When director Martin Scorsese released the biographical drama Raging Bull in 1980, it became the magnum opus of boxing films and despite being one of the most revered pictures in cinema history, Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull’s centrepiece, is still an enigmatic character to most.
Raging Bull, while not entirely accurate, gave viewers a fascinating insight into the self-destructive tendencies and rage that followed LaMotta throughout his career. Thanks to the film, viewers know more about the exploits of LaMotta out of the ring, rather than in it.
LaMotta isn’t one of the greatest middleweights of all-time but he was certainly one of the division’s toughest.
In the ring, LaMotta was best known for his six savage fights with, a man whom many consider to be the best to ever lace up a pair of gloves, Sugar Ray Robinson. LaMotta won just one of the encounters between the two, but he always brought the best out of Robinson, pushing the all-time great to his absolute limits on more than one occasion, often leaving a pristine, white canvas looking like the location of a brutal massacre.
After retirement, LaMotta would say: “I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times, it's a wonder I don't have diabetes.”
Turning professional in 1941, LaMotta quickly became a crowd favourite in the cigarette smoke-filled boxing halls littered throughout New York, thanks to his high-pressure fighting style. A little over a year since his debut, Jake had put together an impressive record of 25-4-2 and was scheduled to fight Robinson for the first time.
Making his debut at middleweight, Ray Robinson was dropped early on in the first round at Madison Square Gardens before going on to win a comfortable unanimous decision - his first title at 150lbs was a successful one, but LaMotta had given him cause for concern.
The rematch came just four months later, this time in Detroit, and Ray Robinson was given a huge wake up call in the eighth round, when LaMotta sprung a catastrophic right to Robinson’s head and a devastating left to his body, sending his dance partner flying through the ropes.
Robinson was saved by the bell at the count of nine, but LaMotta was relentless and battered the man from Georgia for the rest of the fight, cruising to a unanimous decision and giving Sugar the first loss of his career in the process.
Robinson had won all 30 of his fights before that night in the Motor City and would stay unbeaten for another 91 after it, such was the magnitude of LaMotta’s win.
As most boxing fans know though, Ray Robinson was one of, if not the best to ever do it, so LaMotta’s moment of glory wouldn’t last long. Three weeks to be exact.
On February 26, 1943, the two rivals met for the third time in just over four months and the second time in just 21 days - an astonishing timeframe when compared to the current era of boxing.
In another razor-thin encounter, Robinson was again put on the canvas by a dazzling LaMotta left but, again, it wouldn’t be enough as Robinson outworked LaMotta for the remainder of the bout, taking another close unanimous decision.
LaMotta fumed at the decision and claimed that it was only given to Robinson because he was going to be inducted into the Army the next day.
After three brutal wars in quick succession, it would take nearly two years for the two fighters to meet again and on a chilly February night in New York in 1945, the two warriors met yet again and Robinson came away with yet another unanimous decision in perhaps the least thrilling of their six-fight saga.
They would fight once more in 1945, in September at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, and the result is still a hot topic among fight fans to this day. This time the two combatants were separated by a split decision, which went in Robinson’s favour, resulting in the 14,755 people in attendance to angrily boo the result. LaMotta would have to wait six more years for the final showdown with his nemesis.
Disillusioned with being unable to secure a world title shot in an era where the Mafia effectively controlled boxing, LaMotta decided to get in on the action. He was told by the mob that if he wanted a shot at the middleweight crown, he would have to take a dive in his 1947 fight with Philadelphia’s Billy Fox, which he did in the fourth round.
The decision would come back to haunt LaMotta later in life and in 1961, he was forced to testify to a US Senate committee investigating Mafia involvement in boxing, saying he had lost deliberately.
Until then, the thrown fight and a payment of $20,000 to the Mafia got LaMotta his title bout against Marcel Cerdan in Detroit in 1949, which he won when Cerdan’s corner threw in the towel in the ninth. LaMotta was finally Middleweight Champion of the World.
The final fight with Ray Robinson happened in 1951 on Valentine’s Day in Chicago and would come to be known as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre, a play on the infamous gangland hit ordered by Chicago mobster Al Capone on the same day in 1929.
Portrayed beautifully by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, the sixth fight between these two has gone down in boxing lore.
Towards the end of the fight, LaMotta took a brutal and bloody beating at the hands of Sugar Ray and looked seemingly unable to throw anything back. He just stood there, bombarded by lightning quick jabs and uppercuts, simply refusing to go down.
The fight came to an end in the 13th round with LaMotta slumped on the ropes, clearly defeated but defiant that the great Sugar Ray Robinson had never dropped him despite them sharing 65 rounds in the ring with one another.
His violent temperament, mob connections and turbulent life outside of the ring meant LaMotta’s story was made for the silver screen but his wars with Sugar Ray are what define his career as a boxer and his name will live on in the sport’s history forever because of it.
He might not be as lauded as Ray Robinson is now, but LaMotta gave arguably the best boxer ever, the six hardest fights of a 199 fight career.
To quote LaMotta himself: "The three toughest fighters I ever fought were Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson.”
This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 10/07/19