Feb. 14, 1951—“I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times, it's a wonder I don't have diabetes,” Jake LaMotta has marveled in old age. In their sixth and final bout, Robinson pummeled LaMotta, a tough adversary who had closely contested their prior matches, winning on a technical knockout (TKO) in the 13th round to take the middleweight crown from the "Bronx Bull."
This was their first fight with a title at stake. Robinson was the reigning welterweight king, and LaMotta had been the middleweight champ for the last year and a half. With so much on the line, each fighter gave it everything he had, with Robinson, recently acclaimed “the greatest all-around fighter pound-for-pound in any division” by sportswriter Nat Fleischer, dishing it out and LaMotta, to an extent that even surprised longtime observers of his style, taking it.
The bloodletting, combined with the Chicago locale, quickly led boxing fans to label this the sport’s “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
The denouement of the fight became the subject of one of the most memorable scenes of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film classic, Raging Bull. When the referee mercifully stops the match, Robert DeNiro’s LaMotta stands bloody but unbowed in the ring, staggering over to Ray Barnes’ Robinson and saying, “You never got me down, Ray.”
When one thinks of the great boxing rivals, Robinson and LaMotta rank with Tunney and Dempsey or Ali and Frazier. The post-career relationship, however, resembled more of the mutual respect between Tunney and Dempsey than the animosity between Ali and Frazier. “Sugar Ray was the greatest fighter who ever lived,” LaMotta recalled in a January 2013 Esquire interview. After their September 1945 bout, a split decision for Robinson, the winner from Harlem acknowledged about his rival, “LaMotta is the toughest man I’ve ever fought. I’ve fought him five times and hit him with everything I know how to throw, but he still stands up.”
It was not really an ability to take a punch that aided LaMotta, however, but rather the instinct to avoid the worst of the blow. “Lot of guys can take punches,” LaMotta told Esquire. “The idea is not to take unnecessary punishment. I explain taking a punch this way: In baseball, when someone throws a hardball at you and you don't have a glove, if you want to catch it, your palm moves back with the ball at the last second. That slight movement saves you from taking a hard blow. If you move the same way when a fist comes at you, it takes away more than 50 percent of the power. The secret is to move with the punch.”
LaMotta dealt Robinson the first loss of his career, after 40 fights, in a unanimous decision in their second encounter, in February 1943. But in that earlier match, Robinson, a natural welterweight, was outweighed by 16 pounds by LaMotta. Eight years later, LaMotta was only five pounds heavier. More crucially, he had slowed down in the last six years, making him an easier target for Robinson—and, after eight rounds that were pretty even, that latter disadvantage would prove decisive.
The four-minute Raging Bull scene I mentioned above captures the atmosphere of the bout’s last stage: the blood that splattered onlookers, the horrified fascination of a larger audience (it was the first and only one of their bouts ever aired on television), and the manner in which time held momentarily still for LaMotta as he awaited the final onslaught from Robinson.
Just how much he endured might best be described by sportswriter Red Smith:
In the third minute of the 13th round Ray Robinson hit Jake LaMotta for-what was it? – the thousandth time? The five thousandth? Jake was hung on the ropes like a picture on the wall, like an old, wrinkled suit in the attic closet. Now he came off the hook, sagged forward, bent double at the waist. He embraced Robinson about the drawers and the referee, Frank Sikora, pushed in between them and motioned to Robinson to desist. The greatest fist fighter in the world was middleweight champion of the world, and one of the toughest had suffered the first believable knockout of his life.
LaMotta, Smith practically gasped, had been “slugged, tortured, flayed, bloodied and bludgeoned… stripped of his title and nearly detached from his intellect as well.” What was surely on the mind of Smith and other observers was Robinson’s successful defense of his welterweight crown in 1947 against Jimmy Doyle. The latter, who had defied doctors’ orders not to fight again after being knocked unconscious for 15 minutes in a prior bout, ended up going to the hospital again, where he died the afternoon after his eight-round loss to Robinson.
Perhaps what has allowed LaMotta to live into his 90s was not just his ability to “move with the punch,” but also the sense of when to get out. He lasted another three years and 10 bouts (including four losses) before deciding to leave the ring. Robinson, two months older, did not stop until 1965, 24 years after he began. (He needed the money badly: he had not been attentive to the side businesses he had started, and in the mid-1950s the Internal Revenue Service came after him, even garnishing some of his earnings.)
That almost certainly was a mistake. In 1989, he died of what was diagnosed at the time as Alzheimer’s Disease. More recently, however, his case has given rise to speculation that he might have fallen victim to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain disease that has come into the news because of its impact on football players.
Robinson and LaMotta had the mental toughness that made them champions. Unfortunately, they could not control outside the ring the aggression that brought them to the top of their profession. Raging Bull detailed in unmistakable and unflattering terms the domestic violence that LaMotta inflicted on his beautiful second wife Vikki, and his younger brother and manager Joey. (After seeing the movie, the boxer asked Vikki if he had really been that bad. "Even worse," she replied.)
It was less well known that Robinson did the same against his beautiful second wife, Edna Mae, when she discovered his flagrant infidelity. The African-American sportswriter Sam Lacy expressed his dismay about this behavior this way: “I have said many times that Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest athlete in a given field I have had the pleasure of observing. I have also said many times that he can be one of the most disgusting figures one is compelled to meet in his business.”