’s Championship.

But the people of France looked on this fight with not just Cerdan’s career, but their nation’s life in mind. The war had been their lives. Would they survive to one day become the paragon of European culture they had been? Or would they be swallowed up by Germany to see their nation dissolve? Could this life-loving playboy bring a touch of glory back to his people?

If Cerdan’s boxing career had been a road with several bumps, Zale’s was hardly even paved. He was 67-17 going into the fight and every one of those losses was a learning experience, more than half coming in his first two years as a pro. Being the life-and-death fighter that he was meant that many of the wins were physically harder on him than the losses. The three fights he had with Rocky Graziano (two wins and one loss) were enough to end most careers. But here he was, in the same kind of battle again in hat would prove to be the last for his fighting days.

And the rounds dragged on, each a copy of its predecessor. Only the pace would change. Instead of Cerdan charging constantly, he would come on in spurts, seeming to welcome the holding by Zale, sometimes initiating it himself.

And the chin of Zale held up, against every crisp left hook and leaping right hand. Sometimes he would land a shot to the Frenchman’s charging head to some effect. But even steel will bend eventually. And the steel legs turned to jelly at the end of the eleventh round. The bell had saved him from being counted out, but the end had come. Zales’s seconds dragged his drooping body to his corner. He was unable to answer the call for the twelfth round. In the corner of Marcel Cerdan there was celebration, as there was in the entire county of France.

A parade was held in his homeland. Flowers, handshakes, hugs, and kisses were thrown upon him as his open car maneuvered through the streets of Paris. Police held back the crowds as the teeming numbers came to show their adoration for a champion who had given them a respite in the wake of their darkest days.

For Zale, it would be his last fight, ending with a record of 67-18 with 45 knockouts. Cerdan would go on to have three more battles. One was a stay-busy fight. Another was an impressive victory against the respected Dick Turpin. And then there came a loss to the “Bronx Bull” Jake LaMotta. He never had a chance to avenge that loss to LaMotta, as he died in a plane crash before the rematch could take place.

Marcel Cerdan had traveled to America and avenged the loss of a national hero, and in so doing, became a hero himself. He was bright light for a people who were still numb from the dark days of war. And the only thing that surpassed his homeland’s cheers for his success was their tears at his death.

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  1. Eric 07:18am, 02/13/2016

    Let’s give the Frenchies a break. If not for the help of the French, there is no way that America would have defeated the British in the Revolutionary War, that and perhaps, the Brits figured it just wasn’t worth it all. At the time, the Brits had one of the most impressive military forces ever assembled. Of course there was no way the French could have stood up to the Germans during WWII, Germany had formed one of the most impressive military forces in the history of the world. Back to the fight. Zale went out on his shield and had nothing to be ashamed of, clearly this was a shot version of Zale. Both Zale and Cerdan are top 10-12 middleweights IMO.

  2. beaujack 08:22am, 02/12/2016

    Excellent article Mr. Seaver…Cerdan and Tony Zale were two great middleweights of the modern era. I saw Marcel Cerdan ringside when he won a close decision over the tough Georgie Abrams at MSG. Never saw Tony Zale ringside but I saw Rocky Graziano many times and the 3 fights between Graziano and past prime Tony zale took everything out of both of them…I believe that the Tony Zale before his 4 years in the Navy would have beaten Cerdan…Marcel Cerdan was a bullish swarmer who kod an acquaintance of mine Harold Green who after the ko loss told us that in the first round clinch, Harold Green said he knew Cerdan was “too strong for me.” He was right as Cerdan flattened Green in the second round…

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