LaMotta was a raging bull in and out of ring
The boxer a product of the New York slums who learned his trade on street corners and in reform school, writes Matt Schudel
JAKE LaMotta, an iron-jawed boxer who brawled his way to the world middleweight championship in 1949 and whose tempestuous life was compellingly portrayed in an Oscarwinning performance by Robert De Niro in the film Raging Bull, died September 19 at a hospital near Miami.
He was 95, according to his family, although some records indicate he may have been a year older. A daughter, Christi LaMotta, announced his death in a Facebook post but did not provide additional details.
Even by the standards of boxing, LaMotta was a roughhewn specimen, a product of the New York slums who learned his brutal trade on street corners and in reform school. Brash and glib, ruggedly handsome and charismatic in a dark, dangerous way, he was one of the leading fighters of the 1940s and early
’50s, when boxing was among the nation’s most popular sports.
He wore a hooded leopard-print robe into the ring and fought with a stubborn, inelegant fury that led him to be called the Bronx Bull. He stalked forward in the ring, with “blows bouncing off him like ball bearings off a battleship”, as Associated Press sports writer Whitney Martin put it, absorbing punches and pain like few fighters before or since.
He was a burly, compact 5-foot-8 (1.76m) and fought in a low crouch, attacking his opponent’s body in a swarming, relentless style, launching blunt-force punches that seemed to rise from the canvas.
“To LaMotta, fighting was a personal statement,” author and historian Bert Sugar wrote in his 2006 book Boxing’s Greatest Fighters. “He fought with an anger that seemed as if it would spring forth from the top of his head like a volcanic eruption.”
Even when he lost, with his features bloodied and bruised, LaMotta retained a measure of pride by refusing to go down. The Ring magazine, the leading boxing periodical, said he had the “toughest chin” in the sport’s history.
“The truth of the matter?” LaMotta told the Chicago SunTimes in 1996. “The punches never hurt me. My nose was broken six times, my hands six times, a few fractured ribs. Fifty stitches over my eyes. But the only place I got hurt was out of the ring.”
For years, LaMotta refused to co-operate with the mobsters who controlled boxing when he was in his prime. Although he was a top-ranked contender, he was not granted a chance to fight for the championship until after he agreed to play along with the gangsters.
He deliberately lost a fight in 1947 – benefiting the gamblers who bet against him – and was suspended for several months because his lacklustre effort was so blatantly obvious.
Two years later, he got his title shot, defeating Marcel Cerdan, an Algerian-born French boxer. Cerdan injured his shoulder in the first round and gave up at the beginning of the 10th round, giving LaMotta the championship.
Later in 1949, while flying back to the US to face LaMotta in a rematch, Cerdan was killed in an air plane crash. LaMotta defended his middleweight crown against two other boxers – and had four other non-title fights – before entering the ring one last time against Sugar Ray Robinson, his long time rival.
Between 1942 and 1945, the two boxers had met five times.
After moving to the lightheavyweight division, he was knocked down in 1952 for the first and only time in his career. Two years later, he retired from boxing with a record of 83 wins, 19 losses, 4 draws.
After opening a nightclub in Miami Beach, LaMotta went to jail in 1957 for enabling the prostitution of a minor, when a 14-year-old girl was arrested in his bar. He served time on a chain gang and was placed in solitary confinement, where he broke his hands punching a wall.
In 1970, he and two co-writers published a memoir, Raging Bull, which describes his boxing career and casts a searching light into his soul.
He sent a copy of the book to De Niro, then a young actor, who eventually interested director Martin Scorsese in a movie project. Before filming began, De Niro spent a solid year training with LaMotta in the boxing ring, sparring more than 1 000 rounds with each other.
“I swear, without exaggeration,” LaMotta said in 2005, “when I got done with him he could have fought professionally. That’s how dedicated he was.”
In the film, De Niro mimicked LaMotta’s crouching style in the fight scenes and also captured the suspicion, anger and violence that LaMotta often directed toward his friends and family, particularly his wife at the time, Vikki.
LaMotta and Vikki saw the film together before it was released in 1980. “After the movie, I said, ‘Gee, they made me look bad’,” he recalled in 2001. “‘Was I that bad?’ And she said, ‘You were worse’.”
He was present at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles in 1981 when De Niro won an Academy Award as best actor. LaMotta then went on to a long second career as the “Aging Bull”, delivering oneliners, signing autographs and making appearances before far more people than ever attended his fights.
Giacobbe LaMotta was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. Boxing records indicate he was born July
10, 1921, but his family said he was born a year later.
At 15, LaMotta was sent to reform school for attempted burglary. He was relieved that he wasn’t arrested on more serious charges after he struck a bookmaker over the head with a lead pipe, took his money and left him for dead.
LaMotta soon took up boxing in earnest and had his first professional fight at 19. Seven years later, realising he could not get a chance at the title without working with mobsters, he agreed to “throw” a fight against a boxer named Billy Fox. The referee halted the bout when LaMotta didn’t attempt to block any punches, but his tactics were so obvious that his boxing licence was temporarily suspended.
Like many former boxers, LaMotta had trouble adjusting to life after the ring. He played a bartender in the 1961 Paul NewmanJackie Gleason movie about pool sharks, The Hustler, and held jobs as a garbage collector, strip-club bouncer and stand-up comedian. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
LaMotta was married six times, most memorably to his second wife, Beverly Hailer, who was better known as Vikki and was played by Cathy Moriarty in the film Raging Bull.
They were married in 1946, when Vikki was 16. At age 51, she appeared in a nude pictorial in Playboy, prompting a predictable joke from LaMotta: “She always complained she had nothing to wear. I never believed her until I saw her in Playboy.”
She died in 2005. Their two sons both died in 1998. LaMotta had five children with other wives. Survivors include his fiancée, Denise Baker, a former actress who had collaborated with him on a cabaret show. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available. – Washington Post
The only place I got hurt was out of the ring’
Jake LaMotta caption please