Jake LaMotta is dead at age 95. Of the best, he was the last standing.
Several times over the course of this web site’s four years of existence, I’ve reached out to this email: email@example.com in attempts to get an interview with Jake LaMotta. It is because of the scarred and flawed and damaged LaMotta I started writing about sports and people in sports. It is because I assumed everyone else thought he was already dead that I wanted the interview.
This guy named Nick at Prince Marketing Group (PMG) was a manager of LaMotta’s public appearance schedules, or so he claimed. There are several firms like his, most are usually second- or third-tier businesses that make it possible—for around $10k—to get Darryl Strawberry to show up at your buddy’s bachelor party and tell stories about doing blow off a hooker’s ass in the locker room at Shea between innings.
Among a notorious cadre of also-rans and celebrity reality TV burnouts, PMG on its website claims it represents or has represented Magic Johnson, Hulk Hogan, Dennis Rodman, Roy Jones Jr. and Carmen Electra as well as do whatever assholes do with licensing deals for Evel Knievel, Joe Frazier, Britney Spears, Joe Manganiello, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Palin, Burt Reynolds and, of course, Donald Fucking Trump.
(I want to say something about Trump in this context: He’s a third-tier guest judge has-been who somehow lied his way into a place where we have to… HAVE TO pay attention to him in his dotage. Fuck it. What a fucking sham, a scammer, a piece of shit. A molecular aberration, a stitch in time, a lonely beggar who doesn’t deserve your hard-earned, hard-fought time and attention. An anomaly hell-bent to destroy everything who is the least-qualified among us. Choose to view him only through the lens of a fading celebrity gripping and it all makes sense.)
OK, so… my idea was to do a Q&A with LaMotta, a man who lived his final decade largely out of the public eye but blipping on every sports fan’s radar about twice a year when a showing of the 1980 masterpiece Raging Bull ends up on Cinemax at 2 a.m.
The PMG emails, if they were returned at all, came with a generic response containing information of booking fees and attached contracts for engagements. The latter were written, I was told, so that they the company has an ironclad agreement for you to pay them whether or not the celebrity in question materializes.
An arrangement like this violated not only the principle of a blog that speaks to sports and the human condition, but I didn’t have low five figures hanging around so a “manager” of a 92-year-old ex-boxer/comedian could make off with some sucker punch money.
So I refrained, always fantasizing that my dream Q&A would somehow materialize in a way I couldn’t quite envision.
No longer. LaMotta died Wednesday at the age of 95. Officially, the cause of death is complications of pneumonia, but I’d take “he was a 95-year-old boxer known for blocking haymakers with his face” as the reason.
His wife Denise Baker said Wednesday, “He was a great man, sensitive, and had eyes that danced right up to the end. I love him; God rest his soul… He never went down.” …Which is a strange thing for a wife to say, even if it is a seventh wife.
LaMotta was 83-19-4 with 30 knockouts in a career that lasted from 1941 to 1954. He held the middleweight title from 1949 to 1951 and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
The Bronx Bull squared off against his only rival, Sugar Ray Robinson, six times. Their first bout, Oct. 2, 1942 at Madison Square Garden, is known as one of, if not the greatest fight of all time. Robinson when he first met LaMotta was 35-0 with 27 knockouts. During the tilt, he bloodied but never buckled LaMotta and won a 10-round bout with a unanimous decision. At the time, Robinson said, “I never fought a fighter as strong as he is.”
LaMotta would (later) say, he fought Robinson so many times, “I’m surprised I’m not diabetic.”
As working boxers, LaMotta and Robinson fought twice in the same month at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium four months after their first bout. On Feb. 5, 1943, LaMotta won a 10-round unanimous decision that included knocking Robinson through the ropes in the eighth round. Three weeks later, Robinson won a rematch, getting a unanimous decision despite being knocked to the mat in the seventh.
By 1947, LaMotta had a 64-11-3 record but could not get a shot at the belt. The mob controlled the sport and LaMotta agreed to take a dive against his next opponent, Billy Fox, as well as pay fixers $20k in order to get a shot at the title.
LaMotta stood in and took a beating from Fox but, again, never went down.
The fight was stopped in the fourth. An investigation was opened and LaMotta was fined and suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission for concealing an injury (LaMotta claimed his performance was so anemic because of a spleen injury incurred during training.)
As reward for taking the dive, LaMotta got his title shot on June 16, 1949 at Detroit’s Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium. LaMotta fought French champion Marcel Cerdan. Cerdan incurred a shoulder injury in the first round when LaMotta pushed him to the mat. The Frenchman withstood LaMotta’s punishment through nine but was unable to come out of his corner in the tenth.
LaMotta was crowned middleweight champion of the world and held the belt until Feb. 14, 1951, a fight known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—his sixth and final card against Robinson. LaMotta absorbed punches from Robinson throughout and was unable to see through the blood cascading down his face in the later rounds. The fight was stopped in the 13th.
LaMotta’s last fight of note was against Danny Nardico in Coral Gables, Florida in 1952. He was out of shape an uninspired—at the end of a career, at the end of something. Nardico punched through LaMotta for seven and The Bronx Bull finally took a knee on the ring floor near the end of the round, the first brush of the canvas for his career.
The fight was called and LaMotta’s time as a boxer would be over less than 18 months after that.
The ring behind him, LaMotta, who fancied himself an entertainer and king of one-liners, opened several restaurants and bars in the Miami area. He had a stand-up act, some soft shoe, some song. He appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly in 1960 for an investigation of mob activity. It was there he admitted the Billy Fox fight was fixed and mainstream sport turned its back.
His autobiography, Raging Bull, was published in 1970. Ten years later, Martin Scorsese, a director from Queens, made the film of the same name with Robert De Niro starring as the titular boxer (LaMotta originally excoriated Scorsese after the director turned down his offer to play himself.) De Niro would win an Academy Award for best actor, and the movie garnered eight total nominations, including one for best picture.
It is the best sports film ever made.
LaMotta appeared in The Hustler, The Runaways and New Jack City along with several low-budget films and shorts. He had an off-Broadway show called called Lady and the Champ and will be remembered as one of the greatest fighters in the most corrupt time of the sport.
LaMotta was a brain damaged anti-hero before we found those type of characters endearing. He had a strange, sad, yet enduring life. He discovered his true talent early on and yet was never able to capitalize on it in a way truly fitting of his prowess.
The vast majority of us decide to never strap on gloves or stand in the ring, we just criticize those who do. LaMotta did it over and over and over.
He took it on the chin and kept going regardless of how many Nicks from PMG were out there trying to get a pinch. Punch drunk to punch line, it didn’t matter, he never went down.
Andrew J. Pridgen is a writer and editor. His old book can be found here. His new book comes out in November.