Jake LaMotta, who died last month at the age of 95, wasn’t the best middleweight boxer of the late 1940s, though he did hold the world title in that division for two years.
His perennial opponent Sugar Ray Robinson — who eventually fought LaMotta six times — was the acknowledged boxing genius of the time and still features on many shortlists for best pound-for-pound fighter of all time.
Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale, in the same weight class, fought out a series of legendary bouts in the same era. Other divisions featured boxing immortals at the same time — Joe Louis, Ike Williams, Henry Armstrong, and Willie Pep were all active in the era.
LaMotta wasn’t a stylist in the ring either — his primary weapon was a freakish ability to absorb his opponent’s punches — and he admitted to taking a dive in one of his fights, supposedly to get a shot at the world title.
Away from the ring he was a criminal: A self-confessed rapist who beat several of his (six) wives, he spent time in a reformatory as a teenager and was convinced for many years he’d killed a man he’d beaten savagely in a robbery: Only when he met his victim years later — alive, though scarred — did he realise the truth.
Yet LaMotta is better known now than any of his legendary contemporaries such as Robinson or even the man he replaced as king of the middleweights, the great French stylist Marcel Cerdan.
The reason LaMotta had such a long post-career afterlife is the movie made out of his autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story.
The book was published in 1970 and 10 years later it became one of the great films of the decade, a study of male strength and weakness in atmospheric black and white, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro in the title role.
The critical success of the film, and the dark charisma of De Niro’s portrayal of LaMotta in particular, cast a retrospective glow over the boxer’s career. No longer a savage brawler given to beating up the women in his life, LaMotta was effectively rehabilitated by De Niro’s depiction. The actor’s Oscar-winning performance became a master class in having your cake and eating it: The inarticulate bully’s worst inclinations were shown, as were the steps — however faltering — to some notion of self-awareness.
In the years since, the fact De Niro put on 60 pounds to play the older LaMotta has certainly overshadowed the boxer’s real career.
Born in New York in 1922, from an early age LaMotta ran wild in the streets, eventually ending up in a reformatory. As a boxer his endurance and appetite for punishment served him well and led to his nickname, the Bronx Bull.
In the mob-controlled boxing world of the 40s, a fighter had to play ball to get his shot at the big-time, and LaMotta complied, throwing a bout with Billy Fox in 1947. Unfortunately, LaMotta was so blatant — standing still in the Madison Square Garden ring to allow Fox to hit him — that the authorities were forced to intervene, fining him and suspending him for seven months.
No matter: The $20,000 LaMotta reputedly paid to the mob for his title bout was well spent as far as he was concerned, and by 1949 he was middleweight champion of the world.
His opponent in the title bout, Cerdan, couldn’t come out for the 11th round. Word emerged later that Cerdan was injured — the Frenchman certainly looked hampered by a damaged shoulder — but LaMotta was unsympathetic, saying: “Something’s bound to happen to you in a tough fight, cut eye, broken nose or broken hand or something like that.
“So you could make excuses out of anything, you know, but you got to keep on going if you’re a champ or you’re a contender.”
LaMotta was supposed to fight Cerdan in the rematch but the Frenchman’s plane went down in the Azores and he was killed: He’d been flying to New York to see his lover, the great singer Edith Piaf, perform in concert.
Within two years LaMotta had lost his title anyway, to Sugar Ray Robinson, on February 14 1951: Inevitably it became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, with Robinson hammering LaMotta.
The two boxers had a history going back to 1942, when Robinson had been far too classy for LaMotta even then (the “willing and rugged workman” being “completely outclassed” by a “skinny negro swatter,” according to the AP report).
Two years later, though, LaMotta handed Robinson his first defeat in the ring — knocking him through the ropes at one stage, though Robinson struggled back in to beat the count — and it was an achievement sufficient to earn LaMotta the Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year.
Robinson beat LaMotta just two weeks later, and also won the pair’s next two fights, both in 1945.
The two met again in 1951: No wonder LaMotta would never grow tired of saying he’d met the Sugar man so often it was surprising he didn’t have diabetes.
The one-liner disguised a harsh reality of life for LaMotta in his fights with Robinson. Making weight was always a struggle for LaMotta.
Getting to 160 pounds wasn’t an issue for someone whose everyday weight was in that neighbourhood, like Robinson, but LaMotta was far heavier: By the time he came to fight Robinson for the last time he was trying to get down from almost 190 pounds, and the struggle was severe for him.
When he retired he estimated he’d lost 4,000 pounds in total ‘reducing’ for fights throughout his career and could remember days spent in a steam bath to try to shed one more stubborn ounce, when his only sustenance for a day might be licking an ice cube.
Robinson’s speed and style was augmented by some other considerable advantages, such as the fact he was three inches taller than LaMotta and also had a reach five inches longer than the Italian-American.
Robinson was also able to psych out his opponent. Before one of their later bouts LaMotta — delirious with hunger from starving to make weight — was horrified to see Robinson shake some salt and pepper into a tall glass of cold bull’s blood, his habitual pre-fight cocktail (“I knew I had him then,” said Robinson later).
LaMotta retired in 1954 and drifted into an unsurprisingly shady afterlife. He owned a nightspot in Miami for a while but served six months on a chain gang for introducing men to underage girls there; two years later he testified before a US Senate sub-committee about corruption in boxing, admitting he had thrown fights.
Throughout the 60s he popped up in the occasional movie — such as The Hustler with Paul Newman (who had played Rocky Graziano in a 50s biopic) — and featured in the odd TV commercial.
By the 70s he was the host of a topless joint in New York — and then Raging Bull appeared in the cinemas.
LaMotta surfed his new notoriety on the autograph and personal-appearance circuit in the States, and published more books of reminiscence.
In 1998 LaMotta, who had four daughters, lost both his sons: Jake Jr, 51, to cancer in February and Joe, 49, in a plane crash in September.
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