Monday, February 14, 2011

This Day in Black Sports History: February 14, 1951

It goes without saying that Valentine’s Day is an annual commemoration, celebrating love and affection between intimate companions.

However, sixty years ago, love and affection would be the last words used to characterize how Sugar Ray Robinson treated Jake LaMotta in the Chicago Stadium on Feb. 14, 1951.

After going professional in 1940, Robinson campaigned as a welterweight. However, he moved up to the middleweight division due an increasing difficulty with making the 147 lb. welterweight limit.

Prior to making his mark in a new weight class, Robinson had already established himself as the greatest welterweight to ever lace up a pair of boxing gloves, losing only once in 123 professional fights.

Coincidentally, LaMotta, nicknamed “The Bronx Bull” and “The Raging Bull”, was the one man responsible for the lone blemish on Robinson’s otherwise spotless record as they prepared to do battle for the sixth and final time.

Within a three-year span, LaMotta and Robinson became heated rivals, fighting five times between 1942 and 1945. Robinson won four of those contests via decision. LaMotta’s only victory in the series was an unanimous ten-round decision in their second fight at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium in 1943.

The much heavier LaMotta charged Robinson at every opportunity with bull-like rushes. Robinson tried to outbox his shorter opponent but had difficulty keeping him at bay.

LaMotta knocked Robinson through the ropes in the eighth round with a right to the head and a left to the body. The incident was the first knockdown of Robinson's career, and only the bell saved Robinson from suffering the first knockout of his legendary career as well.

Three weeks later, LaMotta would knock down Robinson again in their third fight, but would end up on the short end of a highly disputed unanimous decision.

Following two more bouts in 1945, both decision victories for Robinson, the two gladiators went their separate ways until fistic karma brought them back together again.

During the course of the next five years, Robinson won the welterweight title in 1946, defending the crown until he ran out of challengers, and by 1949 began his ascent up the ranks for a shot at the undisputed middleweight championship.

Meanwhile, LaMotta cleaned out the middleweight division, and finally captured the title in 1949 with a 10th round knockout of Frenchman Marcel Cerdan.

By the end of 1950, Robinson (still the welterweight champion) was the number one contender for LaMotta’s crown.

So in front of 15,000 fans at the Chicago Stadium, and millions watching on free network television, LaMotta and Robinson met for the first time with a title on the line.

Although both fighters were past their prime, Robinson was still able to conjure up flashes of his brilliant past while LaMotta exhibited the determination, heart, and grit that made him such a crowd favorite.

Nevertheless, the wear and tear from LaMotta’s previous ring wars was evident as he appeared to grow tired by the sixth round of a 15-round bout.

Throughout the fight, Robinson, nicknamed “The Harlem Dandy”, punished LaMotta with sharp jabs and damaging counterpunches, playing the matador to LaMotta’s “Raging Bull”.

Unlike their previous encounters, LaMotta seemed content to head hunt rather than invest in the punishing body work that had become his trademark. In addition, LaMotta was a step slower and his work rate was significantly lower than it had been in the past.

In spite of this, LaMotta would remain competitive for ten grueling rounds, even bloodying Robinson’s nose and mouth with a thunderous left hook to the jaw in the sixth. However, his struggle to make the 160-pound weight limit had left him completely exhausted.

In a last ditch effort, LaMotta summoned whatever reserves he had left and went for a knockout in the eleventh round, pinning Robinson against the ropes and throwing punches from all possible angles.

But when Robinson survived the onslaught, LaMotta found himself in more serious trouble by the end of the round as Robinson began to bludgeon him with vicious combinations to the head and the body.

For next round and a half, Robinson would butcher a virtually defenseless LaMotta, unleashing a plethora of uppercuts, right cuts, and left hooks, with only LaMotta’s immense will keeping him on his feet.

Mercifully, the fight would be stopped at 2:04 of the 13th round as LaMotta lay helpless against the ropes, his first legitimate knockout loss in 95 professional fights.

Dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the bout would go down as one of the most memorable fights in Robinson’s Hall of Fame career, in which he became the first boxer to win a divisional world championship five times.

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