On Wednesday morning, Sept. 20, flags at the International Boxing Hall of Fame were lowered to half-staff in memory of former world middleweight champion Jake LaMotta who passed away the previous day at age 95 in a Florida nursing home following a bout with pneumonia. The Bronx Bull, as he was known in his fighting days, LaMotta had been inducted into the Canastota shrine with the inaugural class of 1990.
LaMotta, who reportedly learned to box in a reform school, compiled an 83-19-4 record with 30 knockouts in a career that ran from 1941 to 1954. On June 16, 1949, in his 89th pro fight, he staked his claim to the world middleweight title at the Detroit baseball park, Briggs Stadium, with an upset of defending champion Marcel Cerdan. The French Algerian Cerdan, who had won the title from Tony Zale and was 111-3 going in, was unable to answer the bell for the 10th round.
En route to winning the title, LaMotta defeated such notables as Fritzie Zivic, Tony Janiro, Holman Williams, Tommy Yarosz, Joey DeJohn, and Sugar Ray Robinson in the second of their six meetings. This was the only defeat that the legendary Robinson incurred in his first 132 pro bouts.
The LaMotta-Cerdan fight had a rematch clause, but Cerdan would never fight again. He was one of 48 passengers and crew that perished when an Air France liner bound from Paris to New York crashed in the Azores mountain range of Portugal.
LaMotta ultimately made two successful title defenses, turning away Italy’s previously unbeaten Tiberio Mitri on a 15-round decision and avenging a previous defeat with a 15th round TKO of Laurent Dauthuille of France. Dauthuille was ahead by 4, 6, and 6 points on Michigan’s convoluted scoring system (the combatants divvied up 10 points after each round) through the 14 completed frames, but LaMotta dug deep and knocked him out with 13 seconds to go in the fight. The bout was named The Ring magazine’s Fight of the Year.
The Bronx Bull came a cropper in his third title defense, suffering a 13th round TKO at the hands of his nemesis, Sugar Ray Robinson. Although LaMotta was 1-5 vs. Robinson, this was the only one of the sextet that wasn’t competitive. It was a point of pride for LaMotta that during their six meetings he had Robinson on the canvas three times but was never knocked down himself.
By then LaMotta had difficulty making the 160-pound limit. He fought his remaining bouts as a light heavyweight, going 5-4-1.
In retirement, LaMotta ran a bar in Miami where he ran into legal troubles. In 1957, he was sentenced to six months in jail for aiding and abetting a teenage prostitute. Three years later he made headlines when he was called to testify before a Senate committee investigating the relationship between boxing and organized crime. LaMotta acknowledged that he took a dive in his Nov. 14, 1947 fight with Billy Fox at Madison Square Garden. Fox, who had a bogus 43-1 record with all 43 wins coming by knockout, was controlled by Philadelphia numbers baron Frank “Blinky” Palermo.
A new phase in LaMotta’s life began in November of 1980 with the release of “The Raging Bull,” loosely adapted from Jake’s 1970 memoir. Martin Scorsese’s cinematic masterpiece, filmed in black and white, was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two, including a Best Actor award for Robert DeNiro in the title role. It is widely considered the best boxing movie of all time.
LaMotta suddenly found himself in high demand for interviews and talk show appearances. He went on the road and promoted the movie in the company of his second wife Vicki, the former Beverly Thailer, with whom he had had a tumultuous relationship. The voluptuous Vicki, who married Jake when she was 16 years old, would subsequently achieve her own measure of fame when she posed nude for a Playboy pictorial at age fifty-one. (She passed away in 2005 at the age of 75.)
LaMotta had dabbled as a stand-up comedian during the early years of his retirement and returned to that calling in his sunset years. As recently as 2012, he was appearing off-Broadway in a small revue titled “Lady and the Champ,” described as “an evening of stories, videos, and song and dance (recounted) in ribald detail.” His co-star, Denise Baker, 30 years his junior, was variously described as his seventh wife and his seventh fiancée.
By then his jokes had gotten stale. Vicki divorced him, he said, because he clashed with the drapes. “I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times it’s a wonder I don’t have diabetes,” was a one-liner he unsheathed so often that it became tedious. The critics savaged “Lady and the Champ” which had a very short off-Broadway run.
LaMotta, who had a granite chin, took a lot of punishment in a career in which he answered the bell for 869 rounds. It’s nothing short of a miracle that he was able to maintain his faculties so deep into his life. Plus, he was also a chain-smoker; Jake was a Marlboro man. But the years took their toll on his countenance. After interviewing him in 2012, New York Times reporter Alan Feuer wrote that his face “had the shrunken look of a jack-o’-lantern left out in the weather after Halloween.”
Giocobbe “Jake” Lamotta (1922-2017). May he rest in peace.
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