JAKE LaMOTTA, THE RAGING BULL — It seemed to be a good idea at the time. A few days ago, upon noticing that Feb. 5 would be the 74th anniversary of the second fight in the six-bout series between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta, and the only one that LaMotta won (at least officially, according to the “Bronx Bull”), I decided to do a story on two proud men with starkly contrasting styles, and a shared history that has since taken on the trappings of legend. Then I noticed that four of their six meetings in the ring had taken place in February, which made the notion of a look-back piece on the Robinson-LaMotta rivalry even more compelling. I had authored a column for the Sweet Science, posted on Nov. 13, 2014, entitled The Boys of November, dealing with the Evander Holyfield-Riddick Bowe trilogy (all three of their showdowns had taken place in that month), so why not a similar one on The Men of February?
I wouldn’t be able to get Sugar Ray’s take on what had transpired between he and LaMotta, of course, except for printed quotes and old television interviews that could be pulled up online; Robinson, arguably the greatest pound-for-pound fighter ever, was 67 when he died on April 12, 1989, after years of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and hypertension. Even well before his passing, large patches of his memory had been erased by the creeping ravages of Alzheimer’s.
But a telephone call to LaMotta, still alive and kicking at 94, perhaps offered the opportunity for me to gain some fresh insight. It had been at least two decades since I interviewed Jake, but I knew he was an annual presence at the International Boxing Hall of Fame induction weekend in Canastota, N.Y., as distinguishable in his trademark cowboy hat as Hopalong Cassidy or Gene Autry might have been had they ridden into the picturesque village on horseback. Fight fans there tend to approach him as if he were some mythical figure, Zeus come down from Mount Olympus, because he so obviously has been able to go the distance in life as well as inside the ropes. In December 2012, at 90, LaMotta took a bride for the seventh time, Denise Baker, 28 years his junior and still comely enough to pose for a centerfold in AARP’s monthly magazine.
The voice on the other end of the call, however, was not that of an ornery old bull whose face had caught more fastballs than Yogi Berra’s mitt and somehow had never seemed the worse for wear. It was weak and unfocused, a hint that Jake LaMotta, 6½ decades and 4,000 or so pounds (more on that later) past his middleweight championship-era prime, was finally getting closer to allowing the Ultimate Judge to render His inevitable decision.
Asked for his remembrances of his Feb. 5, 1943, 10-round unanimous decision over the unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable Robinson (who went in 40-0 as a pro after going 85-0 as an amateur) in Detroit’s sold-out Olympia Stadium, Jake hesitated before saying, “Is that where I (beat) Robinson? I … I fought him six times. I fought Sugar Ray so often it’s a wonder I don’t have diabetes.”
It is a standard response to questions about Robinson that LaMotta has been uttering for what seems like forever, so much so that the words seemingly tumble forth by rote. And if this 2017 Jake can’t recall every detail of his sole conquest of the incomparable Sugar Ray (he has long maintained that he deserved to get the nod in their fifth confrontation, a 12-round split decision loss on Sept. 26, 1945, in Chicago’s Comiskey Park), he isn’t apt to fondly reminisce about the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” in their sixth and final meeting, in which Robinson, the reigning welterweight champ, dethroned him on a 13th-round stoppage on Feb. 14, 1951, in Chicago Stadium.
But even on the wrong end of a classic beatdown, the Bronx Bull displayed a certain nobility that elicited admiration from the man who had just hammered on him as if he were an anvil. That determination was denoted by Robinson in his 1970 autobiography, Sugar Ray, as told to New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson. In describing his bludgeoning of LaMotta, which ended when referee Frank Sikora, at the urging of the ringside physician, waved the increasingly one-sided bout to a halt, Robinson was moved to salute an opponent who refused to even acknowledge that he’d just been put through the proverbial wringer.
I was the middleweight champion, but I had to share my joy with respect for Jake. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was on the stool in his corner, his leopard-skin robe thrown over him. His handlers were all around him, but he was snarling at them and waving them away. The doctor was checking him, but Jake wanted no part of him. On his way out of the ring, he ignored the hands reaching up to help him down the steps. In his dressing room, I was told later, he had to gasp for breath as he spoke to the sportswriters.
“That’s all, that’s all,” the doctor ordered. “Get a tank of oxygen in here.”
The doctor gave him oxygen for half an hour. He wasn’t able to leave the stadium until nearly two hours after the fight. But despite all that, it never occurred to him that the doctor had made the proper decision in signaling the referee to stop the fight.
“Robinson never hurt me,” he was quoted as saying a few weeks later. “I almost knocked Robinson out in the 11th.”
Jake LaMotta hadn’t lost. Something had happened to keep him from winning.
Or so the defiant LaMotta chose to believe whenever he was denied what he believed to be a given night’s fulfillment of his destiny. Seated along with Robinson on either side of host Curt Gowdy for a TV show called How It Was, apparently recorded in the late 1970s – the polyester leisure suits worn by Jake and Gowdy were a dead giveaway – the middle-aged LaMotta continued to deny that he had been taken to the brink of exhaustion, or worse, by the Sugar man’s fast-handed combinations.
“I guess God blessed me with a hard head because I really couldn’t feel punches,” LaMotta told Gowdy. “I conditioned myself many years ago that nobody could hurt me. It was self-hypnosis or whatever you might call it, but I really believed nobody could hurt me. I psyched myself. I did it unconsciously, instinctively. And I believed it.”
As LaMotta again professed not to have been hurt by Robinson’s barrage that began in earnest in the 11th round after the champion’s last-gasp flurry succeeded only in making him expend the last vestiges of his energy, Robinson looked on with incredulity. To acknowledge defeat, or even fatigue, was to yield to some inner weakness LaMotta steadfastly refused to accept.
In a later sit-down session with a British TV crew, which appeared to have taken place in the late 1980s or early ’90s, LaMotta, by now his words slightly slurred, held fast to his personal belief that to acknowledge that the other guy simply had fought better was a form of quitting on himself, and quitting in any form is never to be tolerated.
“You gotta have determination,” he said when asked what spurred him on when his situation appeared bleak. “You gotta have willpower. You gotta have positive thinking. You gotta believe, believe, believe that you can do it.
“I had all that through my boxing career. I fought everybody. I didn’t care who I fought. I knew I could beat anybody I fought. I had that for a long time. I still have it.”
To many boxing historians, Jake LaMotta – born Giacobbe LaMotta to Italian immigrants on July 10, 1921 – has always been something of an overachiever who stretched the limits of unremarkable talent into a plaque in the IBHOF (he was a charter member of the first induction class in 1990) mainly on the strength of that fierce determination, with a possible assist from Hollywood.
Would LaMotta be the iconic figure he is now without the film version of his life story, Raging Bull, being nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1980, winning two (for Best Actor Robert De Niro and for sound editing)? Or for the fact of his impressive longevity, which has seen him outlive virtually all of his contemporaries?
LaMotta has praised De Niro as the “greatest actor that ever lived, pound-for-pound, and for his insistence on getting every detail right, including the gaining of 60 pounds to further authenticate scenes as the retired, plumper Jake whose post-boxing life careened off the rails.
“We boxed over 1,000 rounds together before we shot one foot of film,” LaMotta said during the session with the Brit film crew. “(De Niro) was determined to become a fighter so badly. When I got done with him, he could have fought professional. He really was that good.”
What stamped Raging Bull as more than a standard sports biopic, in addition to De Niro’s mesmerizing performance and Martin Scorsese’s masterful direction, is its unstinting honesty about a warts-and-all fighter with a warts-and-all life in and out of the ring.
Out of the ring, when not in training, it was standard procedure for LaMotta to pack on 30 or 40 pounds before returning to the gym, making him a precursor to such insatiable chow hounds as Roberto Duran, James Toney and Riddick Bowe. For his six matchups with Robinson, LaMotta outweighed the perpetually well-conditioned Sugar man by a cumulative 67½ pounds.
“I always had trouble making 160 pounds,” LaMotta told Gowdy. “In my book, I wrote that I lost over 4,000 pounds in my lifetime. The greatest diet I know, eat all you want but don’t swallow it.
“Sometimes,” he said of his fluctuating weight, “it caught up to me.”
It caught up with him in that sixth and final fight, when LaMotta – who already was 1-4 against Robinson – was obliged to lose 6½ pounds the night before the weigh-in. So how did he do it?
“I went to the steam baths,” LaMotta told Gowdy. “I kept going in and out of the steam baths, but I finally made it.”
Robinson naturally was aware of LaMotta’s weight issues and formulated a fight plan that would use that to his advantage. He would stick and move, which is what he normally did anyway, until he sensed that LaMotta had nothing left, then throw everything he had at the gasping Bull.
“We figured he had trouble making weight,” Robinson told Gowdy. “That (picking up the pace in the later rounds) really was the strategy. We wanted him to expend himself as much as he could because we felt he had trouble making the weight and the latter part of the fight I would be able to be more effective. Thank God it proved to be true.”
But even as Robinson increasingly asserted his dominance, he was unable to floor LaMotta, who would not be knocked off his feet until, as a light heavyweight, he was dropped in the seventh round by Danny Nardico on Dec. 31, 1952. LaMotta’s corner stopped the bout before the eighth round began.
LaMotta has known tragedy and created some as well. Two of his sons died young, Jake Jr. of liver cancer in February 1998 and his younger boy, Joseph, in an airliner crash in September of the same year. He also has been cited for domestic abuse of several of his wives, rationalizing that if could take pain as an occupational hazard, the women in his life should expect some, too.
Strip away all the personal issues and the bottom line is that Jake LaMotta was a legitimately tough customer, a relentless attacker who could not be discouraged. He posted an 83-19-4 record, with 30 victories inside the distance, against some of the most dangerous foes in a deep era.
“Jake never ducked anybody,” Robinson said. “He didn’t have to. Everybody that fought Jake LaMotta took some damage. He stays right on you. You can bet your bottom dollar you’re going to get your share of the licks.”
The saga of The Men of February is forever etched in stone. Its graceful, artistic half, Robinson, has left us only with memories of past wonders. Its hard-hatted demolition specialist is still in the presence of we mortals, but he won’t be here forever. And, somehow, that reality is sadder than I might have imagined.
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel.