Jake LaMotta, Sugar Ray Robinson, and PEDs

The highly anticipated May 5 rematch between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin is in jeopardy because Alvarez tested positive for Clenbuterol on two occasions in February. The Nevada State Athletic Commission will rule on April 10 whether or not the fight can proceed.

Steroids first became a significant factor in sports in the 1970s. The use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in boxing is now all too common. Many of today’s elite fighters have bodies and performance metrics that raise eyebrows.

When did it begin?

Performance enhancing drugs played a role in one of the most storied middleweight championship fights of all time.

On February 14, 1951, thirty million people — one-fifth the population of the United States — watched on television as Sugar Ray Robinson challenged Jake LaMotta for the middleweight championship of the world. Robinson was a 17-to-5 betting favorite, in part because he had won four of their five previous encounters (contested between October 1942 and September 1945) and in part because he was a fighter on the rise while LaMotta was on the way down. Eight years had passed since Jake knocked Sugar Ray through the ropes en route to the only loss in the first eleven years of Robinson’s ring career.

Robinson won the world welterweight championship in 1946 and successfully defended his title five times. Then he began looking for higher mountains to climb. Fighting LaMotta, the reigning middleweight champion, was the obvious move. It was a fight everyone wanted.

For the first eight rounds of the fight that would be enshrined in boxing lore as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Robinson dazzled the crowd with his speed and footwork. And for eight rounds, LaMotta trudged forward, forcing the fight, battling from a low coiled crouch as the bull and the matador fought on even terms.

In round nine, the fight changed. LaMotta had nothing left and Robinson was still strong. Over the next four rounds, Jake was battered as brutally as any man has ever been battered in a boxing ring. In the thirteenth stanza, with LaMotta draped helplessly against the ropes, referee Frank Sikora stopped the carnage.

What does this have to do with performance enhancing drugs?

Years ago, I collaborated with Vikki LaMotta on her autobiography (published in North America as Knockout and in the United Kingdom as The Vikki LaMotta Story). The following excerpt, told in Vikki’s voice, is from that book.

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The bout was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1951. On January 1, when Jake went into final training, he weighed 177 pounds. That meant, in addition to normal pre-fight preparation, he had to lose seventeen pounds in six weeks or forfeit his title on the scales. It was a difficult task under the best of circumstances. And for Jake, there was an added problem. After he won the championship, he’d been approached by a doctor who’d told him, “I have an injection from Italy made from the pollinas of a bull. You know how strong you are now? If you take these injections, you’ll be fifty times stronger.”

Jake heard this – the pollinas of a bull, stronger than I am now – and right away, he was taking the shots. One time, he overdosed. His face turned blue. His feet were like ice. But he wouldn’t terminate the injections. And of course, what he was putting into his body was a precursor of today’s steroids.

Throughout his career, Jake had always had difficulty making weight. Once he started taking the injections, the problem grew worse. At one point, I read a newspaper article which said there were new substances called synthetic hormones that might cause cancer. I was worried and went to another doctor for information. The doctor told me that these hormones were new. No one was sure exactly what they did but one thing was certain. They caused a person to gain weight and become bloated with water.

Jake wouldn’t listen. I went home and told him what I’d learned, how the hormones were blowing him up with excess water.

“What do you know about boxing?” he demanded. “I’m the champ. You mind your own business. I’ll take care of the fighting.”

A month before the Robinson fight, Jake managed to get his weight down to 168 pounds; eight pounds over the middleweight limit. Then he went on a four-day fast but couldn’t get below 164. For the next four weeks, he limited himself to 1,500 calories a day and trained on Benzedrine to make up for the strength he lost from not eating. He all but killed himself trying to make weight. Sometimes, he’d buy a huge piece of steak, boil it for hours, and drink the water as beef soup. Relatively little was known about nutrition in those days. But even then, it was obvious that cooking beef that way took the nourishment out of it. “I’m the champ. What do you know about nutrition? Keep your mouth shut.”

The evening before the fight, Jake weighed 164-1/2 pounds. He spent the night in a steam room before weighing in at 160. There was no way he could win. How could a man fight after barely eating solid food for four weeks? He belonged in a hospital.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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