By Jim Galiano –
If ever the word “throwback” applied to a fighter, it was Jake LaMotta. Even in his prime, the Bronx Bull was a throwback to the days when bare knuckled brawlers trading punches on barge and boxing was outlawed throughout the land.
How good was LaMotta? At his best, he handed a prime Sugar Ray Robinson his first defeat in 132 fights (including amateur and professional bouts). How good was Robinson? Most historians place him as the best pound for pound fighter in the history of the sport. Go ahead and do the math. On the right night, LaMotta could have bulled and gored the best of the best.
When asking one of my historian friends to describe LaMotta, he simply stated, “A balls-out slugger.”
Jake LaMotta was born on July 10, 1922 in the Bronx, New York. To say that boxing was his way out of a life of crime would be semi-accurate. At the age of 17, he clubbed a local bookie (Harry Gordon) over the head with a pipe and stole his wallet. The wallet as it turned out was empty. The next day, the newspaper reported Gordon was dead. This event haunted Jake for years. It wasn’t until Gordon himself turned up at LaMotta’s victory party over Marcel Cerdan (a decade later in 1949) that the truth came out. Gordon, as it turned out, remained in the hospital for six weeks. The newspaper report was a misprint. Afterwards, he decided the Bronx was too dangerous to continue living in and he moved to Florida.
“I took unnecessary punishment when I was fighting. Subconsciously, I didn’t know it then, I fought like I didn’t deserve to live.” (Jake LaMotta)
If LaMotta fought like he didn’t deserve to live, he also fought like his opponents didn’t deserve leaving the ring until they resembled accident victims. With his fireplug offense and one of the best chins of all time, LaMotta became a force in the Middleweight division. LaMotta’s pre-prime years (from 1940 to 1942) resulted in a compiled record of 25-4-2 – although a few of these loses were highly disputed.
Putting that into today’s perspective, thirty-two fights in less than two years is completely unheard of.
LaMotta wasn’t a big puncher. Most of his stoppages came by way of accumulated punches and damage. He did punch hard enough to put some great fighters, including Ray Robinson, on the canvas more than once in their series of bouts.
Jake LaMotta faced the great Sugar Ray Robinson for the first time on October 2, 1942. Robinson was 35-0 at the time as a professional. Jake sent Robinson to the canvas in the first round, but Robinson beat the count and went on to take a 10 round decision.
Their second meeting took place of February 5, 1943 – four months after their first fight. Having knocked down Robinson in their first meeting, just under 19,000 fans swarmed the arena to watch the rematch. What adjustments would the fighters make in their second meeting? Dale Stafford of the Detroit Free Press wrote the next day, “Old-timers, who were regular fight patrons in the flourishing twenties, said they never saw the betting of last night equaled in Detroit.”
By the time the opening bell sounded, Robinson was a 3 ¼ to 1 favorite.
“In a previous meeting, Robinson copped a 10-round decision from LaMotta. Robinson won that fight by steering clear of LaMotta’s hard punches and sticking strictly to clever boxing. Friday night, however, he tried to slug it out with the bundle of dynamite from the Bronx and consequently had one of the most sensational winning streaks in the history of boxing rudely interrupted.” (The International News Service)
Although Robinson did well in the early rounds, LaMotta came on strong and turned the fight around.
“A right to the body and a left to the head knocked Robinson through the ropes in the eighth round. Robinson lay sprawling outside the ring from a hard right to the body and a left to the head and the count was nine when the bell rang, saving the negro lad from a knockout.” (The International News Service)
Amazingly enough, the two fighters would meet again for the third time only twenty days later. This time, it was Robinson who came away with a unanimous 10-round decision. Robinson was floored in the seventh round for an eight-count. Robinson later said, “He really hurt me with a left in the seventh round. I was a little dazed and decided to stay on the deck.”
“Sugar Ray’s strategy was superb. From the opening bell he kept jabbing his famed lightning left into Jacob’s face. When LaMotta rushed in to open a body attack, Sugar Ray stepped back and greeted him with a blistering right uppercut. This gave him a wide early lead.” (The Associated Press)
Their fourth meeting took place on February 23, 1945 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Robinson took a ten-round decision.
“Except for the sixth round, when LaMotta backed him into a corner and rocked him with lefts and rights to the head, Robinson jabbed Jake at will as well as landing counter uppercuts.” (The Associated Press)
LaMotta and Robinson met again for the 5th time on September 26, 1945 at the famous Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois.
The International News Service reported: “LaMotta had counted on the 12-round route as his chance for victory, as he had closed strongly in his four previous bouts with Robinson. But the Negro welterweight proved he could go more than 10 rounds at top speed. Robinson piled up an early lead with his superior boxing and sharper punching, and then paced himself cleverly through the rest of the fight.”
The Associated Press reported: “The crowd of 14,755 booed the decision, presumably because Robinson elected to fight cautiously in the last three rounds and back-pedalled most of the way in the closing sessions.”
The decision was criticized by several newspapers and boxing publications. After the fight, Sugar Ray Robinson said, “This was the toughest fight I’ve ever had with LaMotta.”
After being froze out of the title fight picture throughout his career, Jake LaMotta finally got a shot at the title in 1949. He would admit in later years that throwing a fight against mob controlled fighter Billy Fox in 1947 (along with a payment of $20,000) was part of the deal he made in order to secure his shot.
He finally got his long awaited title shot on June 6, 1949 against another all-time great fighter, Marcel Cerdan. The fight was one of the most anticipated fights the decade. The fight took place at Briggs Stadium in Detroit before a crowd of 22,183 fans. Unfortunately, Cerdan tore a shoulder muscle in the first round after throwing a left hook. Some say the shoulder muscle was torn when LaMotta knocked/shoved him to the canvas near the end of the round. Either way, Cerdan retired in his corner before the start of the 10th round and Jake LaMotta was the new middleweight champion of the world. Afterwards, it was also discovered that LaMotta had injured a knuckle on his left hand early in the fight. All these things combined left boxing fans clamoring for a rematch.
As fate would have it, the rematch never happened. Cerdan was killed on October 27, 1949 while flying back to the United States to train for the rematch.
Two title defenses would follow, including an incredible, come-from-behind, 15th round knockout victory over Laurent Dauthuille. Only 13-seconds remained on the clock as Dauthuille was counted out. It should be noted that Dauthuille defeated LaMotta a year earlier in a 10-rounder by unanimous decision. In retrospect, it could be that Dauthuille had LaMotta’s number the same way Ken Norton seemed to have Muhammad Ali’s. With certain matchups, it all comes down to down to styles and Dauthille’s was a bad one for LaMotta.
Jake LaMotta went on to lose his title to archrival Ray Robinson by 13th round TKO on February 14, 1951 in a fight that came to be known as “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” LaMotta, past his prime and not properly conditioned, took a pounding at the hands of Robinson but refused to go down. Ringsiders described LaMotta’s ability to absorb punishment as “inhuman.”
On December 31, 1952, Jake (now fighting as a light heavyweight) finally hit the canvas for the first and only time in his career – compliments of a big right hand to the temple from power-punching Danny Nardico. He retired in his corner before the start of the next round.
He continued fighting until 1954. In hindsight, it seems that he no longer had his heart in the sport after Cerdan was killed before their rematch. Looking at Jake LaMotta’s career from a boxing historian’s point of view, LaMotta could have probably defeated any Middleweight in the history of the sport at his very best. Had there been a Super Middleweight division in the 1940’s, it’s quite probable that he would have held that title as well.
How LaMotta was able to absorb the type of punishment he did without suffering serious side effects in his senior years is anyone’s guess. Good genetics? The Hand of God? Either way you look at it, he stands out as one in a million.
One of the things that made LaMotta and his contemporaries of the 1940’s so special is the fact that the great fighters of the era all fought one another. Many times, they each other multiple times! The idea of the best avoiding each other or holding out for a big payday was unheard of in that era. It is little wonder the 1940’s are considered to be the true “Golden Era” of boxing.