ON October 28, 1949, a French airliner crashed in flames near the summit of a mountain on the island of São Miguel in the Portuguese Azores. The flight from Paris was to have made a stopover at Santa Maria Airport, Azores, before heading to New York City. All 48 occupants were killed. Among them was the legendary French world middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan. The news shook the boxing world.
Cerdan was on his way to America to challenge for the world crown he’d lost in adverse circumstances to fellow Hall of Famer Jake LaMotta four months earlier. The Frenchman had injured his left shoulder when LaMotta threw him to the canvas in round one, but he bravely battled on, effectively one-armed, before retiring in his corner after the ninth. If original plans had been followed, Cerdan would not have been on that flight. The rematch was supposed to have taken place in September, but ironically was postponed because of a shoulder injury to LaMotta.
So the boxing world never got to see the finale of Cerdan’s extraordinary career, in which a world title opportunity had come frustratingly late. Marcel was aged 32 and 107-3 when he finally got a shot at the world middleweight crown and seized it by pummelling Tony Zale to defeat at Jersey City in September 1948. For some reason, Cerdan is often overlooked when fight fans talk of the all-time greats of the middleweight division. But, to my mind, his place among the very best 160-pounders is irrefutable. The stone-fisted Frenchman won 110 and lost only four of 114 contests. Of the losses, two were disqualifications, one a points defeat quickly avenged, and the other the shoulder-injury retirement against LaMotta.
In February 1947, British fight-goers at the Seymour Hall, Marylebone, witnessed Cerdan’s flashing fists demolish Scotland’s Bert Gilroy in four rounds. Then in March 1949, in one of Marcel’s final performances, he blitzed Dick Turpin in seven at Empress Hall in Earls Court. But there was another Cerdan contest on British soil, in which the great Frenchman suffered his first defeat.
It was January 1939 and 22-year-old Cerdan (then a 44-0 welterweight) was at Empress Hall to tackle the unheralded Harry Craster of Middlesbrough. Craster, aged 23, had learnt the game from his cousin Alf Craster, a useful performer who’d amassed almost a century of bouts in five years as a pro, as well as many unofficial fights while travelling the northern fairgrounds with Len Johnson’s booth. Harry himself had well over 100 contests in 11 years as a pro. His record glistens with top British names – Jack Kid Berg, Ernie Roderick, Arthur Danahar, Harry Mizler and George Daly – but although he won one out of three against Mizler and drew one and lost one with Daly, Craster fell just short of British championship class.
The Cerdan match was scheduled for 10 rounds, but in the fifth referee Jack Morris disqualified Cerdan for a low punch. “Up to that stage,” wrote Boxing News, “Cerdan, who holds the French welterweight title, showed himself a sound box-fighter, and he was giving Craster plenty to think about. We should like to see more of this Frenchman.” Modestly, when recalling the bout in 1984 for BN’s Ron Olver, Harry said: “Cerdan was a great fighter, a very tough man. I was not ahead at any point. He had me down twice in round three, but hit me low in round five, for which he was disqualified. My protector was badly dented.” Craster’s final fight was at the Royal Albert Hall in February 1942, on the night Freddie Mills beat Jock McAvoy. Later he worked as a bus driver for the United Bus Company for many years. I wonder how many of Harry’s passengers realised their driver had beaten a boxing legend?