On the morning of February 14th, 1929, the north side of Chicago became the scene of the ‘Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre’.
Seven members of the city’s North Side Gang were murdered by armed assailants disguised as local police officers; a bloody incident stemming from the ongoing street war and struggle to control organised crime during the Prohibition period.
George ‘Bugs’ Moran was the known kingpin of the Irish North Siders, while his Italian South Side Gang rivals were headed up by infamous gangster Al Capone.
No one was convicted for the deaths outside of a warehouse at Chicago’s Lincoln Park but members of Capone’s circle have always widely been held responsible.Twenty two years later to the day in Chicago, two boxers of distinctly contrasting styles and their own differing personal run-ins with the mafia, produced a fight of such ring brutality it was fittingly dubbed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
A Valentine’s Day like no other. The famous but now-demolished Chicago Stadium played host to the sixth and final instalment of one of boxing’s greatest ever rivalries, as the GOAT tamed ‘The Bull’ to close out their series decisively.
Between 1942 and 1951, Robinson and LaMotta engaged in an enthralling rivalry that elevated them to boxing immortality. It was the man now regarded as the greatest prize-fighter in history that prevailed in their opening stanza but later fell short for his maiden career defeat in their rematch - both within five months across 1942 and 1943.
Incredibly, it was only three weeks before Robinson gained redemption for that first loss at the hands of his newly-found adversary in a trilogy match-up; with the then uncrowned welterweight king even taking a warm-up fight in between.
Two more decision successes spanning seven months arrived in 1945 for Robinson but there would be a six-year wait for the final showdown between the two - the most ferocious of them all and the only clash to end inside the distance.During that time apart LaMotta established himself as the leading middleweight in the world. However, that didn’t matter in boxing during the 1940s unless there was a willingness to collaborate with the likes of Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo.
A proud LaMotta had initially refused the advances of such wise guys for years, a decision which prevented him from getting his hands on the championship. He eventually cracked and took a mob-orchestrated dive in 1947 against Billy Fox; subsequently being fined and banned for seven months. His long-desired reward arrived on his return, finally claiming the 160 pounds crown from Marcel Cerdan in 1949.
Robinson also had his own tangles with the mafia in this time, receiving offers he should not have been able to refuse from sharp-suited mobsters who controlled the sport. Opting to go alone in his pursuit of the title saw him endure a prolonged wait before finally winning it during his welterweight run.
On the eve of his final battle with ‘The Bull’, Robinson again rebuffed an offer from the boxing underworld; a personal meeting from a certain ‘Mr. Gray’, also known as Murder Inc. hitman Frankie Carbo. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” replied a bold, yet wary Robinson as he turned his back on the proposition.
There was a long history and strong connection between the fighters when the bell sounded at Chicago Stadium but no romance on Valentine's Day night.
The five prior meetings had served up an aggressive blend of tenacity and ring mastery; compelling the masses fortunate enough to witness these two warriors leave everything they had physically and mentally inside the blood-stained squared-circle.As a result, the crowd took their seats at ringside for the sixth encounter in 1951 as blood-thirsty as ever and hungry for further violence. Their appetite would be satisfied over a historic 13-round serving.
The template for the pair’s stylistic rivalry had been set in stone back in 1942. Robinson was the matador and LaMotta was the bull.
Although, if LaMotta’s relentless approach proved to be a nightmare for Robinson in their second meeting en route to his first defeat; it had faded to nothing more than a bad dream in this sixth bout.
Robinson tames ‘The Bronx Bull’
Reprising his role as the matador, Robinson mainly pummelled ‘The Bull’ while on the back foot and circling the Chicago ring; forcing LaMotta to track him down from his usual crouched stance.
“God gifted me with a big, hard head,” LaMotta often stated. He would need it on this night, as Robinson stung his face with razor-sharp jabs and short, thudding counter blows from the opening bell.
While Robinson was known for his elegance around the ring, dancing on his toes before pouncing at the right opportunity, LaMotta was a fighter who would happily take 10 shots to land one of his own.
By the 9th round LaMotta appeared weary - drowning under the constant waves of Robinson’s attacks and feeling the effects of a gruelling pre-fight weight cut. Given the one-sided carnage that had unfolded in the final round, yells of “stop him” could be heard from the crowd - whose earlier craving for action had been overfed by this point.
A definitive finish in the 13th round echoed the violent nature of the crime scene two decades prior in the same city. Two miles around the corner from where Al Capone’s men had fatally opened fire on Bugs Moran’s thugs, Robinson forced referee Frank Sikora to step in and halt another slaughter as LaMotta flailed helplessly against the ropes.
“You never got me down, Ray. You hear me, you never got me down,” the beaten LaMotta shouted towards his now five-time conqueror. This iconic moment was captured poignantly in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning movie ‘Raging Bull’; with Robert DeNiro depicting the defeated but defiant LaMotta.
‘The Bull’ had been tamed; his world middleweight title now in the possession of the greatest of all-time. One of the strongest and most ferocious middleweights in history had succumbed to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Header photo: AP Photo/Preston Stroup