Jake LaMotta, former Middleweight champion, passed away yesterday at the age of 95. The turbulent life of the troubled former boxer was the subject of numerous books, and provided the story that was told in Martin Scorsese’s classic film, “Raging Bull.”
The pattern of chaos that followed him for the majority of his life started early on, as he grew up in poverty and his father was often abusive toward the family. Neighborhood conflicts in New York landed him in reform school during his youth, where he first learned the sport of boxing. After an undefeated amateur career, he turned pro in 1941 at the age of just 19. Garnering an incredible 106 bouts on his professional record, LaMotta fought often during his nearly 14-year career. His direct style was matched by his iron chin, and he became known for being able to withstand an unbelievable amount of punishment in the ring. An unwavering series of hooks and an unstoppable will become trademarks of his legacy.
Perhaps, the Bronx native’s most famous performances were his series of fights with the legendary “Sugar” Ray Robinson, one of the most accomplished champions in boxing history. The two athletes squared off an astounding six times, which saw Robinson victorious in five of the contests. The brutal spectacles remain a topic of discuss among sports fans decades later. The most well-known and final LaMotta/Robinson match-up took place in 1951 in front of nearly 15,000 fans at Chicago stadium. “Sugar” Ray landed vicious combinations and staggered his opponent, but LaMotta showed incredible toughness, refusing to hit the canvas. Thankfully, the referee rescued the Bronx Bull in the thirteenth round, which saw a bloody and bruised former champion draped across the ring ropes in a scene that became an iconic image of his career.
Controversy followed the “Raging Bull” even outside of the squared circle, both personally and professionally. A rising middleweight contender by the mid-1940s, he agreed to throw a fight with Billy Fox in November of 1947 so that the mafia would use its connections to secure him an eventual title shot. Less than two years later, he did get a shot at the title, defeating Marcel Carden to win the championship in June 1949. When he dropped the belt to Robinson in the previously mentioned final fight of their series, he moved to light heavyweight for the remainder of his career. The ring wars with Robinson appeared to take their toll on him, as his venture to the next weight class yielded mixed results. In late 1952, he was knocked down for the first time in his career during a losing effort against Danny Nardico. He took a year off to recover from injuries before he had a pair of wins that led to a debated split decision loss to Billy Kilgore.
He retired from the ring in 1954 with a record of 83-19-4 during his career.
Post-fighting, LaMotta used his rugged charisma to run night clubs and appeared as a stage performer as well. In 1957, he was arrested when it was discovered that underage girls were allowed admission to a night club he ran, and he served six months on a chain gang. After his release, he continued to work in show business, appearing in over a dozen films. He made a cameo in the Paul Newman classic “The Hustler,” and made numerous television appearances.
In 1960, he was asked to testify at senate hearings to investigate the mafia’s influence on boxing. The former champion explained how he threw the Fox fight in exchange for a title shot.
His 1970 autobiography is what led to the production of the classic film a decade later. LaMotta trained Robert DeNiro in preparation for the film, and the actor won an Academy Award for his tremendous on-screen performance. “Raging Bull” took a look at the brutality of LaMotta’s life from all aspects. In many ways, the major success of the film renewed his popularity and introduced him to another generation of fans.
In the years since Scorsese’s masterpiece was released, Jake LaMotta became a fixture on the autograph circuit, often telling the stories of the ring wars of his boxing career. He also published several more books that told in-depth stories of his bouts with Ray Robinson. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
Jake LaMotta was certainly a complex individual, his decisions in his personal life were questionable, while his dedication to fighting was admirable. Thankfully, he seemed to find some type of peace later in life as an elder statesman of the sports world.
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Until next week
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