RIP, Jake LaMotta: Last of the boxing icons from the 1940s

When the legendary pug Jake LaMotta – better known as the “Raging Bull” –  died the other day at the tender age of 95, my first reaction was to wonder how such an incomparable rascal and incorrigible roughneck could have possibly survived 95 years. Others, no doubt, said to themselves, “I thought that bum died 50 years ago.”

Both sentiments are viable. If ever a man lived a harder life, it’s doubtful he did so with more relish or enthusiasm than Jake. There was much that was immensely ugly about him, but he seemed to revel in all of it which, perversely or otherwise, gave him a certain baffling yet extraordinary charm. This, ladies and gentlemen, was one helluva character, may I assure you.

His passing closes the door on an era of sports history that, while unquestionably sordid, was also compelling, even heroic. Jake was the last of the great champions reared in the 1940s who gave boxing, then at its height of esteem and fascination in the culture, a grip on our imagination that survives even as the game now sadly withers away.

Is there any longer an excuse for boxing?  Not really! Yet I confess, if somewhat inexplicably, to missing it as once it was and will certainly never be again.  Does that have something to do with the forward march of civilization? Given all that’s awful that abounds in contemporary life, the mere suggestion seems silly.  

Anyway, if LaMotta was hardly an exemplar of the manly arts at their best, please believe this was one tough cookie. And when he wasn’t in the tank, he was as honest a warrior as ever stepped in a bloody ring. If he were still with us, the matchless Sugar Ray Robinson – with whom Jake brawled six times, losing “only” five – would gladly attest to that assertion.  

“Raging Bull,” Martin Scorsese’s epic account of Jake’s grim life and times, is an almost perfect movie. But if it has a flaw, it’s with the depiction of Jake (played so memorably by Robert DeNiro) as a human punching bag who took far more punishment than he handed out and who absorbed the pain in some weird act of expiation.  Actually, LaMotta was a highly skilled boxer, cagy and clever as well as savage when he had to be. This was no manic wacko in the ring. If you hoped to survive him, you had to know your craft, as Sugar Ray demonstrated five times, although every bloody one of those epic rumbles was ferocious.

But, indeed, Jake did tank a fight in 1947, and it was a big one against a totally mob-controlled if otherwise estimable light heavyweight named Billy Fox. Jake denied the fix fiercely only to admit it fully 13 years later; that was classic Jake.  He did it to get a middleweight title fight, he would eventually admit, which is the way it too often worked back then, although preserving his well-being probably was a factor, too. Serious hoods were linked with that caper. Vipers crawled all over the dodge back then. You messed with them at your peril.

He could have been banned for life, and you might wonder if an appreciation for those “extenuating circumstances” encouraged the pugilistic judiciary to let him off with a mere seven-month suspension. It was the break of his life.  Two years later, the gallant Marcel Cerdan gave him his long-denied title bout and Jake capitalized with a ten-round TKO. A couple of months later, Cerdan, a hero in his homeland and the beau of France’s fable songbird, Edith Piaf, was en route to the States for a re-match when his plane crashed in the Azores, leaving Jake to reign comfortably atop the middleweight division for two years – until Sugar Ray came calling again.  He could have ducked Sugar, but that wasn’t  his style. Robinson won, but at no little price and never did manage to knock Jake down.  

In the ring, Jake had valor. Out of it was too often another story. He once called himself “a good-for-nothing bum,” and there were times it was hard to find dissenters. Son of an abusive Sicilian fruit peddler, he was raised in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, landing in reform school for petty thievery as a teen where one of his mates was the equally unpleasant Rocky Graziano.

The pen probably saved both of them. It was there they learned how to box. In retirement in 1957, and running a night club in Miami, he did more prison time; six months on a road gang for allegedly encouraging a teenage girl to engage in prostitution. There would be other incidents, more embarrassments, most having something to do with his harsh temper. He was married six times, never for very long.

Whether he actually mellowed or merely succumbed to the vagaries of old age is unclear, but Jake had been out of the headlines the last 35 years or so, his last twirl with either celebrity or infamy having come with Scorsese’s wonderful 1980 movie and DeNiro’s near- mesmerizing performance. Some who knew him well say all that made him seem more awful than he actually was.

It’s hard to know for sure, because there was lots of “con” in his act.  Jake could turn it on when he wished and become almost charming, which was evident from the one occasion when I spent any time with him. It was at a press luncheon linked to the movie and staged by another boxing legend, the priceless promoter Rip Valenti.  

Jake was great at such gigs, highly entertaining and good at making himself the butt of his own humor. ‘Was I really that bad?” he liked to ask about himself, with the answer invariably being, “Yup, probably.” You can be wary of such characters, but it’s hard to really dislike them.