HE FOUGHT like an animal in the ring, married seven times and lived to be 95. PETER COSTER looks back on the life of Jake La Motta, the Raging Bull of movie fame:
JAKE LA MOTTA fought Sugar Ray Robinson six times, a series of brutal bouts unheard of in modern boxing, but exceeded by the former world middleweight boxing champion’s record of seven marriages to unfortunate women. La Motta was a violent man who denied beating his many wives, saying, “If I’d hit ’em, they’d be dead.” La Motta was not a man who believed in marriage equality. The former Raging Bull of the Oscar-winning Martin Scorsese movie prided himself on taking a beating to hand out a beating. He survived a life of mayhem before dying in a Florida nursing home last week of pneumonia at the age of 95. There was a reason for his violence although not an excuse. His Italian father forced him to fight in the streets with other kids to cadge coins from passers-by.
When he turned pro at the age of 19, he was a relentless, swarming fighter who shouted at Sugar Ray Robinson in their last bout, “You can’t put me down.”
The fight, when Robinson regained the middleweight title from La Motta, was in 1951 and dubbed the “St Valentine’s Day massacre”. Boxing in the America of the 1940s were as raw as the violence that was seen on it streets.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre went into the 13th round before the referee stepped in to halt the damage being inflicted on La Motta who was by then a defiant punching bag.
La Motta had once knocked the fighter many regard as the greatest of all time out of the ring. The Bronx Bull and Sugar Ray fought again three weeks later. Boxing was a blood sport that drew vast crowds to Madison Square Garden in New York to watch hungry fighters make up in courage what they might have lacked in skill.
In 1985, I was a guest at one of La Motta’s weddings. Squat, battered with a face only his dog and presumably his wife-to-be could love, he grinned and sank into his characteristic crouch for the cameras in the car park at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
I don’t know which marriage it was. It was unlikely it was the last and was part of the hype for the Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns v Marvellous Marvin Hagler (his real name changed by deed poll) middleweight championship fight the following night. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Bronx Bull and La Motta was riding the rush of cinematic blood.
At ringside, I noticed I was sitting behind Sugar Ray Robinson and tapped him on the shoulder to ask who he thought might win. He smiled, vacantly, as the woman sitting next to him turned to say, “Mr Robinson favours both fighters.” The lights were fading in Sugar Ray’s eyes.
There was no tougher school than the streets of Brooklyn where gangsters extorted money and kids stole to put food on the family table. La Motta tried to rob a jewellery store and did a stint in reform school, where the kids where even tougher than those on the streets.
The Mafia fixed fights among their more murderous activities. The Bronx Bull admitted throwing a fight against Billy Fox, a known mob fighter, to get a shot at the middleweight title, which he was to win from Frenchman Marcel Cerdan. The wise guys kept their part of the bargain.
Billy Fox was the protege of gangster Frank “Blinky” Palermo and had “won” 36 straight since turning pro.
La Motta was convinced that if he didn’t take a dive, he would never become world champion.
Even the guys back in the bleachers knew the fix was in as Eddie Eagan, the chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission went to the dressing rooms of both fighters to warn them against staging the fight.
To add insult to the injury he was about to receive, La Motta had paid the mob for the privilege of being beaten. Billy Fox, who had begun to believe his own publicity, turned the bout into a farce. In La Motta’s own words: “The first round, a couple of belts to his head, and I see a glassy look coming over his eyes. Jesus Christ, a couple of jabs and he’s going to fall down? I began to panic a little. I was supposed to be throwing a fight to this guy and it looked like I was going to end up holding him on his feet. By the fourth round, if there was anyone in the Garden who didn’t know what was happening, he must have been dead drunk.”
La Motta stood in centre ring, accepting punishment, until the referee stopped proceedings. The New York State Athletic Commission didn’t buy it, withheld the boxers’ purses, and suspended La Motta.
At Caesar’s Palace in 1985, the former middleweight champ was married to a woman who probably thought it was the best night of her life as the celebrities and the press who turned up for the Hearns-Hagler fight took their seats.
As I have written on Sportshounds, that was a fight described by one commentator as “hellacious” (new word) and one of the greatest fights in ring history.
Tommy Hearns was a beaten fighter in the third after hitting Hagler with his best shots but to little effect after he had complained to his corner that he broke his right hand in the first round.
Back in Caesar’s Palace, the dreamers were still putting their money on the roulette wheels and throwing craps as waitresses with more frontage than the Hoover dam, which lights up Las Vegas, served cocktails with as much punch as the combatants in the car park.
Las Vegas was once a mob town, but all that dirty money has long been laundered and families now come to Las Vegas to see a show and play the tables.
Matrons squealed and threw their panties at Tom Jones at his show on the Strip, or was the fix in and were they paid to fling their knickers as Jones sang, “What’s new pussycat?”
In the Caesar’s Palace car park it had been the same old fight game. Blood and the roar of the crowd.
Robert De Niro shed pounds to get into the ring as La Motta and piled the flab back on again to play the Raging Bull in his later years on the seedy, smoky, flesh-groping nightclub circuit as a stand-up comedian whose humour was as rough as his walk-up style in the ring. You didn’t have to look around for the Bronx Bull, he was always right in front of you.
Author: Peter Coster
PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.