Marcel Cerdan: “We’ll Always Have Paris”

By Norman Marcus on May 16, 2012
Marcel Cerdan: “We’ll Always Have Paris”
If you could impress "The Bronx Bull," Jake LaMotta, you were definitely somebody special

The plane never made it to the States. It crashed in the Azores, killing all aboard. Edith always blamed herself for the death of Marcel Cerdan…

The name Marcel Cerdan has faded from the memory of most older fight fans. Younger people don’t even know who he was. It’s nobody’s fault, just the fast paced world we live in today. The man is still remembered in North Africa and France. These were the areas where he grew up and gained early fame and fortune as a boxer.

Marcel was born to French parents in Sidi Bel-Abbes, Algeria. At the time Algeria and Morocco were French colonies populated by native Arabs and French colonists. His managers were Jo Longman, Lew Burston and Lucien Roupp. These men were instrumental in the early success of Marcel Cerdan.

His first pro fight was on November 4th, 1934 in Meknes, Morocco. Cerdan beat Marcel Bucchianeri by decision in six rounds. He then ran a streak of 47 wins in a row.

Cerdan got the ring name ‘The Casablanca Clouter” in 1938 when he beat Omar Kouidri by decision in 12 rounds in Casablanca, and gained the French Welterweight title. He then went on and won the European Welterweight title in 1939.

He was not a big man, standing at 5’7” and weighing in at around 158 pounds. His courage and power made him admired by men and his rugged good looks made him popular with women. His career was interrupted when he joined the French Army at age 23. France was about to be attacked by Nazi Germany and Marcel wanted to fight for his country. After the quick defeat of France in 1940 at the hands of the Germans, Cerdan joined the Allies in their fight against the occupying German Army.

During the years of German occupation his career was on hold. Marcel had a bigger fight to win for his native France. During those years a character appeared in Paris that would have a great effect on Marcel’s later life. Her name was Edith Piaf and she had come up the hard way. She was born on the streets of Paris to a young cabaret dancer. Her father was a street acrobat who had no time for her or her mother. The story gets worse when the mother abandoned the young Edith. The father sent her to live with her grandmother. The woman was a “Madame” who ran a brothel on the left bank of the Seine River that ran through Paris. So this is where Edith grew up, among the prostitutes and their johns. She learned to sing in the parlor, playing the piano for the customers. Few of these men appreciated the little girl’s beautiful voice. They had other things on their minds.

Edith left the brothel in 1929. She began to sing and perform with her father on the Paris streets. In 1935, Edith was discovered by café owner Louis Leplee. He gave her a job singing at his club. He named her “La Môme Piaf”—“The Little Sparrow.” After all she was only 4’8” tall! During the Nazi occupation the German High Command used to have her sing at parties for them. They had no idea that she was working for the French Resistance and passing valuable military information to the Allies. She helped hundreds of French prisoners escape from the German Gestapo. After the war she began a world singing tour and became an international star.

Cerdan went back to work in the square ring. In 1945 he moved up in weight and won the Middleweight Championship of France. In 1947 he added the Middleweight Championship of Europe. It was just a matter of time before Edith met the famous French boxer Marcel Cerdan. Although he was married with three children, they had an instant connection.

In 1948 Piaf became Cerdan’s mistress. Marcel’s wife knew about it but accepted the love triangle. After all they were French, their culture was more tolerant of such situations. Edith was a famous diva and Marcel a sports hero. Two famous superstars that the French public loved to follow in the news. The American version back in the day would have been Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.

Cerdan finally had the credentials to challenge “The Man of Steel” Tony Zale for the Middleweight Championship of the World. Zale had also lost time during the war, having spent four years in the U.S. Navy. Some critics say the man from Gary, Indiana wasn’t the man he was before WWII. But then again who was? Cerdan had also been out of the sport for four years.

Anyway, Tony was still man enough after the war to KO Rocky Graziano in their third meeting in Newark, New Jersey on June 10th, 1948. Tony looked sharp that night, his punches fast and precise. In the third round Zale threw his favorite combination, a right to Graziano’s body, then a left hook to Rocky’s jaw. Graziano hit the deck, unconscious. Zale was again the Middleweight Champion of the World.

Graziano said that for years after, he would often wake up at night, soaked in sweat. He had a recurring nightmare, where he was still in the ring with Tony Zale!

Three months later on September 21st, 1948 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, Tony Zale took on Marcel Cerdan. The bookmakers had Zale an 8 to 5 favorite. The fight was for the Middleweight Championship of the World. Edith was sitting ringside. She had a rosary in her hand and was praying to Saint Theresa for Marcel’s victory. The fight turned out to be a real knockdown drag out affair with each man giving and taking more punishment than seemed possible. Finally Zale could not answer the bell for the 12th round. Referee Paul Cavalier ruled it a RTD (Referee Technical Decision). Marcel Cerdan was the new Middleweight Champion of the World. To Zale’s credit, two of the three Graziano fights and the fight with Cerdan were named Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year.

Marcel next fought Dick Turpin in London on March 29, 1949. It was a non-title fight and Cerdan KO’d Turpin in the 7th round. After that he returned home to North Africa to meet Lucien Krawczyk at Philips Stadium, in Casablanca, Morocco, on May 8th. It was another non-title fight, which Cerdan won via 4th round knockout.

His next fight was to be his first title defense and also his last battle in the ring. After training in France, Marcel traveled to the United States to meet Jake LaMotta for the championship. The fight took place at Briggs Stadium in Detroit on June 16th, 1949. Cerdan was knocked down in the first round and dislocated his shoulder. The arm was now useless but Marcel fought on, refusing to throw in the towel. At the end of the 10th round Cerdan stayed seated in his corner. LaMotta had won by TKO. Even with one arm, the Frenchman had given Jake a hard time. Many felt at the time that if Cerdan had the use of both of his arms, he would have beaten LaMotta that night. A rematch was definitely in order for the two men. They signed the papers and Marcel addressed the press. “I go home in about two weeks,” he said, “but then I come back here.”

Cerdan returned to France to heal his shoulder and prepare for the rematch—but it was not to be. After the arm healed he decided to fly to the U.S. to see Edith, who was singing in New York. He boarded an Air France Lockheed Constellation on September 27th, 1949. The plane never made it to the States. It crashed in the Azores, killing all aboard. Edith always blamed herself for the death of Cerdan. Suppose he didn’t come to visit me before the fight? What if he took a boat or a different flight? She never fully recovered from his death. She married several times and had countless affairs over the years. In 1951 Edith was involved in a car accident and became a morphine addict from all the pain medication she was given. She died on September 11th, 1963, some say of a broken heart.

So ends the career of Marcel Cerdan, considered the greatest French boxer of all time. Jake LaMotta said of him after his death, “You had to fight him as I did to know what a fine sportsman he was. My mother has been praying…lighting candles, for the safety of our friend.” If you could impress Jake LaMotta you were really somebody special.

The Ring ranked Cerdan #77 of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last Eighty Years. In France the three top rated boxers of all time are Marcel Cerdan, Georges Carpentier and “Battling Siki,” an African from the French colony of Senegal. (The name Siki means darling in English or cherie in French.)

Marcel finished with a record of 106-4 (61 KOs). He was inducted into The Ring Magazine Hall of Fame in 1962 and The International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991

Cerdan is still remembered as a great fighter and folk hero in France, where numerous websites, books and movies about him attest to his popularity. After all these years, there is still a men’s clothing line that bears his name. It does very well.

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  1. bikermike 07:32pm, 03/20/2013

    Thank you Norm, I knew Cerdan wasn’t born in France..
    France was ...up until WWII…a great fight place.
    One of the biggest rip offs in Boxing was when Jack Johnson won a fight ..went to pick up his purse…and War had broken out WWI…..he never saw a nickle

    Check it out

  2. Norm Marcus 07:33pm, 03/18/2013

    Cerdan was born in Sidi Bel-Abbes, Algeria to French Parents. Algeria was a French Colony at the time. His parents were colonists in Algeria. His home town as a fighter was Paris, France. All this info-  according to the Boxing Record. Always use the BR. It is the most reliable source out there.

  3. bikermike 02:32pm, 03/16/2013

    BTW….Cerdan was from Belgian….not France

  4. bikermike 02:30pm, 03/16/2013

    Marcel Cerdan will never fade from true boxing fans…....there is only one Marcel Cerdan…just like there is only one Sugar Ray….ROBINSON

    Cerdan was a fighter from the old school…and when the house was full….he’d fight…...injury or no.

    A plane crash ended Marcel Cerdan ‘s career…not any boxer.  Cerdan was a thoroughly dangerous man….and was on his way to a fight that would prove it…..when he was taken from us by an air tragedy.

    Ditto ...Marciano…although Marciano was retired…

    You wanna fly….....???  hard to take a train from europe to america….  travel by sea…maybe

    Cerdan was the best…nobody like him until Marvin Hagler

  5. FrankinDallas 04:02pm, 07/25/2012

    Another great read…thanks.

    Reading this article reminded me of an old movie I watched the other day…“Algiers” with Charles Boyer and the indescribably beautiful Hedy Lamar.

  6. norm Marcus 06:44am, 06/23/2012

    beaujack;  I have just finished a story on the boxer, Beau Jack- Look for it soon here at boxing.com

  7. beaujack 08:10pm, 05/18/2012

    I saw Marcel Cerdan in his first fight in America in 1946 in MSG when Cerdan won a close decision from the underated
    MW, Georgie Abrams…Cerdan was a slam-bang fighter who I believe would have beaten LaMotta in their rematch…
    When La Motta claimed an injury before the rematch, the fight was postponed and if the fight went on without the postponement from LaMotta, Cerdan would have not been on that ill-fated plane that crashed over the Azores. Oct. 27, 1949…Such is fate…

  8. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 01:32pm, 05/18/2012

    Norman Marcus-“Here’s looking at you kid.”

  9. JimmyD 05:31am, 05/17/2012

    Great article Mr. Marcus. Cerdan was an interesting guy who lived in interesting times. Keep up the good work.

  10. the thresher 05:18am, 05/17/2012

    MARCEL EQUALS NOIR. HE KIND OF TRANSCENDED BOXING.

    ONE OF HIS STRANGEST FIGHTS WAS AGAINST ANTON RAADICK WHICH I PLAN TO WRITE ABOUT ONE OF THESE DAYS.

    VERY ENJOYABLE READ AS ARE ALL ARTICLES ON BOXING.COM.

  11. Bob Mladinich 03:32am, 05/17/2012

    This story read like a book jacket, luring me in and leaving me wanting more. Boxing, the Little Sparrow, brothels, Nazis, intrigue, the Resistance, sex. What a tale!  And what a perfect title for such a great story. Great work by all.

  12. Norm Marcus 03:23am, 05/17/2012

    Mike/Matt Thanks for those nice comments. This was one of those stories that just wrote itself. Didn’t have to search for the right words, they just came. Such interesting times, the 30s and 40s. Boxers today seem to lead such mundane lives out of the ring. The old pugs were special!

  13. Matt McGrain 03:12am, 05/17/2012

    I really enjoyed reading that.  Thanks.

  14. mikecasey 02:53am, 05/17/2012

    Yes, Norm, we will always have Paris - and we will always have the magnificent Marcel Cerdan. To this day, Edith Piaf’s apartment is still preserved as it was, with Cerdan’s boxing gloves and other mementos left undisturbed.

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