Monday, February 16, 2004

It was known in fistic circles as the second St. Valentine’s Day massacre and it seemed to many almost as violent as the first in 1929, when Al Capone’s gangsters gunned down seven of Bugs Moran’s boys in a Chicago garage.

This one took place in the same city but at a much more public venue. On Feb.14, 1951, Sugar Ray Robinson stopped Jake LaMotta in the 13th round at Chicago Stadium to capture LaMotta’s middleweight championship before a TV audience estimated at 60million, largest ever to see a sports event.

LaMotta, a k a “the Bronx Bull,” earned his nickname by never being knocked off his feet. Robinson couldn’t put him down either, but the savagery of his attack was such that many spectators at ringside and in their living rooms never forgot it.

Half a century later, many boxing fans assuming there still are many boxing fans might not realize how good Sugar Ray Robinson (born Walker Smith Jr.) was. This is how good: Most veteran observers consider him the greatest fighter (the usual caveat is “pound for pound”) of the 20th century. He could slug, box and dance with any rival, and testimonials to his skills abound.

Famed columnist Red Smith, usually a master of understatement, described Robinson as “a brooding genius, a darkly dedicated soul who walks in lonely majesty, a prophet without honor whom nobody, but nobody, understands.”

Muhammad Ali, surely the flashiest and perhaps the best heavyweight ever, called Robinson “the king, the master, my idol.” And before taking Robinson’s nickname for his own, Ray Leonard of Palmer Park called and asked permission.

None of this mattered to Jake LaMotta, a rugged journeyman whose fine career was tainted by reputed associations with gamblers and hoods. Nine years earlier, he handed Robinson his first defeat in 121 amateur and professional bouts. Sugar Ray had won their four other meetings, the last in 1946, so the two were old antagonists who respected each other as pros in the finest sense of the word. But now welterweight champion Robinson was attempting to take away LaMotta’s middleweight crown as the boxing world waited with breath bated. Never before had the two met with a title at stake.

LaMotta, increasingly chunky at 29, trained hard to make the 160-pound middleweight limit and did so, right on the nose, the morning of the fight. Robinson weighed 155, his heaviest ever, and people wondered if it would reduce his flashiness in the ring.

Before the bell and after the customary parade of champions and wannabes had been introduced, they played the national anthem and observed a moment of silence for American troops in Korea. Then the battle was joined.

The first eight rounds, with Robinson dancing and LaMotta plodding, appeared brutally even. But in the ninth, Ray appeared to get a second wind. Suddenly, he was smashing LaMotta repeatedly with both hands. Jake stopped moving and covered up, his face a bloody mess.

Through the 10th, 11th and 12th rounds, the carnage continued as onlookers howled for referee Frank Sikora to stop it. LaMotta was glassy of eye and wobbly of foot, but he wouldn’t go down to do so apparently would violate some personal code of honor. There was a gash under an eye, and his right cheek was split open. Still he weaved, bobbed and ducked to whatever extent he could and remained on his feet.

In the 13th round, there was more of the same. Even Robinson halted his punches long enough to look at the ref, silently imploring him to stop it. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, Sikora did fortunately not too late to preserve LaMotta’s life and mind.

Robinson was exhausted from throwing so many punches, but LaMotta incredibly had the strength and will to walk over to Ray’s corner and congratulate him. Robinson, too, showed marks from the fierce battle, his eye swollen, his lip split and his customarily smooth pompadour mussed. Compared to LaMotta, however, he was practically fresh.

In the dressing room, Robinson dipped his hand into a bucket of ice water and grimaced. “I kept swinging, and he kept standing I didn’t think I could ever knock him out,” he said, shaking his head. “They tell me that since I am the middleweight champion, I can’t be the welterweight champion anymore but I am anyway.”

In the other dressing room, LaMotta inhaled oxygen as his blonde wife, Vicki, cried softly. “I never saw him like this,” she said. “In the 11th and 12th, I just covered my face I didn’t want to see it. I’m glad they stopped it.”

Jake could speak, but only in a whisper. “I ran out of gas from the 10th on didn’t pace myself ,” he said. “And I got under 160 pounds too fast, left me weak. I got tired, that’s all.”

In Jake LaMotta’s eyes, you see, he wasn’t beaten by a better man. He just “got tired.”

Three years later, LaMotta retired from boxing at 32 with a record of 83-19-4. In 1980, he was portrayed by Robert De Niro in the brutal and superb film “Raging Bull.” A decade after that, Ring Magazine honored him for having boxing’s best chin over a 75-year span surely a dubious distinction. Meanwhile, Vicki kept the LaMotta name in the public eye by posing nude for Playboy in her 50s, after she and Jake were divorced.

Robinson kept fighting long after he should have retired, winning and losing the middleweight title multiple times before retiring for good in 1965 at 45, after several false starts, with a lifetime record of 174-19-6 (15 of the defeats came after his 35th birthday). A few months after the LaMotta fight, the high-living boxer was outpointed in England by a nobody named Randy Turpin, ending a streak of 91 victories. Of course, he regained the title two months later and waged a classic series of 1950s bouts against people like Bobo Olson, Carmen Basilio and Gene Fullmer.

Just as flashy out of the ring as in, Robinson used to drive around Harlem in a pink Cadillac with priceless gems glittering on his fingers and women hanging on his arm. But his later years were a disaster. Like another great champion of his era, Joe Louis, he was hounded by the IRS for payment of back taxes and never caught up. Ray was only 68 when he died in April 1989, a victim of Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

Perhaps the final word on Ray Robinson should come from his namesake: “Someone once said there was a comparison between Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson. Believe me, there was no comparison.”

Probably Jake LaMotta would agree.

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