Let’s be clear: Thanks largely to the brilliance of Raging Bull, boxer Jake LaMotta shall always be a mythic figure. Seriously, just watch the opening credits.
And while he wasn’t the greatest boxer ever, he once fought the guy who probably was twice in a mere three-week period.
He split those two bouts against Sugar Ray Robinson. Indeed, they fought an absurd six times, inspiring LaMotta to quip, “I fought Sugar Ray so often I almost got diabetes.”
While LaMotta went 1-5 in those bouts—it was the first time Ray had ever lost—the Bronx Bull could take pride in knowing that he knocked Robinson down yet Robinson never got him off his feet.
Indeed, even when LaMotta agreed to take a dive at the discretion of the mob so he could finally get a title shot, he insisted on doing it his way: nearly knocking out his opponent by accident and essentially just standing there and taking punches in what may have been the least convincing fix in sports history.
With his passing at 95, it would be nice just to remember this Jake LaMotta: an insanely tough fighter with an awesome nickname who lifted himself out of poverty and proved to be one of the most colorful characters in boxing’s history, providing the vehicle for De Niro and Scorsese to create a masterpiece.
But there’s also LaMotta the confessed rapist.
And LaMotta the wife beater. Who defended himself by saying, “But I never really and truly hit my wives. If I had hit them properly, they would be dead.”
And yes, that threat should be taken seriously because there was also LaMotta the murderer. Actually, he’s technically innocent of murder, as he only thought he killed a man after beating him with a lead pipe during a robbery. It later turned out the guy survived, as LaMotta discovered when the “corpse” congratulated him after winning the middleweight title; he had no memory of his attacker.
Essentially, LaMotta was Mike Tyson with a much longer career (106 fights to Mike’s 58) and rap sheet (Tyson was never convicted of pimping), which may be why they seemed to get along quite well. LaMotta joins Iron Mike about 7 minutes into this clip…
There is no question that LaMotta had a brutal childhood, growing up in poverty with a father who forced him to fight to raise money for the family. His becoming the middleweight champ should be a classic case of the American Dream, as through sheer determination he turned himself into a boxing legend, a standout at a time when the sport was arguably at its peak.
And it’s also true that in later years LaMotta apparently was repentant, recalling that while watching Raging Bull—which would have been a very different movie if Scorsese had taken LaMotta’s suggestion and dumped that De Niro guy to let 50-something Jake play himself—he turned to his then-wife and asked, “Is that the way I was in real life?”
To which she replied, “You were worse.”
We should all remember LaMotta in the ring, particularly in those diabetes-inducing fights against Sugar Ray.
But let’s not lose sight of the harm caused by a man who did it his way, even when his way involving destroying everything around him, including himself.
Photo: Getty Images/Bettmann/Contributor