In Algerian historiography, the year 1954 looms especially large. Most notably, the date marks the formal start of the Algerian war of independence. That year, it should be mentioned, Algerians had other causes to celebrate and occasions to mark, even if now forgotten. Indeed, two months before fighting broke out in November 1954, a boxer from Annaba in eastern Algeria fought halfway across the globe to become the bantamweight champion of the world and a national hero back home. His name was Robert Cohen.
On September 19, 1954, Cohen, twenty-four years old and standing at 5 feet, 2.5 inches (1.59 m), faced off against a slightly older and slightly taller Thai boxer by the name of Chamroen Songkitrat in Bangkok. The fierce title fight was held before a crowd of some 60,000 and lasted the maximum fifteen rounds. Despite Songkitrat’s homecourt advantage, Cohen would win on decision. In emerging victorious, the young Jew electrified the boxing world, Algeria, and seemingly all of North Africa.
Less than three months after Cohen’s victory, the celebrated Algerian Jewish artist Albert Rouimi, better known by his stage name of Blond Blond, composed and then recorded the celebratory “Ghnaït Robert Cohen” (the Song of Robert Cohen) for Pathé. On what was likely the first boxing record of its kind in the Maghrib, he was accompanied by multi-talented Tunisian Jewish musician Youcef Hedjaj, a vocalist, instrumentalist, and composer who was also a favorite of Louisa Tounsia, Line Monty, and many others.
The rousing song about the Algerian Jewish boxer Cohen––curiously listed as a “chant Marocain” (a Moroccan song) on the label––is reminiscent of Saoud l’Oranais’ 1934 football chant “Gheniet U.S.M.O” in structure, melody, and lyrics. The phrase “khalouni nghani” (let me sing), for example, is repeated in both throughout, as is the French word “champion.” At the same time, there are notable differences. Blond Blond, for instance, sang of Cohen’s victory not just as the pride of a certain city, as Saoud l’Oranais did, but as “honoring” all of Algeria and North Africa as well. Of course, the context was also much changed. 1954, the start of the Algerian revolution, was a far cry from 1934 or any other moment in the interwar period. Nonetheless, this record captures certain continuities that existed in parallel to the rapid changes on Algeria’s path to decolonization. In 1954, Algerian Jews––legal French citizens since the end of the nineteenth century––still sang in Arabic and could still be considered part of the national community and even national heroes. In fact, it is noteworthy that Blond Blond recorded “the Song of Robert Cohen” in Arabic. This was a choice. He could have easily done so in French. But in making that choice, Blond Blond made clear his audience: Arabophone Algerian Muslims and the not insignificant number of Algerian Jews who still spoke Arabic. It was for them, it seems, that Cohen’s triumph was especially meaningful.
Title: Ghnaït Robert Cohen (اغنية روبر كوهين)
Artist: Blond Blond
Issue Number: PA 3120
Matrix Number: CPT 11.296; CPT 11.297 / M3-160363; M3-160364
Date of Pressing: end of 1954
 Cohen held the title until 1956. He lost to Italian Mario D’Agata on June 29, 1956 in a fight that was recognized as a title match by some institutional bodies but not others. In 1957, Alphonse Halimi, another Algerian Jew, took the title from D’Agata to become bantamweight world champion. It is of interest to note that Cohen and Halimi shared many similarities, in addition to both being Jews. Both were from eastern Algerian (Halimi was from Constantine). Both got their start in swimming. And class was a significant factor for both. Cohen and Halimi, for example, were each one of fourteen children.