Monday, February 12, 2001
No heart-shaped boxes on this Valentine's Day
By Michael Silver Special to ESPN Classic
When the elegant welterweight champion of the world, Sugar Ray Robinson,
slid gracefully through the ropes of the Chicago Stadium ring on St.
Valentine's night 50 years ago,
In 1997, Ring Magazine selected Sugar Ray Robinson as the best boxer in its 75-year history.
he was generally acknowledged to be the
greatest fighter, pound for pound, of the modern era. Since turning pro ten
years earlier he had lost only once in 123 professional fights, winning 79 by
knockout. It is an incredible record that, it is safe to say, will never be
equalled. The Neanderthal like individual in the opposite corner was the one
person responsible for that lone blot on his otherwise perfect record -- the
indefatigable "Bronx Bull," Jake LaMotta, reigning middleweight champion of
Sugar Ray was not about to send him a heart shaped box of chocolates.
The rough hewn Jake had his own perfect record to protect: In 95 pro
fights he had never been knocked off his feet. It was a proud boast made
even more impressive by the fact that this iron man had met the hardest
punchers in both the middlweight and light heavyweight divisions.
This was the sixth and final chapter of a bitter rivalry that had begun
almost eight years earlier. Their first encounter took place in Madison Square
Garden on October 2, 1942. Even then Robinson was considered a boxing
phenomenon. He could box, punch, dance, take a punch, and fight inside or at
long range. He also possessed a breathtaking repertoire of combination
punches that were thrown with extraordinary speed and power. Within a year
of turning pro he was ranked the number one welterweight contender. By the
end of his second year, having won 35 straight fights (27 by KO), he was
running out of competition. Since the welterweight title was frozen for the
duration of World War II (the currrent champ was in the Navy), he decided to
take on middleweights even though he would be giving away close to 20 pounds
to some opponents.
Around this same time a Bronx born human tank named Jacob LaMotta was on
the rise wreaking havoc in the middleweight division. Turning pro five
months after Sugar Ray, the appropriately nicknamed "Bronx Bull" had won 26
of 31 fights, including one draw. LaMotta was a big middleweight whose frame
could easily support 160 to 170 pounds. Jake was a special fighter, but how
special really wouldn't become apparent until his second fight with Robinson.
Their first fight was somewhat anticlimactic. The usually aggressive
LaMotta did not follow his game plan. He was overly cautious and tentative,
respectful as he was of Robinson's awesome reputation. Although he lost the
10 round decision, the fact that he managed to win three rounds and was still
standing at the end bolstered his confidence.
LaMotta's trainer, Mike Capriano, the man who had fashioned and refined
Jake's unique bend and weave style of fighting, decided his fighter needed
some fine tuning before accepting a rematch with Robinson. Over the next
four months Jake fought five contenders, including the highly touted Jackie
Wilson, who had won 50 of 52 fights. Jake beat them all.
The rematch with Robinson was fought in Detroit's Olympia Stadium on
February 5, 1943. Robinson weighed 144 to Jake's 160 lbs. Despite the
obvious weight advantage the odds makers made LaMotta a 9 to 2 underdog,
which at least was better than the 10 to 1 odds of the first fight.
Jake's strategy was the same for every fight with Robinson: LaMotta, 5'
8" tall to Robinson's 5' 11," was to constantly attack out of a low crouch
forcing Robinson backward so he could not get set to unleash his deadly
combinations. LaMotta, who had surprising speed, had to move quickly. As
Robinson started his jab LaMotta would step in and weave under and inside.
Once inside the jab, LaMotta, bending low, would drop a right hand to
Robinson's side and bring up a quick left hook to the head. He would then
attempt to stay inside, burying his head in Robinson's chest, and whale away
with body punches and combinations in an attempt to slow him down. LaMotta
knew how to utilize his great strength to full advantage. In his low crouch,
bobbing and weaving, he presented a difficult target. He never stood
straight up and always kept his chin tucked in behind his left shoulder.
Jake fought brilliantly. He pressured Robinson throughout the fight.
Ray's strategy was to try and outbox LaMotta by keeping the action at long
range, spearing him with left jabs while trying to set him up for the right
cross, uppercut, left hook or combinations. But many of Robinson's best
shots missed their mark as Jake rolled with the punches, taking the sting out
of them. In the eighth round, Jake sent Robinson through the ropes for a nine
count. It was the first time Robinson had ever been knocked down. At the
end of ten exciting rounds, Jake was awarded a close but unanimous 10 round
Exactly three weeks later they fought again. Same arena, same fight.
Jake even managed to floor Robinson again. But this time the unanimous
decision went to the Sugar Man. At least that is what the record book says.
The consensus among fans and reporters was that LaMotta deserved the win.
They had two more fights in 1945, both hotly contested, but with Robinson
having the edge both times.
It would be almost six years before these two magnificent gladiators
would square off against each other one more time.
Over the next five years both men went their seperate ways, fistically
speaking. Robinson won the welterweight title in 1946, defended it until he
ran out of challengers, and by 1949 was campaigning for a shot at the
LaMotta, meanwhile, was fighting virtually any middlweight, or light
heavy willing to step into the same ring with him. By 1946, he was rated the
number one middlweight in the world. Yet he could not secure a title shot.
The problem was that Jake had wanted to remain a free agent in a business
controlled by mobsters. It was an impossible situation. Finally, after
agreeing to throw a fight against Billy Fox in 1947, LaMotta was given the
green light to arrange a title match. This unfortunate chapter in LaMotta's
career is accurately portrayed in the film "Raging Bull."
Winning the middleweight championship of the world from Marcel Cerdan in
1949 was certainly the highlight of Jake's colorful career. By the time
he won the crown, though, the wear and tear of numerous ring wars, his constant battle
to control his weight, along with marital and managerial problems had begun
to take their toll. At 29 years of age, the Bronx Bull, while still a
nightmare for any middlweight alive, had seen his best days. Yet, when the
chips were down, LaMotta could still call upon his amazing reslience and
determination to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, as was demonstrated
in his dramatic 15th round KO of leading contender Laurent Dauthuille on
September 13, 1950. With 30 seconds left to go in the fight, and hopelessly
behind on points, Jake suddenly exploded and flattened Dauthuille.
Five months later LaMotta put his title on the line against Sugar Ray
Robinson who, aside from holding the welterweight title, had earned a number
one ranking in the middleweight division.
Fifteen thousand fans filled the Chicago Stadium and millions more
watched the fight on network television -- for free. There was also an
international radio hookup for Europe and South America.
Robinson, almost 30 years old, was still a magician with his fists
despite having passed his peak within the previous year. He was bigger now,
at 155 pounds, and, although he may have slowed down a bit, he could still
dazzle fans and opponents alike with his spectacular six to 10 punch
Robinson's strategy was based on LaMotta's struggle to make the 160
pound weight limit. (Indeed, the night before the fight Jake was sitting in
a steam room sweating off 41/2 extra pounds.) As LaMotta chased him around
the ring, Ray, playing matador to the Bull, would punish him with sharp jabs
and damaging counterpunches. The Harlem Dandy's footwork would be put to the
test. And if he was gored, which was sure to happen, Robinson was not overly
concerned as he had, along with his other attributes, one of the best chins
in the business. When the time was right, and a tired LaMotta was ready to
be taken, Robinson would open up with everything he had. The odds favored
Robinson 3 1/2 to 1.
Although the fight followed the same basic pattern of their previous
encounters, there were significant differences. Both men had aged and slowed
up a bit, but whatever athleticism they had lost was more than made up for
with experience and craft. But it was LaMotta who was the more shopworn of
the two. The Bull was still a formidable foe, strong and determined,
yet...something was missing. He was able to nail Robinson with his left
hooks and jabs but was not getting under and inside in the way that he had in
the past. He was a step slower and his punches did not fly as fast or as
frequently as they once had. Unlike their previous fights, he seemed to be
targeting Robinson's head more than his body, a change in strategy that could
cost LaMotta if he failed to score a knockout and the bout entered the late
rounds. Worse, LaMotta's fabled durability seemed lacking. By the sixth
round he apeared to be growing tired.
Robinson sensed LaMotta's weakening condition. Like a matador preparing
a bull for the final thrust, he landed brutal shots to the body, while
waiting for the right moment when it would be safe to attempt the impossible
and knock out Jake LaMotta.
But he had to be careful. Robinson knew Jake only too well not to be.
He was reminded of this in the sixth round when LaMotta shook him up with a
solid left hook to the jaw and bloodied his nose and mouth.
At the end of the tenth round, the fight was dead even. But LaMotta was
near exhaustion. The effort to make the weight coupled with the grueling
pace of the fight had taken too much out of him. With what little reserve he
had left, he went for broke in the 11th round. For 30 seconds, he looked like
the LaMotta of old as he rushed Robinson and pinned him against the ropes
throwing punches from all angles in one last desperate attempt to end the
fight. Robinson survived and by the end of the round had LaMotta in serious
trouble as he raked him with combinations to both head and body.
The 12th round was hard to watch. It wasn't a competitive fight
anymore. It was slaughter. LaMotta had absolutely nothing left except his
fighting heart, grit, and the determination not to go down. He could barely
keep his hands up much less throw a punch. Robinson was teeing off on his
head doing everything within his power to bring LaMotta down. Uppercuts,
right crosses, left hooks...double and triple left hooks! It was amazing,
cruel, disgusting, yet awe inspiring all at the same time. What the hell was
keeping LaMotta up? He could have easily taken a nine count, at least to
interrupt the savagery, but no, he would not give Ray the satisfaction. The
doctor visited Jake's corner before the start of the 13th round and allowed
the fight to continue.
Jake was a human punching bag. For two minutes straight he was
subjected to a horrific beating yet he still refused to go down! Two things
were about to happen; either Jake would finally drop, or Robinson, who was
becoming exhausted from hitting him, would collapse. Thankfully, mercifully,
the referee stepped in between them as LaMotta lay helpless against the
ropes, and finally stopped the thing at 2:04 of the 13th round.
So ended a fight that in lore and legend came to be known as boxing's
"St. Valentine's Day Massacre."