Forget even Ali/Frazier, or Zale/Graziano, or even Leonard/Duran. When it comes to the sport’s most intense and punishing rivalry, the six-fight series all-time greats Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta engaged in back in the 1940s and ’50s stands alone. It has to be said that both men, without a cliché or a clinch in sight, gave it their all in each of the six hard, hard fights.
Robinson had won fight-one, back in October of 1942, by ten-round decision, but he had to get up from a knockdown to get the victory. LaMotta gained revenge in the sequel, some four months later. Again knocking Robinson down – or through the ropes to be more exact – Jake this time poured it on in the remaining rounds and won a big ten-round decision of his own. Never before had Robinson been hit and hurt so much.
Astonishingly, considering the brutal nature of the fight, the third fight took place just three weeks later. Imagine anything even remotely close to this happening today. Not a chance. This time, Robinson’s skill and speed edged the encounter, although once again The Sugar Man hit the deck and was badly dazed by the ferocious strength and power of the fighter born Giacobbe LaMotta.
A fourth fight, yet another ten-rounder, was held in February of 1945, with Robinson winning via unanimous decision. By this time, the two great fighters knew each other well, perhaps too well, each man knowing the hard and dangerous fight the other would bring. “I fought Ray Robinson so many times, it’s a wonder I don’t have sugar diabetes,” LaMotta would say years and years later when safely ensconced in retirement.
The fifth encounter, a 12-rounder, took place that September and controversy ruled as “Robbie” scraped by with a debatable split verdict. Jake cried robbery and many fans agreed with him. Robinson later stated how this fifth fight was the toughest he had had with LaMotta. But an even tougher fight with his arch-rival awaited him.
Officially, Robinson was 4-1 over LaMotta at the time of their sixth and final match. This one, contesting the middleweight championship of the world, became legendary almost as soon as the dust had settled in The Chicago Stadium.
LaMotta, who was notorious for gaining huge amounts of weight between fights, was somewhat depleted by the effort of making the middleweight limit for this, the only world title fight between he and Sugar Ray. The earlier rounds saw LaMotta’s bullish strength have some success, but Robinson, though out-weighed by a considerable margin (officially 155.5-pounds to 160 for the defending champion) was much the faster, swifter, classier fighter; his greatness really taking over by the eighth-round. By this stage of the battle, LaMotta was taking a beating – so much so that the fight was given its famous tag-line. LaMotta, possessing one of the most scarily hard heads in all of boxing’s long history, refused to yield. He was on the verge of real exhaustion by the 12th-round, yet his inner demons forced him on.
The pounding he took in the 13th shocked even hardened boxing observers. The ring and its canvas now crimson, LaMotta had been reduced to immobile punching bag by Robinson’s relentless uppercuts and hooks upstairs combined with his wicked shots to the body. Robinson really did nail LaMotta with every punch in his educated arsenal. Eventually stuck on the ropes, his head being savagely slammed in all directions, LaMotta, barely conscious, somehow, had the later satisfaction of not going down.
Robinson, who had almost punched himself into exhaustion, could barely celebrate, but he had scored the ultimate win over his most testing rival. Now the middleweight king, Robinson was a true immortal. So too was LaMotta,
We must never forget the brutality, the brilliance, the bravery and the guys these two very, very special fighters gave us and their chosen sport.