Le ciel bleu sur nous peut s’effondrer
Et la terre peut bien s’écrouler
Peu m’importe si tu m’aimes
Je me fous du monde entier
“the greatest fighter, outside of Sugar Ray Robinson, is Marcel Cerdan”
Jake La Motta
Beauty and the beast. Kindness and toughness. Love and stardom. This is the story of how France’s most famous boxer fell in love with the country’s brightest star, and how this all, tragically, finished.
The Cerdan family moved from France to Algeria in search of fortune. They settled in Sidi Bel Abbes, a city originated from an army camp, in an area famous for their grapes and the wine. About 70 km from the sea (50 miles), Sidi Bel Abbes lies on hills that make it look like a Southern France landscape.
Marcel, their son, saw the light there in 1916. Though he grew up to look exactly like a French ploughman, small, robust, with subtle lips and a fresh, smart look in his eyes, Marcel was often referred to as pied-noir, to indicate the French originating from the African colonies, and nicknamed “the Moroccan bomber”.
His family in fact had relocated to Casablanca, where Marcel began boxing in the local gym, showing an uncommon talent, which soon put him under the spotlight.
Marcel possessed a superior capacity to move forward, moving frantically the arms ahead to hit his opponent at the same time. His small head seemed to resist any fist he received, and it was difficult to target, because he waved constantly, keeping his subtle lips tight, feeling inside himself a need to advance, to keep his opponent under a constant sequence of fists.
Edith Gassion was born in Paris, in December 1915. The legend goes that a flic (a policeman), helped her mother deliver her in the street, in front of number 72, Rue de Belleville. Her father was an acrobat, and her mother a street singer. She grew up with her paternal grandmother, who managed a brothel in Normandy, and sang with her father, in the streets, participating his shows as a street artist.
Edith showed immediately a great talent. Her powerful voice, from a tiny body, moved the hearts of the listeners. She grew up poor, among the poor and the humble, and she would always remember that, singing their misfortunes in her songs. At 17 she had a daughter, who died of meningitis.
She began singing professionally in clubs, where her first manager, Luis Leplè found her. Luis was murdered, his assassin never found. So Edith asked Raymond Asso, who also wrote several songs for her. Success struck her in 1935. Her passionate voice, her capacity to sing of joy and pain, of richness and poverty, made her the most important French artist, a real embodiment of her country’s spirit.
In the meanwhile, Marcel’s career struggled. He fought mainly in Northern Africa, not exactly New York, and amassed victories against low-level opponents. His first fight took place in 1935, at 18, against someone called Marcel Buccanieri, whose place in the history of boxing is ensured by the fact that he stands at the first place, in Marcel’s series of 47 victories in a row.
In 1938, at the age of 22, Marcel faced Omar Kouidri, a strong Algerian boxer he had already beaten twice, though never for a KO, for the French Welterweight title. The bout, even in this case, did not end with a knock out and Marcel had to endure 15 tough rounds to win.
He kept the French Title in the following years, adding the European one in 1939 against Saverio Turiello, at the Velodromo Vigorelli in Milan.
Only the war stopped his growth. He remained European Champion, though Europe was at war. He made some fights in France in France until 1942, when he retired to Morocco and joined the allied army, where he was the inter-forces champion.
Edith, now Edith Piaf (sparrow in English, for the quality and fragility of her song), remained in Paris, where she kept performing. Her fame grew even during the war, and peaked soon after with the release of “la vie en rose”, of which she wrote the lyrics. The song became a world hit, and Edith became the most famous French singer.
At the restart of the activity, Marcel won again the France and the European middleweight titles, and the USA started to keep an eye on him. At 30, he had not had yet the chance to fight for a World Championship. For more than 10 years he had dominated the middleweight category in Europe, but the war did not allow him the profitable American rings, and he was almost past his prime.
After a loss against the Belgian Cyrille Delannoit, Marcel trained to beat the young Cyrille in the following match, which he did, thus setting up the fight against the longtime middleweight champion Tony Zale.
Zale, born Zalensky, from Polish ancestors, had been the world middleweight champion from 1940 to 1947 and again in 1948. The match represented the best in the world for the middleweight category. Zale, three years older than Cerdan, was a superb fighter. Fast, technical and tough, he has just endured three tough matches against Rocky Graziano, against whom he had lost the crown in 1947, after 7 uncontested years.
Marcel’s most important match happened outside the ring. In that same 1948, he met Edith Piaf. A man of 32, European boxing champion, and a frail, tiny singer of 33, always dressing in black, with a passionate voice, who sang keeping her hands outstretched in front of her, as to embrace everybody.
Theirs was not a juvenile love, and it was not a first love. Two adult, conscious people, who couldn’t help falling in love. There is a sort of solitude when you are at the top. When the doors close and maybe you don’t find, even in your home, even in your family, the quiet harbor of peace you expect after the battle.
You can pretend with yourself, but your souls, of an adult man and an adult woman, just go around, and, when they meet, it is as though they knew each other forever.
Marcel was married, though, and a father of three. Edith lived alone, had already gone through several loves. Since Marcel’s career was happening in the US, they could meet in a place in which they were almost “normal”, and their love reveled in a special atmosphere, a suspended one. In France, the scandal echoed, but the success they enjoyed silenced it.
Marcel fought against Tony Zale in Chicago. Zale did not know the French well, though he was aware of how strong he was. In the first round the champion waited, while Marcel advanced with his boxing style, danced around Zale, more used to take the center stage, hit quickly. There was a hunger in Marcel, hunger for the victory, hunger for life, for love, for greatness. Watching those images, the viewer gets the impression of freshness, of fire in Marcel.
Zale moved the left jab to keep the shorter Cerdan far away. Marcel just kept coming and hitting and, around the 6th round, they were entrenched in a very tight bout, forehead to forehead, exchanging fists from very near. Zale got tired, tried to use old tricks to stop Marcel, held his arms, hid his face behind the gloves. He was still the champion, he wanted to fight, but, in the 11th round, his arms were down, his face hurt, swollen like a balloon. In the images of the time, Marcel hits him with a left on his temple, then, with Zale on the ropes, a quick left-right-right combination and Zale went down, his knees bent and his men came to keep him up. Marcel turned his back with a gesture with his right fist like saying: “hey, hold him, he’s falling”.
The champion had lost. And what a champion!
Marcel was the champion now, he loved the brightest star in France, and finally the world realized who he was.
He won the next two matches against Dick Turpin and Lucien Krawczyk, the last one in Casablanca, his city’s tribute to her most famous son.
Edith and Marcel met around the world, in New York, or as she sang around, and in the meanwhile, he kept fit for his next bouts. Flourishing as a man and a woman, as sportsman and artist, they made a couple seemingly built in heaven. Marcel would not leave his family; he’d keep both his stories alive, a very man-like way. Edith was happy, with a man who, for the first time, did not expect from her anything but love. Something startling from a tough fighter, a hard man grown up in the desert, who could be himself with the woman he loved.
Then, came the fight against Jake La Motta.
La Motta, the Bronx Bull, was the toughest fighter of his time. He came on, always, not caring how many times the opponent hit him. He was famous because, simply, nobody could knock him out. Jake, 7 years younger than Marcel, was an experienced fighter, who had already met Sugar Ray Robinson 5 times, losing 4. Nevertheless, Robinson could never throw him to the ground.
Jake began the fight hitting and coming ahead as usual. Marcel responded fist after fist, but in the first round he went to the ground and dislocated a shoulder. He fought again but in distress, his fists were not so strong as usual. To say the bout was savage is an understatement. The two exchanged an impressive number of fists, La Motta like a bull, his nickname, seemed not to feel Marcel’s gloves and just hit again and again. In the 10th round the pain was too much, and, in order not to take too much a toll, Marcel retired, signing immediately for another match to try and get the title again.
Marcel came back to France to prepare for the second match against Jake. Early in September 1949, Edith recorded “hymne à l’Amour”, Hymn to love, dedicated to him. She was touring the USA and was far from him. Marcel, feeling the melancholy, decided to take a plane and go to New York to meet her.
On October 28, 1949, the airplane Marcel was travelling in, flying on the Azores, crashed against Mount Redondo, killing all the passengers and the crew.
Marcel had died. When Edith received the news, she closed herself in her room and resurfaced three days after, asking the sing their song: Hymn à l’amour. Her black, small figure, on an immense stage started the first lines, but the emotion proved too much for her debilitated body and she lost her senses.
Cerdan is still considered the best boxeur in France’s history. Thousands of people visited his coffin and followed the funeral. As it had happened in Italy on May 4 1949, when the Grande Torino football team died in an airplane crash, a whole country discovered the end of innocence, and felt lonelier.
The war had taken a part of Marcel’s life, as it had taken part of Fausto Coppi’s life and the Torino team’s life. However, these men were able to come back, embodying the effort of their countries to rebuild their lives after the struggles and the devastation of the conflict.
Edith never really recovered. She had many loves, young artists who used her generosity to start their careers, and sang many other hits, like “Milord”, with Georges Mustaki’s music, and “je ne regrette rien”. Tormented by her passion and her past loves, and deformed by a strong arthritis, Edith died in 1961 after singing until her last days. She is interred in Pere Lachaise, in Paris, far from Marcel.