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Original Issue

No longer a legend, but not all hoax

Marcel Cerdan's American debut proved that he has his father's heart but not his skills or punch

Of all human frustrations, one of the sharpest must be that of a man with powerful ambition and aching desire whose talent, he discovers, will never match the rumble of his drive. It is a common defeat, a secret one for many, but no amount of guile can hide the result—and it was nakedly evident last week in Madison Square Garden when Marcel Cerdan Jr. finally emerged from his mausoleum of memories and poked his nose at reality.

What he saw, of course, no one will ever know. The swooning reaction in the French provinces, where he had labored for most of his 47 fights, his manager's handling of him as a rare jewel and his own strange cobweb of a dream, perhaps may never allow the intrusion of hard truth.

The zest, the motion, even the thrilling purity of ring excellence—only at best a blur—is observable, and it begs critical generosity. For all of us, too, it is difficult not to be touched by the romance of his story: the classic example of the son wanting to be the father; a young man who has moved through life haunted by a ghostly clank of armor; his painful and embarrassing need for approval. No one, even in a properly cynical time, likes to see a good dream die.

Certainly one could sense that the Garden crowd understood. Of the 10,767, most of them belonged to his opponent, Donato Paduano, but at first there was not the usual indiscriminate roaring. Even though Paduano was ineffectual early in the bout, it was still the sound of a crowd that seemed first intimidated by a legend and then surprised that there was a scrap of credibility to it. Unfortunately, it was only a scrap. Against Paduano, to whom he lost a 10-round decision, Cerdan exhibited neither strength nor the ring stealth that his most fervent admirers said he had.

Comparisons to Cerdan's father, a French hero and an electric fighter, are irrelevant and unfair. Critical appraisal must be confined to what he did against an ordinary fighter, one who cannot punch or put combinations together. Because he is of special interest to the Garden, Paduano (inferior to legions who have been left to decay by Matchmaker Teddy Brenner) has been pushed far beyond his ability. Had Cerdan beaten Paduano, he could at least have had a shot at being an authentic failure. As it is, he is now just another fighter who, out of humaneness, would not even be allowed to work in a Philadelphia gym. But he has not failed. He has never been in a position to fail. He has simply been a marketable item, discreetly distributed to the point where he could come to the Garden and demand $40,000 to realize an obsessive longing. His sincerity as a fighter is not in question, only his motivation, which is plausible but is unable to sustain him in the ring.

It is not easy for a son to follow a father. Cerdan was in a particularly delicate position in his American debut. From his dossier in France he seemed bound for disaster. Instead, with the help of Paduano, he salvaged the evening. His pace was fast, his jab (which had him ahead after six rounds) was annoying and there were brief glimpses of ring refinement. On the attack, however, he rarely positioned himself to punch, and when he did it was only to contain his opponent. He simply did not have any bad intentions. On the defense he did not have the vaguest idea what to do with his head.

Paduano, trailing, say, 4-2, and bleeding terribly from an unintentional butt in the fifth, turned the fight around after the sixth. With a stiff, not excessively quick jab and several decent punches, he won the last four rounds. Cerdan tired badly, and the fatigue was there in his face as he sat, holding a bottle of champagne, before the press. He seemed vastly relieved, and one hoped he would never hear the clank of armor anymore.