A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
by Bobby Franklin
In 1946 a French middleweight by the name of Marcel Cerdan arrived in the United States to campaign for a shot at the world title then held by Tony Zale. Zale would lose the title to Rocky Graziano in 1947 but regain it again the following year in his third fight of an epic trilogy he fought with the explosive punching Graziano.
When Cerdan first arrived on these shores he had an amazing record of 93 wins with only 2 losses, both of those losses came via disqualification. 54 of those victories came by the knockout route. While his record was impressive he was stil a bit of a mystery to American fight fans. He had defeated an aging Holman Williams, a very great fighter, but one who was nearing the end of his career.
In his American debut, Cerdan did not chose an easy mark for his opponent. He took on the very tough Georgie Abrams in Madison Square Garden. Georgie Abrams was another great fighter. He had held the legendary Charlie Burley to a draw, and just two fights after his bout with Marcel he fought Welterwieght Champion Sugar Ray Robinson in a non title fight. Robinson was awarded a very disputed decision and would never face Abrams again.
The Cerdan vs Abrams bout was a blistering affairwith the Frenchman winning a close but unanimous decision. That night he proved he was worthy of the praise that preceded him form the European press.
After the Abrams fight Cerdan hit the road compiling 10 wins against 1 loss. That loss was in a fight for the European title against Cyrille Delannoit. Marcel would avenge that loss in a rematch earning himself a shot against champion Tony Zale also know as the Man of Steel.
Tony was a very hard punching fighter who never took a backwards step. His three bouts with Rocky Graziano are considered among the greatest slugfests in boxing history. Tony had held the title since the early 1940s with the exception of the brief period when he lost it to Graziano. Tony had taken on all comers and even fought light heavyweight champion Billy Conn in a non-title fight.
The bout between the two was scheduled to take place on September 21, 1948 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey. Everyone knew this would be a fight to see as neither contestant had ever been in a dull fight.
Now the reason for the title of this article has to do with the photo accompanying it. I got the picture from the great boxing historian Gregory Speciale.
This photo not only tells the story of the fight, but it also shows some very great moves, moves you will not see today, being executed. It also gives us some insight into Tony Zale on that night.
Right from the bell starting round one this was an exciting fight. Cerdan came out on fire. He was extremely quick and aggressive. While you would most likely describe him as a slugger, it should be pointed out that he used great head movement in slipping punches. Zale met him head on but was having trouble landing effectively. This is where the photo shows us something about the champion. If you look closely you will see Zale is throwing a very hard left jab, the only way he threw any punch. But notice how he appears to be lurching forward and is off his feet. This is a sign of an aged fighter. His legs no longer have the spring in them, and while he is throwing an excellent jab his legs are not carrying him in. Tony had had a long career at this point and his wars with Rocky Graziano had to have taken something out of him.
Now look at Cerdan. You will see that he has stepped slightly to his right and tilted his head to the outside of the jab. It appears he is about to deliver a left hook as he is shifting his weight at the hips from the right to left side of his body. He is also in perfect position to follow up with a right hand. On top of this, he is in great defensive position. While Zale is off balance and being driven forward by the force of his punch and the stiffness of his legs, Cerdan will still be in perfect position to throw more punches as Tony turns towards him. So much is going on in this photo which only captures a fraction of a second of the fight. You might also note how carefully the referee is monitoring the action. This is like viewing a master class in boxing.
Watching footage of the fight is even more enlightening. While Cerdan dominated most of the bout, Zale was keeping the rounds close. Cerdan was amazing in his use of double and triple hooks, going to the head and body. He also countered beautifully with right hands over the champion’s left jab. Cerdan was very aggressive and fast. He was moving forward throughout most of the fight but at angles. He was throwing magnificent combinations, and was methodical in how he would go from body to head and back again.
Tony Zale, being the great champion that he was, looked like he might have been turning things around in the 7th round as it appeared Marcel was slowing down and Zale may have been changing the tide of the fight. Unfortunately for Tony, this would be his last stand. Cerdan began to pick up the pace again in the 8th round and really began turning it on in the tenth where he was battering the never say die Zale.
In the 11th round Cerdan was unleashing brutal and blistering combinations with incredible speed and power. Tony was taking an awful beating and was dropped by a vicious left hooks just before the bell rang ending the round. His seconds helped him to his corner where they wisely told the referee the fight was over.
Tony Zale went out like a true champion that night and would retire. Cerdan would have two non-title fights and then defend the title against Jake LaMotta. Marcel’s shoulder was seriously injured in the first round when he was thrown to the canvas by LaMotta. The champion fought on with just one arm until the 9th round when his corner stopped the fight.
A rematch was immediately scheduled, but Marcel Cerdan was killed in a plane crash while on his way to America for the fight.
Cerdan was a great fighter and a charismatic personality. If he won back the title he may very well have gone on to fight Sugar Ray Robinson in what would have been a very interesting fight. Fate stepped in and prevented us from learning just how great a fighter he was. But judging by what you van see in the Zale fight, even from that one photograph, you know you are looking at one of the best.