ESPN Classic Boxing On Demand is currently running a match my dad told me about for years. It is the 13 round “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the sixth bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. My dad was a big Sugar Ray fan. He had seen him box an exhibition bout in Trinidad the year I was born. He (a middleweight) boxed the heavyweight champion of Trinidad and Tobago. The 52-year-old Robinson boxed most of the match with his right hand held behind his back and never got his hair mussed. Many still consider Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound, the greatest boxer who ever lived.
He fought Jake LaMotta 6 times from 1940 to 1951. Their first five fights were ended by decision. Their last fight ended when Robinson TKO’d LaMotta in the 13th round. Robinson won their initial fight by decision, despite being knocked down by LaMotta in the 1st. LaMotta won the second, by decision, knocking Robinson out of the ring. It was Sugar Ray’s first defeat in the ring – ever. Robinson won the rematch three weeks later, despite being knocked down for a 9 count. They fought twice more before LaMotta, who was always 16 pounds heavier, moved up to middleweight, with Robinson winning both by unanimous decision.
When they met in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson was the welterweight champion of the world, and LaMotta the middleweight champion. As I watched the fight yesterday, 62 years later, I could see clearly why it loomed so large in my dad’s memory. It was as good as (or better than) Ali-Frazier III. It was the classic battle between the boxer and the puncher. Robinson was slightly ahead on points at the beginning of the 11th round when he let loose a vicious barrage of lightning fast left jabs, right hooks, and uppercuts. For nearly three rounds he pummeled LaMotta’s face until the middleweight champion was lying helpless against the ropes unable to lift his arms in defense. But he didn’t go down. Near the end of the 13th round the referee called the fight.
In Martin Scorcese’s biopic of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, LaMotta, dazed and barely conscious calls after Robinson – “You didn’t knock me down Ray! You didn’t knock me down.” LaMotta lost 5 of 6 fights to Robinson, the last by TKO, but Robinson never knocked him down. He held on to that.
There is something noble, even inspiring about standing even in defeat – in refusing to be knocked down. Robert Falcon Scott cuts a much more dashing, romantic, and admirable figure than Roald Amundsen. But Scott and his party died. Jake LaMotta was never the same after the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
We live in a world hostile to our faith. It has always been so, and will continue to be. In such a world it is easy to develop a bunker mentality, to hunker down, to feel defensive, to lie against the ropes and brace ourselves for a beating. When you feel this way you cede victory to your opponent.
But we are not called to this sort of resignation. We overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us (Romans 8.37). The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16.19). Our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 5.4). All this is because we are born of God (same verse). God in Christ has already crushed all enemies (Hebrews 10.11-13).
Jesus did not die on the cross, raise the third day, and then ascend into heaven so we could lose with dignity. We are, through Him, victors. Let us never cede defeat to the Devil. Let us never forget that Grace trumps him every time. He has no answer for it. He is a loser. Grace is always greater than sin (Romans 5.17-21). Ours is not to cling to the ropes and hope not to buckle at the knees. Ours is to fight and win. If our battle against Satan is compared to a fight for the middleweight championship of the world, we are Sugar Ray Robinson. We win. No matter how many times we get knocked down, grace makes it so.