Pale, awed and by his own admission "trembling badly," the slender youth mounted the ring for his first public fight and stood dazed while 2,000 Parisian fans rocked the Salle Wagram with wild cheering. He smiled shyly and dropped to his stool. Prodded by his manager, he got up and raised his arms in a salute. A Paris sports reporter, seated in the press section with newsmen from half a dozen countries, emptied his bottle of ale, cupped his hands and called, "How's it feel, mon vieuxl" The lad smiled once more and stared straight at the reporter but didn't answer. It was a sad, rather pitiable smile.
This was 9:40 p.m., Monday, April 4. The Salle Wagram had been filled for three hours, and extra police were on hand to keep order among the fans, who were there to see what had been billed as the renaissance of French boxing. In one corner sat Ait Tayeb, an unknown Algerian, fighting his ninth amateur lightweight bout. Opposite him sat the evening's hero, making his debut, 16-year-old Marcel Cerdan Jr.
The name Marcel Cerdan is remembered by fight fans everywhere, but only in the hearts of the French does it arouse the kind of emotion felt at the Wagram April 4th. It's an emotion the French sporting world has lived with since October 1949, when Marcel Cerdan Sr. was killed in a plane crash while on the way to New York for a return match with Jake LaMotta, who had won the world middleweight crown from him the preceding spring. To the French, Cerdan was Gene Tunney, Lou Gehrig and Francis X. Bushman, and a bit of James Dean, too. He was a tragic hero, and the French love tragic heroes. When he died, the sports paper L'Equipe predicted, "He will have a place in our hearts forever and ever." Some 20,000 mourners attended Cerdan's funeral.
So the fans at the Wagram were there not only to watch the debut of Marcel Cerdan Jr. in a three-round preliminary bout but also to pay homage to a ghost. They were pleased to see several resemblances between father and son. The cold blue eyes were familiar, so were the well-proportioned shoulders and the strangely narrow calves, and the low, awkward carriage with the feet so far apart. It was the same stance that had enticed Tony Zale into a disastrous barrage of left uppercuts in September 1948 at Jersey City, when Cerdan won the world middleweight crown. A few excited French fans said that even the boy's pale face and trembling hands recalled his father.
The setting was familiar, too. Just 23 years ago, Cerdan Sr. had made his amateur debut in the same arena. Happily, he had been deprived of the noisy crowd, the battery of cameramen and wild cheering, the riot police and the fantastic publicity. Nor had he enjoyed the benefits of Philippe Filippi, one of France's ace managers, who handles Alphonse Halimi, among others, and who "discovered" young Cerdan last year tending bar in his mother's cafe in Casablanca, Morocco. It was Filippi who brought Marcel to Paris 10 months ago, gave him A-1 training and trumpeted his ring debut with one of the biggest buildups in the history of amateur boxing. The buildup included a telecast in November last year, on the 10th anniversary of Cerdan's death, that dampened the eyes of French fight fans. Stars of the show: young Marcel ("I can't conceive of life without boxing"); his mother (tearfully: "Boxing took my husband from me, and I'm sure it will take my son"); and Manager Filippi ("Old Marcel is up there watching me, and I know he's happy about what I'm doing for his boy").
The hoopla grew and grew, even though Marcel's fight was rescheduled four times. Manager Filippi himself admitted the "difficulty" of finding an opponent for "my hobby," as he called Marcel. But French fans needed little prompting to play their role—the fight was sold out hours before it began and traffic was jammed as far back as the Arc de Triomphe. The necessary celebrities were on hand (notably absent: Singer Edith Piaf, Cerdan Sr.'s close friend and godmother to his son), and Marcel's mother had appropriately cabled: "My thoughts are with my boy, and my heart is beating faster."
The fans sat nervously through two preliminaries, waiting for young Marcel's three-round debut. Under their pounding feet, the old Wagram floor shook dangerously. From a corner of the balcony someone chanted, "Cer-dan, Cer-dan," and soon the whole hall was yelling it. "Cer-dan, Cer-dan," they cried as the bewildered teen-ager shook hands with his opponent and as two fans became entangled trying to touch the boy's robe. "Marcel Cerdan," the speaker wailed. In the roar no one heard (or cared) that he weighed 136.4 pounds or that his opponent was six years older and four ounces lighter.
From the start it was painfully evident that the lad was suffering from what L'Equipe kindly called "paralyzing stagefright." His big saucerlike eyes looked like they had just had a glimpse of doom, the thin legs nervously massaged the canvas, and one slender arm toyed with the ropes. Manager Filippi eyed the capacity crowd and rubbed vaseline on the boy's face.
All 2,000 were on their feet to watch young Marcel catapult from his corner straight into his opponent's right fist. Cerdan bobbed nervously, then lunged forward with a series of potent body punches, leaving an opening that only an opponent as inexperienced as Tayeb could have missed. "Uppercut, uppercut," Filippi yelled. Turning to listen, Marcel caught a near-fatal right on his nose but regained his balance quickly enough to score a telling jab to Tayeb's jaw that helped him win the round. One minute later he was pounding again at Tayeb's body in schoolboy fashion, still embarrassingly open. The North African uncorked three surprisingly fast jabs to the mouth and eyes, Cerdan swung wildly over Tayeb's head, and when the round ended he had a slightly damaged left eye. In the third and final round Cerdan was awkward on his feet but fast and accurate enough to land a left uppercut on Tayeb's jaw. He took considerable abuse, but Tayeb found it impossible to connect squarely with the bobbing head.
In his corner, waiting for the decision, Cerdan Jr. looked not so much like a future middleweight champ as a high school freshman thrust into a bull ring. Tayeb was clearly the more mature fighter, and Cerdan had several times been in serious trouble. Cerdan's action had been almost wholly defensive. During the second round when Tayeb had hit him on the chin he had come very close to falling.
Even before the decision photographers crowded the ring for Marcel's victory shot with Manager Filippi. That started the roaring again and nearly drowned out the decision: Cerdan, on points. But, as one of the judges later revealed, "very few points."
The critics were gentle but firm. "After all," bemoaned France-Soir's, Jean Dumas, "are we to compare a 16-year-old boy with a world champion at the height of his career? Only with very great progress can he prove he's worthy to bear the name Marcel Cerdan." Added Le Figaro, "He doesn't yet possess the rhythm necessary for his chosen profession."
However, Edward Rabret, president of the European Boxing Union, summed it up best.
"The thing was premature," he declared after the fight. "I rather felt sorry for the lad. He wasn't ready yet. If we can forget his name for one moment we can see he made a nice clean debut—that he's not afraid and loves to box. Filippi is serious about the thing and mustn't be accused of promotion. But someone, perhaps the French public, is guilty of pushing the boy too far too fast."