View Full Version : Cerdan: 60 years after tragic plane crash, legend endures

10-26-2009, 01:54 AM
Posted Oct. 23, 2009 at 10:13pm
By Michael Rosenthal

The French were reeling after World War II. The Germans had occupied their land and stolen their dignity, the latter of which was slow to return even after the Third Reich fell. Then along came the son of a butcher from Morocco with potent fists and an inspirational fighting spirit to help raise the self esteem of a proud people.

Marcel Cerdan was a great boxer who arrived on the scene when his countrymen needed him most, winning titles with savage efficiency and millions of hearts in the process. And then, as if the French hadn’t suffered enough, he was taken away at his very peak to become as much a legend as a man.

Tuesday marks the 60th anniversary of the plane crash in 1949 that tragically ended the life of France’s greatest boxer and one of its most-important post-war public figures. He was only 33.

“France was just coming out of the war,” said boxing writer Aurélien Bouisset of the sports daily L’Equippe, which his based Paris. “France needed a hero for its self esteem. This little guy, with his fists, went to America, won two, three fights over there and then knocked out Tony Zale. He won the world title in America, the country that freed France.

“It was a way to say, ‘Yes, we can have better days.’”

Cerdan was born in Algeria to French parents and moved as a child to Morocco, where his father promoted amateur boxing cards and two older brothers preceded him into the ring. He turned pro at 18 in 1934, winning his first 45 fights first in North Africa and then in France. He won the French welterweight title in his last fight of that streak, in 1939.

Later that year, World War II began when Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Cerdan soon enlisted in the French Navy and didn’t box in 1940 but returned to the ring when the Germans, occupying France, disbanded his unit. He boxed a few times in German-controlled territory but fled to North Africa when his first-round knockout of Spaniard Jose Ferrer in 1942 irked the German authorities.

He fought in front of American fans, mostly troops, for the first time in Inter-Allied boxing tournaments in 1944 in Italy. Those who saw him would never forget.

“I remember soldiers I knew as a kid coming back from the African theater who saw Marcel Cerdan come through and do exhibitions,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “They thought he was the greatest fighter they’d ever seen. He was such a great fighter, more than great. I’m sure older people who were there and are still around still feel that way today.”

Cerdan was a dominating force after the war ended, winning the French and European middleweight titles. However, his greatest glory came in 1948, when he challenged Zale for the middleweight championship of the world before a reported 20,000 fans at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, N.J.

The Frenchman, a 2-1 underdog, wore Zale down with constant pressure – as was his style – and ended it with a left hook that sent Zale slumping against the ropes and onto is backside. The Man of Steel had to be helped to his corner and couldn’t come out for the 12th round, making Cerdan the first non-American to win the middleweight title in the 20th century.

Afterward, his countrymen went wild. A large crowd met him at the airport upon his return to Paris and The New York Times reported that 300,000 Parisians lined the streets during a motor parade in his honor, which “brought the city’s business to a standstill.” It was one of the grandest celebrations ever accorded a French hero.

As Sugar put it, at that moment, “Cerdan was their Babe Ruth.”

“I think we’ve seen something like this only twice in France for a sportsman,” Bouisset said. “The first time was Cerdan. The second time was when France won the football World Cup in 1998. He was the most popular boxer … no, sportsman of his time.”

The fact Cerdan had a love affair with iconic singer Edith Piaf in the last year of his life even though he was married and had children only added to his allure, certainly as much as any Hollywood coupling has in the U.S. Cerdan, a simple man, became a member of the artistic community and began to transcend boxing. Sugar said, “She was her country’s voice and he was its strength.” Piaf would be by his side the final year of his life and play an unfortunate role in his death.

Cerdan fought only three more times after winning the championship, once in London, once in Casablanca and finally in the first defense of his title against Jake LaMotta on June 16, 1949 in Detroit. The fight in effect ended in the first round, when LaMotta wrestled Cerdan to the canvas and damaged the Frenchman’s shoulder. Cerdan fought bravely with one hand the rest of the fight – against an all-time great, mind you – but searing pain forced him to retire after the ninth round.

He finished his career with a record of 111-4 (with 65 knockouts). Two were disqualifications, one was a horrible decision (against Cyrille Delannoit) and the fourth was the result of an injury. Thus, as boxing historian Patrick Myler wrote, “It can be safely stated that he never met his master in the ring.”

A rematch with LaMotta was scheduled for late in 1949 in the U.S. but Cerdan never made it there alive. He was booked on a flight to New York to visit Piaf, who was performing there at the time, but she convinced him to fly in a few days earlier than planned because she missed him. The plane he boarded in Paris on Oct. 27, a Lockheed L-749 Constellation, crashed in the Azores – a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean – where it was supposed to refuel.

Everyone on board, 11 crew members and 37 passengers, were killed. That night, Piaf, obviously devastated, sang the classic romantic ballad “L'Hymne à l'amour” – The Anthem of Love – for Cerdan and then famously collapsed in tears.

Across the ocean, a shocked France and Morocco were plunged into mourning for their fallen hero. Again, tens of thousands of admirers came to see Cerdan, only this time it was for his funeral procession in Casablanca. Sugar compared the loss of Cerdan in the French-speaking world to the loss of John Kennedy in the U.S., at least in terms of its emotional impact.

“I just watched the news reel of his funeral,” said Bouisset, who also is working on the story about the anniversary. “Again, thousands and thousands of people were in the streets to follow him to the cemetery. They were in shock. He died at his peak, when everyone was waiting for the rematch with LaMotta.

“A national hero died. I’m not sure any other French sportsman ever had the same kind of funeral.”

Sugar remembers a French-born man who lived in his Washington D.C. neighborhood openly weeping over the news of Cerdan’s death. The young man understood that a famous boxer had been lost but didn’t fully grasp how much Cerdan meant to his people. Now, 60 years later, he does.

“I thought he was just another European fighter, like Max Schmeling,” Sugar said. “He meant so much to so many over there, there. He was symbolic of their nationalism, maybe even more so than (Charles) DeGaulle at that time. He resurrected their belief in the republic, in their Frenchdom, if you will.

“I think like Marlene Deitrich in the case of Germany, Cerdan was the standard bearer of freedom for France.”

And, apparently, his legend endures. The French film “Edith et Marcel” was a depiction of their romance. And “La Vie en Rose, a biography of Piaf that included scenes with Cerdan, was a huge success. Marcel Cerdan Jr., once a boxer himself, portrayed his father.

However, according to Bouisset, Cerdan’s legend goes beyond the rekindling of memories as a result of popular films. French people have never forgotten him.

“The young people in France, people between 20 and 30, they don’t know the French boxers that are boxing today,” Bouisset said. “They don’t know the boxers before World War II. I’m sure they do know Marcel Cerdan. Everyone can say he was a boxer and a good one, he had a love affair with Edith Piaf and he died in plane crash. And they know he was someone special.”

Source: http://www.ringtv.com/blog/1245/cerdan_60_years_after_tragic_plane_crash_legend_en dures/