Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no moreAlfred Tennyson, poet 1809-1892, The Princess (1847)
No hush fell within the domed ceiling of the Miami Coliseum, the crowd’s hub-bub continued. Neither interrupted nor escalated by the sight of one-time boxing superstar Jake LaMotta slumped to the canvas for the first time in his then 103-fight career. Referee Bill Regan, his once Welterweight frame thickened by twenty years of retirement, took up the count as LaMotta, 31 and fighting at a career high of 173 pounds, pawed for the bottom rope with his right hand.
Danny Nardico rushed to a corner, the adrenaline pumping through his body, the enormity of what he’d just done with a thunderous cross-cum-hook, the last of a flurry of clubbing shots, writ large before him. Whether he mouthed through his gum-shield; “stay-down” was never asked, all eyes were on LaMotta, the man who had once, if only once, beaten Sugar Ray Robinson, now desperately over-reaching for the second rope, his spatial awareness scrambled by fatigue and the weight of the shot that put him there.
Regan’s fingers splayed wide in front of the bruised fudge of his face, “FIVE, SIX!”. LaMotta’s right glove, short-cuffed and glistening like a ball of wet tar on a hot roof, found the rope. Regan whispered something unreported in LaMotta’s left ear between the metronome of his public voice; “SEVEN, EIGHT“. Nardico glanced to his corner for reassurance as his senses were assaulted. The laconic, darkened lids of trainer Bill Gore blinked back at him, no expression was offered. Gore’s experience with Willie Pep and Joe Brown, and a hundred other pugs, helping him resist the contagion of excitement that coursed through those at ringside.
He and Nardico turned back to Regan, the drape of his up-turned slacks swaying with the breeze of his exaggerated count; “N-I-I-I-NE!“. LaMotta, as he remained for every other moment of his professional career, and for a second life attempting to parabolise his first from behind a microphone, was vertical.
Nardico resumed. Doing what he always did, swinging hard and frequently, his tort, muscular frame appearing to grow as LaMotta aged and wilted before him and the 3,318 gathered at ringside. Experience and defiance kept the former Middleweight champion upright. As Nardico, younger, fresher, and bigger, poured on the pressure. LaMotta held on to the top rope for balance and anchor. The wisdom of a century of bouts compressed into a single and symbolic act.
Regan danced beside them whilst the twin sets, pearls and skewed ties looked on; jumping and cheering the local slugger, immersed in his search for the elusive, concussive blow. A blood-lust shared by lovers of boxing from the time of Sullivan to the present day; caught in the moment, in the barbarous, their empathy drowned in the hope and alcohol of a balmy New Year’s Eve.
Somehow, by instinct, by training, by shear bloody-mindedness LaMotta survived the onslaught. He trudged back to his corner, head stooped into the pain of the night and the head wind of a retirement yet to come. Surrounded by those who knew him best, some of whom cared, or perhaps at entirely his own behest, LaMotta remained on his stool. Regan hovered, dark rings of labour seeping beneath his arms, a Bryllcreemed widow’s peak resisting the glare of the bulbs above.
And then, the fight was over, sinking into the record books alongside LaMotta’s career as a contender. Nardico danced to the centre ring, the victor, his corner danced with him, their disbelief veiled by their shared euphoria. Gore remained outside the ropes, accounting for the accouterments of battle as those uncomfortable with spotlight often do. For Nardico, aged 27, ranked 5th in the world even before this win, a shot at Archie Moore for the Light-Heavyweight title was his prize.
Boxing, as LaMotta could attest more than most, isn’t the simplistic business it appears and Nardico never did get to fight Archie Moore, perhaps fortuitously given the wily champion’s knockout record, and he would, instead, lose to Joey Maxim the following March. The momentum he fleeting held that night was never regained and he retired just four years later with a record of 50-13-4. The last bout of which was little more than an exhibition against a debutant, two and half years after the last of his 13 losses in 1954.
LaMotta would wander, somewhat nomadically, from the blood soaked canvas to the neon and red-carpets of the entertainment world. His story is much told and all too often with the omission of the night he faced Danny Nardico on the outskirts of Miami on New Year’s Eve in 1952.
Nardico may never have toppled Archie Moore given a handful of chances but there is a sadness that the promised opportunity never materialised. One LaMotta would almost certainly have been extended had he found a way to fend off the former Marine and his own battle with age and inactivity, 66 years ago. It was an era of who you knew, not what you knew.
The sense of injustice grew in the retelling of LaMotta’s story. A narrative Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro built on. One of numerous motifs present within Jake’s life, not least, his pride in never having been dropped by Sugar Ray Robinson, or anyone else, in a career packed with blood, pain, violence and humour.
Despite his frustration, Nardico led a fulfilling life beyond boxing and would frequently relay that the horrors of World War II, in which he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star at the age of 18 for his “brave actions while serving as a squad leader in a Marine rifle platoon on Okinawa Shima, Ryukyu Islands on May 2, 1945” ensured everything else he would face in life, including Jake LaMotta, was a “cakewalk”.
NOTE: The inspiration for this exploration of this bout came from Nick Parkinson’s excellent book Boxing On This Day. At £9.99 it retells a notable boxing tale for every day of the calendar year, I’d recommend it as a superb companion for the boxing fan. Nick can also be found telling this particular story at ESPN.com