TRIB­UTE TO A LEG­END

Nigel Collins pays trib­ute to leg­endary mid­dleweight king Jake Lamotta who passed away after a tur­bu­lent and con­tro­ver­sial ex­is­tence at the ripe old age of 95

Boxing News - - Contents -

Re­mem­ber­ing the life of the one and only “Rag­ing Bull”, Jake Lamotta

THERE’S a blurry video that’s been pop­ping up on the In­ter­net for months now, a bare-chested old man throw­ing slow-mo­tion punches in a dimly lit room. It looks like he’s in a dream and per­haps he was, maybe dream­ing of past glo­ries, maybe try­ing to find out if he’s still got it.

Jake Lamotta died on September 19 at the age of 95 and shadow boxes no more. He was one of the last re­main­ing links to an­other time, a time when Joe Louis was the heavyweight champ and ev­ery man wore a hat. The old scoundrel had out­lived them all and now he’s gone.

In his fight­ing prime Lamotta was an im­pos­ing pres­ence. He had a chunky physique, ac­cen­tu­ated by slabs of mus­cle plas­tered across his hairy chest and broad back. He wore a leop­ard­print robe into the ring and when the bell rang he went about his busi­ness with reck­less bel­liger­ence. No­body had an easy time with Lamotta, not even Sugar Ray Robin­son.

His life out­side the ring was as tur­bu­lent as his fight­ing style. The son of an abu­sive fa­ther, Lamotta grew up poor, street smart and wild. Trou­ble was in­evitable. He spent time in a re­for­ma­tory for youth­ful of­fend­ers but didn’t re­form.

Lamotta abused women, in­clud­ing his wives, and beat a man so se­verely dur­ing a rob­bery that he thought he’d killed him, an event that haunted him for years. Guilt was the cat­a­lyst of his in­tractable fight­ing style. Jake felt he did not de­serve to live.

That ver­sion of the “Bronx Bull” was just a mem­ory when he strolled into

The Ring mag­a­zine’s Man­hat­tan ed­i­to­rial of­fice one sum­mer day in 1985. He was wear­ing a striped polo shirt and a wry smile. Ex­cept for a re­ced­ing hair­line and a few ex­tra pounds around the mid­dle, he looked pretty much the same as dur­ing his fight­ing days. A lived-in face like Jake’s is some­thing you don’t for­get and his low rum­bling growl of a voice was in­stantly recog­nis­able.

Lamotta, who would cel­e­brate his 64th birth­day the fol­low­ing month, was in a good mood. He had just learned that he had fi­nally been voted into The

Ring’s Box­ing Hall of Fame, 44 years after his last fight. The for­mer mid­dleweight cham­pion and the first man to beat Robin­son had been de­nied the hon­our for so long be­cause he’d thrown his 1947 fight with mob-man­aged “Black­jack” Billy Fox.

It was hyp­o­crit­i­cal to black­ball Lamotta when other fight­ers who had been in­volved in fixed fights were al­ready en­shrined, in­clud­ing Ge­orge Dixon, Abe At­tell and Kid Mc­coy. It seemed that Lamotta’s real sin was ad­mit­ting his trans­gres­sion. He did so in 1960 be­fore a U.S. Se­nate sub­com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gat­ing or­gan­ised crime’s in­flu­ence on box­ing. One gets the feel­ing that box­ing’s es­tab­lish­ment would have pre­ferred he kept his mouth shut.

De­spite all the punches he’d taken in 106 pro­fes­sional bouts, Lamotta showed no ill ef­fects of his for­mer oc­cu­pa­tion. His an­swers dur­ing the wide-rang­ing in­ter­view that day were thought­ful, can­did and at times hu­mor­ous. He had been ek­ing out a liv­ing as a stand-up co­me­dian and couldn’t re­sist throw­ing in a lit­tle shtick when asked if he had any re­grets.

‘I’M VERY COM­PAT­I­BLE WITH MY PRESENT WIFE. AT NIGHT WHEN WE GO TO BED, WE BOTH GET HEADACHES AT THE SAME TIME’

‘I WAS UNCROWNED CHAM­PION FOR FIVE YEARS. NO­BODY WANTED TO GIVE ME A SHOT... BUT TIME WAS RUN­NING OUT’

“I would have never got­ten mar­ried,” he said, laugh­ing. “No. No. I got some­thing out of each mar­riage. Teresa, my present wife, we’re very com­pat­i­ble. Ev­ery night when we go to bed, we both get headaches at the same time.”

Get­ting mar­ried was one habit Lamotta never kicked. When he died due to com­pli­ca­tions from pneu­mo­nia, he was mar­ried to his seventh wife, Denise Baker.

Lamotta’s rise from poverty be­gan when he turned pro on March 3, 1941. By the time he fought Fox he’d al­ready beaten Fritzie Zivic, Tony Janiro, Tommy Bell, Hol­man Wil­liams, Lloyd Mar­shall, Bob Sat­ter­field, Jose Be­sora and Robin­son. Nev­er­the­less, his re­fusal to co­op­er­ate with or­gan­ised crime, which had a stran­gle­hold on much of box­ing at the time, was a prob­lem he couldn’t solve with a punch in the mouth.

“I was the uncrowned cham­pion for five years,” said Lamotta. “No­body wanted to give me a shot … but time was run­ning out. I was get­ting a lit­tle too old. I wasn’t as good as I used to be. I had to make a de­ci­sion. Ei­ther I lose the Fox fight or I don’t get a chance for the ti­tle. They of­fered me $100,000. I turned them down. I didn’t need the money. All I wanted was a chance to fight for the ti­tle.”

Even after Lamotta al­lowed Fox to stop him, it wasn’t un­til June 16, 1949 that he got the promised ti­tle fight against reign­ing cham­pion Mar­cel Cer­dan. The defin­ing mo­ment came in the first round when Lamotta, who was no­to­ri­ous for his un­com­pro­mis­ing fight­ing style, threw Cer­dan to the can­vas with what his­to­rian Bert Sugar called “as pretty a hip roll as ever seen in a wrestling bout.”

Cer­dan in­jured his left shoul­der when he fell, mak­ing him vir­tu­ally a one-handed fighter. The French­man strug­gled on un­til the end of the ninth round but didn’t an­swer the bell for the 10th. Lamotta had fi­nally fought his way to the top of the box­ing world, but he’d had to give the Mafia $20,000 to ce­ment the deal. The only money Jake made that night was what he won bet­ting on him­self.

There was sup­posed to be re­match, but Cer­dan died in a plane crash on to way to New York from his home in France.

Lamotta made two suc­cess­ful de­fences in 1950, win­ning a 15-round de­ci­sion over Ital­ian Tiberio Mitri and knock­ing out Lau­rent Dau­thuille in the wan­ing mo­ments of the 15th round. Be­hind on all three score­cards, Lamotta staged a fu­ri­ous last-gasp rally, knock­ing out the French chal­lenger at the 2-47 mark. It was quin­tes­sen­tial Lamotta and the Fight of the Year.

Lamotta’s joke about fight­ing Sugar Ray so many times he was sur­prised he wasn’t di­a­betic is a clas­sic, but there was noth­ing funny about their six-bout se­ries. Even though Jake only won the sec­ond fight, all six were hard fought and their fifth a split de­ci­sion. A sixth with the ti­tle on the line was a box-of­fice nat­u­ral.

Robin­son and Lamotta faced each other for the fi­nal time on Fe­bru­ary 14, 1951, in front of a packed house at Chicago Sta­dium. The champ went after Robin­son in his usual swarm­ing, rough­house man­ner, while Sugar Ray backpedaled and coun­tered. It was “guile ver­sus guts, head ver­sus heart and com­bi­na­tions ver­sus courage,” wrote Sugar.

Lamotta was in the fight for the first eight rounds, but Robin­son started to pull ahead in the ninth. From then un­til the bout was stopped in the 13th round, Lamotta took such a ter­ri­ble beat­ing that the fight be­came known as the St. Valen­tine’s Day Mas­sacre, named after the gang­land murder of seven men on the same date in 1929.

Jake was fa­mously still on his feet when the fight was stopped, help­less but still on his feet. It was a badge of hon­our for Lamotta but just an­other night’s work for his leg­endary chin.

Lamotta never fought for the ti­tle again. His coura­geous stand in the fi­nal Robin­son bout took ev­ery­thing out of him. He lost three of his next seven bouts and re­tired after Billy Kil­gore out­pointed him on April 14, 1954. As you might ex­pect ad­just­ing to life after box­ing was even tougher than fight­ing Robin­son.

“I was a lit­tle like Dr Jeck­yll and Mr Hyde. When I was in­volved in the box­ing busi­ness I was one char­ac­ter. When I went home to my kids I was a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter,” Lamotta said. “After my ca­reer was over, I still had two char­ac­ters and I had to get rid of one of them. I was frus­trated. Be­fore, I used to take it out on my op­po­nents. Then I started tak­ing it out on my wives.”

It was the be­gin­ning of a down­ward spi­ral that re­sulted in Lamotta serv­ing six months on a chain gang charge in 1958 after be­ing con­victed of in­tro­duc­ing men to an un­der­age girl in a Mi­ami night­club he owned.

There were many lean and un­happy years after he was re­leased. The bit parts in movies and pub­lic ap­pear­ances dried up. It got so bad that one Christ­mas Eve he wan­dered the streets of New York with just 35 cents in his pocket, ashamed to go home be­cause he couldn’t af­ford gifts or a tree.

Things took a pos­i­tive turn in 1970 when his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Rag­ing Bull:

My Story (ghosted by Joseph Carter and Peter Sav­age), was pub­lished by Pren­tice-hall. The hard-hit­ting, tell-all book was well re­ceived, and in 1980 was turned into a movie di­rected by Martin Scors­ese and star­ring Robert Deniro as Jake. The juicy role earned Deniro an Academy Award for Best Ac­tor.

The movie por­trayed Lamotta warts and all, em­pha­sis­ing his vol­canic tem­per out­side of the ring, in­clud­ing rough­ing up Vikkie Lamotta (por­trayed by Cathy Mo­ri­arty) who was his wife at the time he won the ti­tle.

“That was ex­ag­ger­ated,” said Lamotta. “I was a jeal­ous guy and I belted my wives a cou­ple of times, but if I re­ally belted them, they wouldn’t have been alive.”

The movie put Lamotta back in the spot­light. Sen­ti­ments about him, at least among box­ing fans, had clearly mel­lowed. When he was in­tro­duced at Madi­son Square Gar­den be­fore Marvin Ha­gler-mustafa Hamsho in Oc­to­ber 1984, Jake re­ceived a tremen­dous ova­tion.

“It made me feel good,” said Lamotta. “The rea­son for that is that the Amer­i­can peo­ple, and maybe the whole world, are for the un­der­dog. They fig­ured I was the un­der­dog.”

Shortly after the in­ter­view, The Ring held a lun­cheon in Man­hat­tan where Lamotta was of­fi­cially in­ducted. He wrote about it in the fi­nal chap­ter of his sec­ond book, Rag­ing Bull II (ghosted by Chris An­der­son and Sharon Mcge­hee).

“And now, 36 years after I won the ti­tle, I fi­nally get in­ducted into The Ring mag­a­zine’s Box­ing Hall of Fame... I guess it took a new, more for­giv­ing gen­er­a­tion to recog­nise my ac­com­plish­ments in the ring in spite of what I had to do to get my right­ful shot at the ti­tle.

“I stood out­side a small mid­town restau­rant hav­ing a smoke be­fore I went in­side to ac­cept my plaque. It wasn’t ex­actly the Hall of Fame room at Madi­son Square Gar­den, but it was good enough for me.”

The de­ci­sion to give Lamotta his due wasn’t uni­ver­sally pop­u­lar, but five years later he was among the in­au­gu­ral class of the newly opened In­ter­na­tional Box­ing Hall of Fame in Canas­tota.

For all the pain and mis­ery it can cause, box­ing is one place where even a man like Jake Lamotta can find a mea­sure of re­demp­tion.

WARRIOR: Lamotta’s last-ditch vic­tory over Dau­thuille [right] re­mains one of the great­est fi­nal-round vic­to­ries in box­ing his­tory

THINGS ARE LOOK­ING UP: Lamotta [be­low right] is toasted by [from l-r] Rocky Graziano, Billy Gra­ham and Car­los Or­tiz upon the 1980 re­lease of Rag­ing Bull, his book that would later be made into a fa­mous film of the same name

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