1. 1951 – Sugar Ray Robinson KO 13 Jake LaMotta VI, Chicago Stadium, Chicago, Illinois
Of all the multi-fight rivalries in boxing lore, Robinson vs. LaMotta remains among the most celebrated. Although “Sugar Ray” won five of the six meetings, the final tally hardly reflected the strenuous effort needed to achieve it. Robinson would have been the first to tell anyone that “The Bronx Bull” was nobody’s plaything – in or out of the ring – and that only the best of the best could have handled Jake when Jake was right.
Robinson knew of where he spoke, for LaMotta inflicted the first – and to this point the only – loss on Robinson’s 120-1-2 record in their second fight. Robinson, in turn, inflicted LaMotta’s only loss in 19 appearances at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium in fight three and fought tooth-and-nail to nail down close decisions in fights four (Madison Square Garden) and five (Chicago’s Comiskey Park in a 12-round split nod).
As if the content of their rivalry wasn’t historic enough, Robinson-LaMotta VI was a rare meeting between undisputed champions, for Robinson was the reigning welterweight king while LaMotta ruled the middleweight roost. Because of rules prompted by Henry Armstrong’s three-crown simultaneous rule in the late 1930s, a Robinson victory would instantly vacate the 147-pound title and prompt the staging of an elimination tournament.
LaMotta’s long wait for a middleweight title shot ended in June 1949 when he – and an injured left shoulder – did in Marcel Cerdan in 10 rounds. LaMotta’s defense against Robinson occured five months after engaging in 1950’s Fight of the Year, a come-from-way-behind 15th round knockout over Frenchman Laurent Dauthuille, who led by two, four and eight points going into the final round before LaMotta starched him with just 13 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, Robinson was back in America following a five-fight European tour that saw him starch Jean Stock in Paris, thrash Luc Van Dam in Brussels, out-point Jean Walzack in Geneva, stop Robert Villemain in Paris and roast Hans Stretz in Frankfurt.
The fight that came to be known as the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” was hardly that over the first seven rounds. LaMotta won the first two rounds by double jabbing effectively and diving in with right-lefts to the body followed by hooks to the jaw. Robinson’s pinpoint jabs reddened LaMotta’s nose and eye within the opening 60 seconds and a six-punch bouquet in round two managed to drive the Bull back – but only for a moment.
Robinson earned rounds three and four by putting more mustard behind his jabs and smacking LaMotta with strong crosses and body flurries. A right uppercut straightened up LaMotta in the third but its effects were brief at best. Another short right uppercut stunned LaMotta in the fourth and a follow-up volley forced him backward.
The fifth and sixth were LaMotta’s best as his combinations and relentless pressure slowed Robinson to a near standstill. LaMotta began round seven with a strong hook to the jaw but as the round progressed a subtle shift in flow emerged. Robinson’s steady boxing dictated the start and end of most skirmishes and a surge in the final minute shaded what had been a tight three-minute session.
Though LaMotta continued to chase Robinson in the eighth his punches lost their frequency and their snap. In the ninth Robinson’s sharpshooting raised a welt around LaMotta’s right eye.
Starting in the 10th Robinson shifted into a higher gear, a gear that only the greats can access. His lightning-fast yet power-laden combinations rocked LaMotta but failed to stop his pursuit. LaMotta absorbed the blows that had laid out 78 previous opponents like a 16-ton boulder but the efforts required to boil down to 160 combined with Robinson’s attack had the champion running on fumes.
LaMotta launched one final attack early in the 11th. He whaled away at Robinson’s body with both hands and a wrenching hook appeared to stun Sugar Ray. But the challenger/champion shook off the blows and launched a counterattack that forced LaMotta back to ring center. For all intents and purposes, that ended the competitive portion of the contest but the back-and-forth action had the Chicago Stadium crowd in a frenzy.
Of the 1,402 rounds Robinson fought in his 25-year career, the 12th and 13th rounds of fight six with LaMotta stand as the signature of his offensive greatness. During those five minutes Sugar Ray fired every weapon in his formidable arsenal and one commentator was moved to declare that “no man can endure this pummeling.” But one man could, for while Robinson was creating the offensive cornerstone of his legend, LaMotta was doing the same for his durability by stubbornly standing up to it.
The fight’s final minutes had the look of a master matador preparing to sink the final sword between a great bull’s eyes. In the 13th Robinson’s scything uppercuts spun LaMotta’s head violently and his crosses spun it like a top. LaMotta no longer had the energy to fight back; instead he invested every resource into staying upright. Given that he was absorbing the greatest sustained attack by boxing’s most complete fighting machine, LaMotta’s efforts were nothing short of Herculean.
The end finally came when Robinson reared back and cranked a howitzer right cross to the jaw that propelled LaMotta toward the ropes. That, and a pair of hooks and a series of quick uppercuts, prompted referee Frank Sikora to finally stop the massacre. The final time: 2:04 of round 13.
Photos / The Ring, Herb Scharfman-Getty Images, Getty Images
Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at email@example.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.