A rivalry is not a rivalry after just one fight. Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta had faced each other for the very first time just four months prior at Madison Square Garden in New York and while both were world-rated and regarded as exceptional talents, it was the welterweight Robinson who impressed in their 1942 meeting. Jake won, at best, two rounds, as Sugar Ray used his speed and skills to take a one-sided decision win with relative ease.
But both fighters preferred to stay busy and their first match had done brisk business, so why not do it again? While Sugar Ray and “The Bronx Bull” were still years away from winning world titles, Robinson was already a high-profile contender, commanding big purses and big crowds, as the story was that he had not lost a match in some 125 consecutive battles, amateur and pro. This time Jake and Ray locked up in Detroit, Robinson’s hometown, and a big crowd sold out the old Olympia Stadium to see a second match between the incredibly tough middleweight grinder and the gifted welterweight with the lightning-quick hands.
Both men were in top shape, but Ray came in light at 144, giving up some sixteen pounds to LaMotta. Whether that weight advantage ultimately decided the outcome is anyone’s guess, but the bottom line is that, unlike their first meeting, Jake came on strong and dominated Ray during the latter rounds of the return.
After seven rounds it appeared Robinson had a commanding points lead and was on his way to another decision win. But then a desperate LaMotta dramatically came to life and began to railroad his man, applying relentless pressure and doing damage on the inside. No doubt those extra pounds came in handy for Jake as he bulled his way past Robinson’s reach and landed heavy shots both upstairs and down.
Starting in the eighth, it was all LaMotta and at the end of the round a right to the body followed by a vicious left hook to the head sent Sugar Ray through the ropes. He never did beat the count; the bell rang to save Robinson from what looked to some like an almost certain knockout loss. Sugar Ray then survived the last two rounds, but Jake remained in charge, battering his man and sealing a truly historic victory.
It would be another eight years before the great Sugar Ray Robinson lost another boxing match. Bad news for Jake who met Ray for a third time less than a month later, again at The Olympia. LaMotta managed to score another knockdown, putting Ray down for an eight count in round seven, but otherwise Robinson was sharp, keeping LaMotta on the end of his punches and nailing his man with stiff uppercuts on the inside.
Thus, one of the great rivalries in boxing history had begun in earnest. Three more hard-fought battles awaited, two of them extremely close, until the feud climaxed with the brutal struggle that was the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” — Robert Portis