Imagine it: two of the absolute best fighters in the world fighting each other, in a rematch, with not so much as a sniff of a world title on the line in either fight. In modern times, it’s incredibly rare, almost unheard of, for a non-title match-up between two esteemed and established fighters, each of them seen by many as the best in their weight division, to take place. But when legends Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson were plying their trade, back in the early to mid-1940s, the boxing world was different.
Robinson, recognized by plenty as the best welterweight in the world, fought the frighteningly tough LaMotta, for many the hardest middleweight fighter in the world, in 1942. “Sugar Ray,” out-weighed by a considerable margin, nevertheless used his swift hands and his sheer boxing excellence to score a near shut-out over “The Bronx Bull.”
Today, no world title bound welterweight who was approaching his prime would have taken such a risk, let alone twice. But Robinson – who had to wait until 1946 to get a shot at the 147-pound crown – fought LaMotta again, this time in February of 1943. And in the return fight, the bigger, physically stronger man-made Robinson pay for having moved into his weight class. LaMotta – who had to wait until 1949 to get a shot at the 160-pound championship – out-weighed the man who would become his most famous, his most challenging, his most intense ring rival, by a little over 15 pounds.
Once again, though, Sugar’s sweetness proved too much for the rugged and relentless LaMotta. For the first half of the fight. Ahead after seven, Robinson then saw his lead taken from him, beaten out of him, by a seemingly possessed LaMotta. Jake, stung by the first fight and the boxing lesson he’d been given for no extra charge, came on as strong as, well, a bull. It started in the eighth round, and LaMotta’s charge did not stop until the final bell rang. For Robinson, it was some achievement on his part in hearing it.
LaMotta drove Robinson through the ropes in the 8th, the bell saving the 40-0 contender, possibly from a knockout. LaMotta continued to pound on the sleeker, usually faster man. But by this stage, Robinson, battling fatigue as well as a man who had an all too genuine murderous look in his eyes, had lost a good deal of his mobility, along with his ability to fire out his sharp and jolting punches. Basically, Robinson survived the final two sessions. But LaMotta got the win by a much-deserved decision, and he was now 31-5-2. It would be eight long years before Robinson lost another fight.
LaMotta went on to win the world middleweight crown with a stoppage win over Marcel Cerdan in June of 1949. And LaMotta had previously beaten great fighters such as – Fritzie Zivic, Tommy Bell (who Sugar would defeat to take the welterweight crown), Holman Williams, and Bob Satterfield. But the win over Robinson ranks as the finest victory of LaMotta’s long and legendary career.
As fans know, the two polar opposites (not only in ring style and approach but also in terms of personality) went to war four more times, with Robinson winning them all to dominate the series 5-1. But that’s just on paper.
The truth is, aside from that first fight with LaMotta, Robinson never had anything other than a hellish time when he shared the ring with the bull from The Bronx.