By John F. McKenna (McJack)
When “Sugar” Ray Robinson squared off on February 14, 1951 in Chicago Stadium against Jake Lamotta AKA “The Bronx Bull” it was their sixth and final fight. The fight would be forever known to boxing fans as “The Saint Valentines Day Massacre”, not to be confused with the other “Saint Valentines Day Massacre” engineered by mobster Al Capone. When Robinson stepped into the ring to face Lamotta for the last time he had an incredible 122-1 record. The one loss was to Lamotta by decision back in 1943. Sugar Ray had never known defeat either as an amateur or a professional until he faced the “Bronx Bull”. He was 85-0 as an amateur and 43-0 as a professional until he faced Lamotta. In an era when fighters did not require several months of preparation for a fight and they were more concerned with making enough money to live on than protecting their records Robinson fought as many as sixteen times a year still maintaining his amazing record. He would avenge his 1943 loss to Lamotta three weeks later.
In the months before his fight with Lamotta, Robinson decided to move up to Middleweight. He was finding it increasingly more difficult to make the 147 pound weight at Welterweight. “Sugar” Ray who was 5’11” weighed 154 lbs for the fight with the “Bronx Bull”. Robinson had a 36 ½ inch chest and a 28 ½ waist. Lamotta by contrast was 5’8”, had a 42” chest and weighed 159 ½ lbs for the fight with Robinson. Both fighters were 29 years old and seemingly at their peaks.
Lamotta had won the Middleweight Title in 1949 against the great French Middleweight Marcel Cerdan in Detroit. That fight was stopped when Cerdan sustained an injury and was unable to continue. The scheduled rematch never took place when Cerdan was killed in an airplane crash over the Azores.
Since this was their sixth meeting, both fighters knew each others styles well. In an interview before the fight Robinson was quoted as saying “I am going to run for ten rounds and then I am going to get that man!” Lamotta had only one game plan, full speed ahead while applying constant pressure. Lamotta had one major advantage against every fighter he ever faced. He was enormously strong, had a chin of granite and was almost impossible to slow down despite what anybody threw at him. He also had a mean streak which he frequently carried into the ring with him.
The fight drew 14,802 fans while millions watched it on the new medium of television. From the very outset Lamotta stalked Robinson, battering him with body shots and left hands forcing him to retreat. Lamotta dominated the first eight rounds with his unrelenting fury. As the movie “Raging Bull” accurately described it, Lamotta fought with an intimidating rage. Nothing it appeared could stop the irrepressible force that was Jake Lamotta.
Suddenly the tide began to change in the ninth round. Robinson’s strategy of allowing Lamotta to wear him self out while he retreated seemed to be working at least for the time being. Robinson had a couple of nicknames. One of course was “Sugar” Ray. His other less well known nickname was “The Dancing Master”. He employed the use of his fabulous footwork to the maximum in the Lamotta fight. Robinson continued to harass the “Bronx Bull” with his left jab and wicked hooks to the body. In the tenth round Lamotta became a stationary target and Robinson began to turn up the intensity of his attack. Jake came back to life in the eleventh round when he backed “Sugar” Ray into a corner and flailed away with both hands in a futile attempt to stem the tide which had now turned against him. When Robinson broke out of the corner he took control of the fight for good.
The twelfth round turned into a full scale slaughter with Robinson throwing bombs at an almost defenseless opponent. He unleashed his full repertoire of heavy artillery. Double and triple left hooks. By now Lamotta’s face was a grotesques swollen mass. Robinson’s left hand was severely bruised from the punishment he had inflicted on his foe. It was so bad that Robinson’s manager George Gainford implored referee Frank Sikora to stop the fight. Sikora paid no attention. The brutal beating continued into the thirteenth round. For two minutes Referee Sikora nervously glanced at the Illinois Boxing Commission while Robinson blasted away at Lamotta, whose hands were now down by his sides. Still he refused to go down and Sikora refused to stop it. Lamotta was bleeding from inside the mouth and his left eye when he staggered into the ropes. Finally Referee Sikora stepped in and called a stop to the carnage.
Despite suffering a terrible beating Lamotta remained defiant. “I didn’t go down Ray,
you didn’t put me down.” Lamotta said to Robinson before leaving the ring. Jake admitted later that this had been the toughest of his six fights with Robinson and that he had run out of gas. It took Lamotta two hours before he could muster the energy to get dressed and leave the stadium. Robinson spent a considerable amount of time soaking his left hand in a bucket of ice. Ring doctor Vince Nardiello assured reporters that it was not broken. “He just hit Lamotta so hard and so often with it that it’s thoroughly bruised.”
Ironically a virtual unknown did finally knock down Lamotta. Jake, no longer able to make the weight at middleweight attempted to move up to light heavyweight. On December 31, 1952 Lamotta was knocked down by an up and coming light heavyweight power puncher named Danny Nardico. Lamotta, now just a shell of the fighter who had fought Robinson on February 14, 1951 was totally outclassed by Nardico. Nardico knocked down Lamotta in the seventh round and Jake was unable to answer the bell for the eighth round.
Years after he retired Lamotta used his fame as a boxer to perform as a stand up comic. One of his claims was that he was never knocked down. Unfortunately Lamotta’s fight with Nardico is saved on film for posterity. One knockdown in 106 fights is not bad.
It is probable that the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” fight had something to do with the loss to Danny Nardico.
When Robert Deniro was preparing for his role as Jake Lamotta in “Raging Bull” he sparred with Lamotta. After a few rounds Lamotta realized that Deniro was not putting everything into his punches. Jake was trying to teach Deniro how to throw punches realistically. Finally Lamotta told Deniro to give it everything he had. Even at his age he told Deniro there was no way he could ever hurt him. Deniro responded in kind.
“Sugar” Ray Robinson would go on fighting until 1965, at least ten years past his prime.
Lamotta could not attend the retirement party that was held at Madison Square Garden for Robinson. He was banned from any official boxing function because he had testified before Congress that he had thrown his fight to Billy Fox in 1947. For throwing the fight to Fox, Lamotta got a shot at Marcel Cerdan’s Middleweight Title and one hundred thousand dollars.
Robinson vs Lamotta VI was perhaps the greatest fight of all time. Two fighters in their prime giving it their very best, holding nothing back.