In a sport full of madmen, former middleweight champ Jake LaMotta holds pride of place. Fights fans love him because he was tougher than tough. Wiseguys hate him because he was a stool pigeon. Culture vultures are consumed with Jake because Martin Scorsese made a movie of his life.
“My life story is now on film,” LaMotta said in an interview several years ago. “The movie is called Raging Bull and I am played by superstar Robert DeNiro. I told the producer I’d like to play myself, but he said, ‘Jake, you’re not the type.’”
Not every prizefighter gets to watch the movie of his life. He has to be very special, or very wild and crazy, and Jake LaMotta was all that and much more.
Jake LaMotta was born on July 10, 1921 to hardscrabble beginnings in the Bronx. “We were so poor that my old man would go outside every Christmas and shoot his gun,” Jake wrote in his autobiography, “then come back and tell us that Santa Claus has committed suicide.”
LaMotta remembered how it was: “I read the Romans had bread and circuses. We had home relief and boxing.”
Difficult, aggressive, combative, always itching for a fight, Jake was a nut job from the start, but this violent man was redeemed, insofar as any man is redeemed, by the sport of boxing. But it took a lotta bungled crimes and a lotta busted heads before LaMotta saw the light: “I was a bum and I lived like a bum in a bum neighborhood.”
Jake may have been a bum, but at least he was a bum who could punch. He went legit on March 31, 1941 at the age of eighteen and had twenty bouts in his first year as a pro: “I had more fights in one year than many of these guys have in their entire careers.”
In 1942 Jake fought and lost to the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. In 1943 he fought Robinson two times in the same month, winning the rematch – becoming the first man to defeat Sugar Ray – but dropping their third fight by decision. LaMotta remembered those fights as though they were yesterday: “I fought Ray Robinson so many times, it’s a wonder I don’t have diabetes.”
That same year, Jake had the first of four fights in seven months with low-blow artist Fritzie Zivic. Those pugs pounded each other in Pittsburgh. “A fighter goes into the ring with one thing on his mind,” wrote LaMotta, “to beat the shit out of the other guy before he beats the shit out of him.”
In 1947 LaMotta went in the soup during a bout with Billy Fox to set up a shot at the middleweight crown, but Jake was so fake that a scandal ensued and he lost his license to fight.
LaMotta was subpoenaed to Washington, DC to testify about the dive before Congress. “I never did like Washington,” Jake wrote. “All those over-sized buildings and monuments made me feel like some dumb bug crawling around a pyramid or something.”
A Senate Anti-Trust and Monopoly Subcommittee investigating corruption in boxing turned LaMotta into a dark star: “Senators – who the hell knew from Senators? All I knew was back rooms and stinking catacombs with creeps and mobster wiseguys.”
During his swearing in before the Senate, LaMotta swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help him God, and Jake was as good as his word: “You win some, you throw some.”
LaMotta got his shot at the middleweight crown in Detroit on June 16, 1949 against the French-Algerian champion Marcel Cerdan. Jake took Cerdan apart that night in the Motor City, forcing the champ to quit on his stool after ten.
The Bronx Bull defended his crown twice – including one of the greatest come-from-behind victories of all time against Laurent Dauthille in 1950 – before losing the middleweight title back to Robinson the next year.
“Robinson never got me down,” Jake remembered. “If the referee hadn’t stopped the fight, Robinson would’ve collapsed from hitting me.”
Jake LaMotta retired from boxing on June 2, 1954 at the age of 34 with an 83-19 record (30 KOs). Then the fun began.
Jake opened a nightclub in Miami Beach and for a time was the toast of the town. “My wife, Vickie, never knew I was an alcoholic till one night I came home sober,” the champ wrote. “But as I always say, you’re never drunk if you can lay on the floor without holding on.”
Jake’s marriage to Vickie was rocky. So was their divorce. “She always complained she didn’t have anything to wear,” Jake observed. “I never believed her until I saw her pictures in Playboy.” Love at Chez LaMotta was not for every taste. Nor was it, according to Jake, for every woman: “I was giving my first wife, Ida, a hundred a week. I divorced her to marry my second wife, Vickie. Sally was my third wife. Dimitri was my fourth wife. The fifth one was Debbie. The sixth one was Theresa.”
Someone set up the champ at his club. They fixed up a real live doll, made her all pretty and nice, and dangled her like jailbait in front of LaMotta. His bloodshot eyes and addled brain must have deceived him that night, because he thought she looked twenty-one. Funny, she felt twenty-one. Jake introduced her to some men at the bar. Those cats had the time of their lives.
LaMotta was busted, jailed and railroaded through the system for pimping a fourteen year old girl.
After his release from prison, LaMotta attempted reforming. He tried, at least at first, keeping his hands to himself. “I’m jaded,” admitted Jake. “If I never see another boob it ain’t gonna bother me. Impervious? I flattened a bum named Impervious in Buffalo.”
LaMotta also began a sputtering career as an actor, emcee and comedian. Wobbling on stage one night, a mike in one hand, a drink in the other, a cigar between his lips, Jake’s lame retort to handful of hecklers pretty much sums up the spirit of those days: “Ya know, it’s guys like you that are gonna force me to make a comeback.”
Jake’s comeback came in unusual ways. His autobiography “Raging Bull” was published in 1970. The movie of the same name came out ten years later and made film history.
When all is said and done, it’s hard to know what to make of Jake LaMotta, so maybe the Bronx Bull deserves the last word.
“You know what a geek is? You throw a geek a raw chicken and he’ll eat it, feathers and all, and everyone outside the cage will laugh and applaud. Was I a champ or a geek? Only God knows what I was.”