Jake La Motta, the Raging Bull – christened Giacobbe LaMotta – is arguably one of the most interesting of boxing’s legends with a life story that wonderfully outstrips many of the exploits of his peers and more modern bad boys of boxing. Any commentary on the man would be vastly incomplete without understanding the nature of “the beast” that was LaMotta.
Born July 10th 1921 in the Bronx, New York, his career saw him take the nickname “The Bronx Bull”. His exploits and reputation became infamous following his portrayal by Robert De Niro in the 1980 film “Raging Bull” which touched on both the highlights of his career and his subsequent spiralling descent. While De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal, boxing over 1000 rounds with LaMotta and winning his praise (LaMotta stated that De Niro was so good he could have been a pro), the depiction of the man given by the film, although brilliant, in someway paints a dull picture relative to its inspiration – Jake’s own memoirs published in 1970 “Raging Bull: My Story”.
In the book, LaMotta, deals with both his personal and professional career and details his fragile and volatile emotional state. He states how he enjoyed little affection from his family and was regularly beaten by an irate father without cause. LaMotta is also a self-confessed rapist, thief and pimp and the perfect example of a narcissistic sociopath. With an apparent disregard for anyone’s welfare the book regales a series of tales that summarise his character. For example, on one occasion while drunk, he punched his first wife Vikki LaMotta so hard that he thought he had killed her. Lacking remorse he comments that his first thought was how the murder would ruin his career: Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. A minimum of three years.
Further comments abound and astound. While just 17, LaMotta had been planning the mugging of a local bookmaker on the streets of the Bronx. Armed with iron bar, LaMotta waited in the shadows for his victim to arrive and then pounded him to the ground. The bookmaker, however, remained conscious and LaMotta enraged, pounded his skull repetitively, stole his wallet and left him for dead. The next day the incident was covered by the local press and the victim reported dead by a somewhat over-zealous reporter. LaMotta, for the next 10 years would believe that he had murdered this man. Thankfully in 1949, the very same bookmaker approached LaMotta during his celebration at being crowned world champion asking “remember me?” – he never knew that it was LaMotta that almost killed him.
Another incident involved LaMotta beating his own brother and manager, Joey LaMotta, thinking he was having an affair with his wife. This was a constant theme of LaMotta’s life, with his jealousy often being a trigger for his excessively violent tendencies. Despite all the support Joey had given him, LaMotta showed little remorse for this action. However, perhaps the biggest vindication of the volatility of his temper was the apparent reluctance of the mafia to involve themselves in his career due to his “homicidal unpredictability”. For anyone who wants to know more about LaMotta or has a general interest in the psychology of a troubled man the book is an excellent starting point.
Thankfully for LaMotta he was able to channel some of his unrelenting aggression in the ring and his remarkable intelligence, (post retirement he became a stand up comedian and actor) and skill make him one of boxing’s great figures.
Jake started boxing at a young age in the Bronx, where he would fight his peers to supplement the family’s income. After a spell in the Coxsackie reform school in New York, LaMotta turned professional at the age of 19. LaMotta’s first pro fight was in his home town, against Charley Mackley, on the 3rd March 1941 and was won on a points decision. LaMotta stood a relatively small 5’8″ and boxed with an orthodox style. He was trained by Al Silvani, who made world champions of over 20 men, including Rocky Graziano and Floyd Patterson. LaMotta was renowned for his excellent chin, having been knocked down only once in his entire career. With a record that stands at 106 fights (W- 83 L-19 D-4 with 30 of those by KO), LaMotta certainly had a fabulous career, despite his bingeing and alcoholism.
On the 16th June 1949, LaMotta fought the Frenchman and then world champion Mercel Cerdan. Following a TKO, with Cerdan retiring due to an injured shoulder, LaMotta was crowned with the World Middleweight Title. The fight was not without controversy though – 11 years later LaMotta, called before a US Senate Sub Committee, admitted he had thrown an earlier fight with Billy Fox in 1947 (he had actually been hauled in front of the State Boxing Commission for his lacklustre performance after this fight) to get a shot at the title and supposedly meet Mafia interests. This admission shocked the sports world, but is something that LaMotta still argues was worthwhile and necessary to the furthering of his career.
Cerdan was scheduled to fight LaMotta later in the year, but unfortunately on 28 October 1949, Cerdan, while en route for his re-match with LaMotta, was killed when his Air France flight crashed into the Azores.
LaMotta made two official title defences, against Tiberio Mitri and Laurent Dauthuille before losing to Sugar Ray Robinson on Valentines day 1951, in a bill promoted as “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”. The rivalry between Sugar Ray Robinson, oft claimed the best pound-for-pound fighter to have ever stepped into the ring, and LaMotta, was staged over 6 fights, and for LaMotta, Sugar Ray was always a problem. LaMotta only won one of the fights and famously stated that “I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times, I almost got Diabetes”. This is evidence of how sharp witted LaMotta could be.
Never to re-claim his title, LaMotta continued fighting until 1954 before retiring. Since his retirement he has been equally relentless in building up a string of wives (he’s now on his 7th). LaMotta, despite all that has happened to him, suffered perhaps the greatest misfortune in 1998 when his son Joseph LaMotta died in a plane crash off Canada.