“Raging Bull.” What a great nick-name for a boxer. It conjures up an aggressive, unrelenting fighter who mauled his opponents in the ring, who would gladly take a punch (or two or three), to give a more punishing one. Think Joe Frazier or Rocky Balboa on steroids. Boxing observers of the 1940s through early 1950s, often commented that Jake LaMotta’s face reflected his fighting style. One sportswriter quipped that LaMotta’s face looked as though “it had caught more fast balls than Yogi Berra’s (MLB catcher for the Yankees) mitt.” Yes, the moniker fit the fighting style of Jake LaMotta to a tee; unfortunately, it also fit his personality to a tee.
Giacobbe (aka “Jake”) LaMotta was born on July 10, 1922 in NYC. His father was an émigré from Messina, Italy; his mother was native born. His family was very poor. How poor? Well, his father forced young Jake to fight other kids for mere pocket change as entertainment for the adults in the neighborhood. The father would use the money to help support the family.
Jake turned pro as a middleweight in 1941 at the age of 19. Perhaps, his primary attribute was his ability to absorb punishment. As I said, he was more a brawler than a classic boxer. He was one of the first boxers to employ the “bully” style of boxing. Rather than dancing around the ring and relying primarily on quickness and boxing skills, Jake would stay as close to his opponent as possible and slug it out. This style suited him, as Wikipedia describes him as having a “thick skull” and “one of the greatest chins in boxing history.” In any event, in 106 career fights he was only knocked down once. Think about that. I don’t mean knocked out; I mean knocked down! Considering his fighting style, that is truly remarkable.
Jake did lose occasionally. His career record was 83-19-4 ,with 30 knockouts, including five losses to Sugar Ray Robinson in six bouts. No shame there, as Robinson is considered by some to have been “the best fighter, pound for pound.” Jake won the Middleweight Title on June 16, 1949. Remember, in those days, unlike today, there was only one champion in each weight division, so that was a very noteworthy accomplishment. Jake held the title until February 14, 1951 (St. Valentine’s Day) when he was beaten by Sugar Ray. Jake took a great deal of punishment and lost by a TKO in what became known in boxing circles as “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre” (not to be confused with the mob massacre of the same name).
Following that defeat, Jake moved up to the Light Heavyweight division. He was successful as a light heavyweight, although he suffer his lone knockdown.
After Jake retired from boxing he did not merely fade away as did most boxers. He owned and managed bars, became an actor and, believe it or not, a stand-up comedian. Furthermore, Jake appeared in more than a dozen films. Perhaps the most famous one was The Hustler, the original version with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, which was a real classic. Jake had a cameo as a bartender. His most noteworthy tv gig was as a supporting actor (five episodes) in the comedy series Car 54 Where Are You (1961-1963).
As a fighter, although Jake was well-known within the sport, he was not a household name with the general public. That all changed with the release of Raging Bull in 1980. The movie starred Robert De Niro as Jake. De Niro gave a remarkably authentic performance. He boxed an estimated 1,000 practice rounds so that he could appear realistic as a boxer, and he even gained some 60 pounds so he could present an accurate portrayal of Jake in his retirement. De Niro won an Oscar, and the film, itself, was an artistic, critical and box office success. The American Film Institute ranked it as the fourth greatest film ever (behind Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and Casablanca).
The movie pulled no punches, so to speak. Jake was portrayed as a violent and abusive husband. He was, in fact, married six times, a further indication of his domestic shortcomings. Jake did not dispute the way he was portrayed. “I’m no angel,” he told the AP in a 2005 interview. According to IMDb.com he once asked one of his former wives if the portrayal was really accurate. “You were worse,” she supposedly said.
In his later years, Jake was active on the autograph circuit and published several books about his career and his life. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and Ring Magazine, the sport’s bible, ranked him #52 on its list of the Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years.
A movie sequel, named LaMotta: The Bronx Bull, starring William Forsythe, is in production.
Jake passed away on September 19, 2017 at the age of 95, a remarkable lifespan for a boxer who took as much punishment as he did. Rest in peace, Jake. You will be sorely missed.