He was one of those people who, when you read of their passing, your first thought is, “Damn, didn’t he die decades ago?”
Indeed, Jake LaMotta’s claim to our attention came more than a half-century ago when he was one of the fiercest middle-weight boxers, slugger really, during a time when boxing and baseball were the two most popular sports in the land. In a career lasting from 1941 to 1954 LaMotta compiled a record of 83 wins, 30 by KO, 19 losses, and four draws. He won the middle weight championship in 1949 from French boxer Marcel Cerdan and lost it in 1951 to Sugar Ray Robinson. LaMotta died Tuesday in a Miami area hospital of complications of pneumonia at 95, an age, considering his style in and out of the ring, no reasonable person could imagine he would attain.
The ring record of the Bronx Bull, immortalized on celluloid as Raging Bull in the 1980 movie of that name starring Robert De Niro as Jake, was good but not sensational. He’s best known for his six fights with Sugar Ray Robinson, who died in 1989 and is the fighter most boxing connoisseurs’ pick for the pound-for-pound, champ of champs. Jake only won one of these fights, but the series, save for the final fight in 1951 when Robinson pretty much had his way, was far more competitive than the won/lost break-out would indicate. In the second fight of the series, LaMotta handed Robinson the first loss of his career. The next to the last fight was won by Robinson on a split decision which was lustily booed by those on hand. True fight fans — and we’re getting thinner on the ground as the product in the ring continues to deteriorate — rate the LaMotta/Robinson fights right up there with the Frazier/Ali battles.
(By the way, I don’t recommend Martin Scorsese’s black and white biopic of LaMotta. Though highly praised by critics, I found it to have the usual excesses that almost all boxing movies suffer from, including fight scenes where boxers are still standing after enduring a series of punches that would fell a cape buffalo.)
It was the purest form of the boxer/slugger matchup. Robinson the consummate boxer had blinding hand-speed and exquisite footwork. Always on the move, he was an accurate puncher, never wasting effort on misses. He could slip punches with the best of them, always seeming to be moving backward when an opponent’s punch arrived. (We would not see Robinson’s equal in this area of the sweet science until Ali came along.) Jake was quite the other thing. He was the shortish slugger who could hit hard and who bore in on his opponents relentlessly, staying as close as he could to work the body, and taking lots of punches in the process in order to deliver his heavier bombs. LaMotta’s boxing assets, and the style he adopted to make the best use of them, were similar to those adopted later with great success by Rocky Marciano. Neither Jake nor the Rock ever took a round off. They never gave their opponent a moment to rest. Robinson may have won five fights with LaMotta, but he spent most of all six fights backing up.
Years after the fights, Sugar Ray complimented Jake saying, “He’s the toughest guy I ever fought. I never knew anyone who was more aggressive and rough as he was.”
LaMotta had a famously iron chin. He could really take a punch, even lots of them. He was proud of the fact that he was only knocked down once in more than a hundred professional fights, and this late in his career when he had moved up to the light heavyweight division. But this fighting asset came with a price. After a fight Jake’s face, no great portrait at the best of times, often looked like what much of San Juan, Puerto Rico looked like Thursday morning.
After his boxing career, LaMotta made a living through bit parts in mostly forgettable movies and television appearances. He owned and managed bars, and actually did some stand-up comedy. Though on the evidence of lines such as, “I fought Sugar Ray so many times I almost got diabetes,” it’s hard to imagine he was very good at it.
If LaMotta was tough in the ring, he was hardly a choir-boy out of it. His biography includes reform school early on and grown-up jail after his boxing career when he was sentenced for “aiding and abetting” a 14-year-old girl in prostitution. LaMotta always insisted he was innocent of this charge, but doesn’t begrudge the jail time too much as he freely admits there was a lot of stuff he got away with. He said that if he hadn’t been a boxer he probably would have spent most of his life in jail. He admits to throwing a fight in return for the promise of a title shot, which he got in 1949.
Jake was married seven times, and he was pretty hard on most of his wives. If the press that covers this sort of thing are to be believed, Jake, especially the young Jake, did not stop throwing punches when the bell rang after the final round. But in the pieces I read about him Thursday, there’s some indication of mellowing and redemption in the later years. His seventh wife, Denise Baker, many years his junior, was with him when he died. She said, “I just want people to know he was a great, sweet, generous, sensitive, strong, compelling man with a great sense of humor, with eyes that danced.” These might not be words many who knew a young Jake would associate with him, but they seem a good point to wrap things up about an important if not great fighter who led a raucous life. His skill and courage in the ring were admirable, even if not everything he did out of it was.
It’s rare when I ever care to associate myself with anything Robert De Niro says. But I’m certainly with him when he said, after hearing of LaMotta’s death, “Rest in peace, Champ.”