The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Jake was never in the same league as Robinson when it came to boxing but you would have been hard-pressed to find a tougher man…
It was February 14, 1929, on the North Side of Chicago when seven men from crime boss George “Bugs” Moran’s crew were gunned down by a group of men dressed as police officers. Nobody was ever convicted of the heinous crime, though the general consensus was that notorious gangster Al Capone was responsible. The bloody and brutal affair was dubbed “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
Exactly twenty-two years later, two men, two fighters of incomparable styles, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta—a man who had his own rumored mob connections—would engage in a fight of such brutality that it too would be labeled “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
There was little in the way of romance when Robinson and LaMotta inflicted their own savagery upon one another inside Chicago Stadium on that Valentine’s Day evening in 1951. The pair had shared the prize ring on numerous occasions prior to this bout but never had the venom the two men possessed been as evident as it was that night.
Boxing can be a brutal affair but look beyond the concussive blows, the cuts and the blood and you often see a resolve that few men possess, a strength of mind uncommon amongst those not cut out for the prize ring, and it’s these attributes that many fans of the sport have come to love and admire.
Jake LaMotta was a perfect example of a man with such a resolve. He wasn’t a flashy boxer, nor did he have the kind of knockout power that endears a fighter to the masses, it was his refusal to back down, his will to fight on when all was seemingly lost that made him the great he was.
LaMotta’s penchant for violence was as famed as his resolve and as much as his aggressive style in the ring was adored; his actions outside the ring were often ridiculed. One such writer described LaMotta’s lack of nobility when he wrote, “Jake falls several light years short as qualifying as one of nature’s nobleman,” but put a man in a boxing ring and watch him beat the odds and you will find many past transgressions instantly forgotten, as was the case with Jake.
Sugar Ray Robinson is commonly referred to as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time and it’s easy to see why. A mix of speed and power, strength and footwork, Robinson set a benchmark for greatness in a sport with a long and storied history but it was his battles with LaMotta that are often most remembered.
LaMotta often joked in his days after boxing, “I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times, it’s a wonder I don’t have diabetes,” but it wasn’t all one-way traffic for the enigmatic “Bronx Bull.”
Robinson won the first battle between the pair in October of 1942 before losing the first bout of his professional career in the rematch at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, Michigan on February 5th, 1943, in what was described by The New York Times as “a fistic upset unequalled in many years.”
Three more fights between 1943 and 1945 followed with Robinson winning two by unanimous decision and the third being a split decision victory for Ray, but many felt that LaMotta had done enough to gain the victory, none more so than the crowd of over 14,000 on hand. In the end though, referee Johnny Baer and one of the two judges saw enough to give Robinson the decision.
The sixth bout between the two men is perhaps the most memorable, thanks in part to the Hollywood blockbuster, “Raging Bull.” LaMotta’s refusal to go down in the closing stages of the fight has become an iconic film scene, a portrayal of the toughness needed to compete in the highest echelons of boxing. “Hey Ray, I never went down. You never got me down Ray,” says a bloodied and battered Robert De Niro, who played LaMotta in the classic film, but the fight itself was more than a display of grit from Jake, it was also showcased the kind of spectacular boxing you would expect from the man many now consider the greatest of all time, the man who was so sweet they called him “Sugar.”
The Ring magazine was on hand to witness the action on that fateful night in Chicago, a battle that was viciously waged for LaMotta’s middleweight title. The fight report appeared in the March 1951 edition of the magazine. Here’s some of what Ring magazine editor Nat Fleischer had to say on the bout in his column.
“Ray lived up to the expectations of those who had made him an odds-on-favorite to dethrone the Bronx Bull.
“The match had been hailed as promising the outstanding ring battle of recent years, and so it proved, to the thousands who crowded the Chicago Stadium and the millions who viewed it on television. The bout goes down in ring history as a truly great performance by a slugger and a scientific boxer.
“Jake’s bulldog rushes were in evidence for ten of the thirteen rounds, and during that period, though LaMotta was behind on points, in the press rows, he did considerable damage to Ray.
“In fact the officials thought so well of Jake’s work that they had him in the lead at that point.”
It was clear, however, around the tenth round that LaMotta had run out of gas, his blows became ineffective and Ray began his long awaited march toward the middleweight championship of the world.
For three rounds Robinson landed all manner of punches, bloodying his rival, landing power punches with ease and taking little in return. By the thirteenth round the bout had indeed become a massacre, LaMotta landed just five punches compared with an amazing 56 by Robinson. From ringside, Fleischer explained the finish to the bout.
“In the final round, so severe a shellacking did LaMotta receive that shouts of ‘stop it’ rent the air. The referee wasn’t guided by those voices. He took his cue from Dr. Houston, medical adviser to the commission, and halted the slaughter. Such it was in the last stages of the affair. It was a massacre of one of the sturdiest, hardest hitting middleweights the division has had.”
There was no love lost that night between LaMotta and Robinson, as history would show. The fight itself served as a crossroads of sorts for both men, Robinson would go on to solidify his place amongst the kings of the sport with his victory and it signified the beginning of an impressive middleweight reign. Robinson’s name would become forever synonymous with greatness, while LaMotta’s career would wind down to a close after losing his title.
Jake was never in the same league as Robinson when it came to boxing but you would have been hard-pressed to find a tougher man. “You never got me down, Ray,” is perhaps the lasting image of LaMotta’s imprint on the sport and “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” an everlasting ode to his toughness and Robinson’s sublime boxing skills.