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When Sugar Ray Robinson And Jake LaMotta Made History In Detroit

Originally published on Deadline Detroit.

Seventy years ago today, on February 5, 1943, boxing history was made at Detroit's Olympia Stadium as Jake LaMotta handed Detroit-native Sugar Ray Robinson his first defeat. Sugar Ray would get revenge three weeks later in yet another fight at Olympia.

“There's no question that [Robinson] was the greatest fighter who ever lived,” LaMotta, age 90, triumphantly recalled while speaking to Deadline Detroit from his Florida home. “He was undefeated in his first 100 fights. Then I beat him!”

He isn't telling tales when he praises his rival. Robinson is still considered the all-time greatest pound-for-pound fighter by virtually every boxing expert. LaMotta was also a great champion in his own right and became a cultural icon thanks to Martin Scorsese's classic film “Raging Bull.”

It seems unbelievable that two of boxing greatest legends would, in the prime of their careers, square off twice in the same month and in the same venue, but that's exactly what took place in Detroit in 1943.

“It would never happen today,” says Washington Post reporter Wil Haygood, author of “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.”

“It was one for the history books. Out of those fights, the birth of two legends: Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta.”

Boxing in the 1940s wasn’t the niche sport it is today. Fights were mainstream events on par with professional baseball or college football games.

“Boxing was much bigger than we have it today,” says former Ring Magazine editor Herb Goldman. “It was a mainstream, major league sport. Contenders were known by name, even people who weren’t sports-oriented would know a lot of contenders by name.”

And, while today's marquee fights are as much spectacle as sport, with months of hype and preparation, it was normal for even blue-chip boxers to fight two or three times in a month back then.

“A loss was not as devastating as it is today,” explains Goldman. “You know: You win this decision this time and I'll fight you back next month. This is the way it was. These were not events with months to lead up to in the public mind. It was business as usual.”

No Ordinary Fight Night

Business as usual or not, fans understood Olympia wasn’t hosting a garden-variety Friday night fight card. Robinson had defeated LaMotta in a unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden the previous October. But LaMotta knocked down Robinson in the first round of that bout, whetting boxing fans’ appetite for an historic rivalry that would ultimately span six fights over a nine-year period at the height of boxing’s prominence.

According to the next day’s Detroit Free Press, a record 18,930 fans packed the iconic “Old Red Barn” for the February 5th LaMotta-Robinson fight. The bout also commanded the attention of big-time gamblers.

“Oldtimers, who were regular fight patrons in the flourishing twenties, said they never saw the betting of last night equaled in Detroit,” wrote Free Press reporter Dale Stafford in the February 6 edition. “Robinson was a 2 to 1 favorite until a few hours before the fight, when a flood of Robinson money sent the price soaring.”

By the time the bell rang on February 5, 1943, Robinson was the 3 ¼ to 1 favorite. The fight went the full ten rounds and LaMotta won in a unanimous decision. Robinson controlled the bout early, but LaMotta dominated the latter part of the fight. In the eighth round, he literally knocked Robinson through the ropes.

“With Robinson sitting outside the ring, his legs across the bottom strand of ropes, Referee Sam Hennessey was about to raise his right hand for the count of 10 when the bell ended the round. The knockdown was the only one of the fight,” according to Free Press reporter Charles P. Ward’s account.

It was not only Robinson’s first professional loss, it was the first defeat of any kind in a career that had, at that point, already spanned 130 professional and amateur fights. In a pro career that lasted another 22 years and 160 more fights, Robinson would only suffer 18 more defeats. Thirteen of those would come after his second comeback in 1960 at the age of 39.

Incredibly, Robinson returned to the ring just 14 days after the loss to LaMotta, defeating “California” Jackie Wilson at Madison Square Garden. A week later, buoyed by the record gate for their previous fight, Olympia hosted a quickly-arranged LaMotta-Robinson rematch on February 26.

This time it was Robinson who took a ten-round unanimous decision. The next day, he enlisted in the army.

These fights were a homecoming for Robinson. He was born in Detroit as Walker Smith, Jr. in 1921 and he learned to fight at the Brewster Recreation Center.

“Joe Louis had trained at that recreation center and young Sugar Ray Robinson would go over to that recreation center...he would see Louis training,” explains Haygood. “His two sisters had a lot of friends [in Detroit]. They were very attractive ladies. They went back to the city with him for those fights so when he fought in Detroit it was like a family reunion. It was very important for him to fight in that city.”

But Detroit was also friendly turf for LaMotta. He fought here often and had a strong following, especially within the city’s Italian-American community.

“I was a hit in Detroit,” said LaMotta. “From then on, they were some of my best fans. I had so many fights in Detroit.”

An Evenly-Matched Culture Clash

It wasn’t simply that Robinson and LaMotta were two of the best middleweights of the era; their fights were also dramatic clashes in style.

LaMotta was the fierce brawler suggested by his “Bronx Bull” nickname and reform school background.

“His heart was that of a Thoroughbred trapped inside the body of a mule,” the late Bert Sugar said of LaMotta in his book “Boxing’s Greatest Fighters.” Sugar rated LaMotta as, pound-for-pound, the 27th greatest fighter in history.

In contrast, Robinson was a more graceful, agile fighter says Haygood: “Now Sugar Ray Robinson, in a very macho sport, was a tap dancer. Sugar Ray Robinson dared to be a tap dancer!”

Bert Sugar, who rated Robinson as the best fighter ever, called his style magic: “He was Hemingway's 'Grace under pressure.'”

Robinson’s iconoclastic technique would eventually influence boxing’s premier icon, Muhammad Ali.

“He hung out with [Ali],” Haygood says. “He wasn't very close to Ali but Ali came to Sugar Ray's nightclub. He visited him in Harlem. Ali modeled himself in the style of Robinson. He thought if there was any fighter on earth that I want to be like it wasn't Jack Johnson or Joe Louis or Ezzard Charles, it was Sugar Ray Robinson.”

While Robinson won five of their six bouts, Herb Goldman concedes decisions in two of those fights could’ve easily gone to LaMotta: “The Robinson-LaMotta rivalry was great because they fought competitive fights.”

That’s also how LaMotta remembers the rivalry.

“I had six fights with Sugar Ray Robinson,” he says. “You don’t fight so many times unless the fights are very, very close.”

A Rivalry Resumed

Robinson and LaMotta fought three more times following their Detroit showdowns. Robinson picked up a unanimous decision in their ten-round fight at Madison Square Garden in February 1945. He then took a split decision over LaMotta in a 12-round fight at Comiskey Park that September.

However, their sixth and final fight would be a kind of undoing for both men.

On February 14, 1951, at Chicago Stadium, Robinson pummeled LaMotta in a 13-round technical knockout dubbed the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

Robinson employed what may be considered an early version of Ali's rope-a-dope strategy. He allowed LaMotta to wear himself out in the fight's early rounds before taking over and punishing his rival. The referee called the fight in the 13th round as a battered and exhausted LaMotta seemed willing to die on his feet, taking Robinson's punches, rather than falling to the canvas.

“I had him down three different times on the canvas," LaMotta says about his fights with Robinson. “But he never had me down.”

Fight organizers with the International Boxing Club, including Jim Norris (the son of Red Wings' owner James Norris, Sr.), expected Robinson to “carry” LaMotta to a decision in the 1951 fight. Robinson, obviously, had other ideas and was made to pay for the TKO and his integrity.

“But while Robinson was the shellac for the rough exterior of the sport, boxing was being run by the IBC and a group of characters to whom legitimate business was only a matter of speech,” wrote Bert Sugar. “And when Robinson disobeyed their commands and failed to carry LaMotta in their sixth fight, as he had so many others…he was banished from the States, and had to ply his trade in Europe.”

Seven of Robinson’s next nine fights took place overseas. He fought no one from June 1952 through January 1955 before returning to the fight game. He entered the ring for his final fight, at age 44, in 1965.

Sugar Ray Robinson died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 67 in 1989. Boxing experts from Bert Sugar and Herb Goldman to Joe Louis and Jake LaMotta called Robinson the greatest pound-for-pound champion in history. He was finally inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 1991.

His life may finally make the big screen as a film version of Wil Haygood's Robinson biography, “Sweet Thunder,” is in development. David Oyelowo has signed on to play the boxing legend.

LaMotta, whose memoir “Raging Bull” was adapted into one of the greatest films of all time, retired from boxing in 1954. He helped all fighters extract some revenge against the mob influence over boxing when he testified about rigged fights before the Kefauver Committee in 1960. He's still active at age 90. In January, he married his seventh wife and divides his time between south Florida and New York City.


Jeff T. Wattrick