The Age of the Bull: Giacobbe 'Jake' LaMotta tribute (1922-2017)
Danny Wayne Armstrong
Former middleweight world champion Jake LaMotta has died aged 95. Danny Wayne Armstrong pays a vivid tribute to a boxing legend...
In the centre of a crowded Bronx alleyway where the bated breath of a swarm of spectators imprints itself on the cold north-east air, an Italian child, blindfolded and bloody, swings a desperate punch. The blow connects and another kid from the neighbourhood takes to the seat of his pants. A rain of change clanks and lands around his feet, thrown from the cheers and whistles of the adults in attendance.
His father swoops to collect the money and puts it towards the rent that month.
That Bronx alleyway was a million miles from the sweltering lights of boxing’s most famous amphitheatres and the modest glitter of the coins was a mere glint when compared to the sparkle of the World Middleweight Championship belt.
But, wherever he was, one thing remained about Giacobbe ‘Jake’ LaMotta, The Raging Bull, throughout his life: he was a natural entertainer.
LaMotta was born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1922 and raised in the city’s jagged and hostile streets that have produced and consumed some of the world’s biggest stars in equal measure. The young Jake followed a path beaten by many of boxing greats before entering the square ring and his adolescence was blotted by petty crime.
But, Jake would later argue that he and his childhood friend, future fellow middleweight world champion Rocky Graziano were very ‘sophisticated’ thieves, stealing only things that began with the letter ‘a’, such as ‘a bike’ or ‘a car’ or ‘a fur coat’.
It was this ability to make light of trouble with a mere, mischievous one-line gag that made sure LaMotta’s popularity transcended his time in the ring.
Within his chosen arena, 'The Raging Bull' was a windmill of fists and unhinged ferocity who would bore into opponents, relentlessly bullying them around the ring. Defensively he was a sponge to cascades of punishment, boasting that ‘no son-of-a-bitch ever knocked me off my feet’.
He turned pro aged 19 in 1941 and two years later on 5 February 1943 became the first fighter to beat Sugar Ray Robinson, deemed by many to be the greatest boxer of any era. Jake, though, would never give his opponent of six fights that accolade, instead preferring to give that particular title to "my wives".
It was from that point that many marked LaMotta as a contender for the middleweight crown but mafia influence meant he would have to wait several years before his crack at the championship would materialise. He took a dive against the inferior Billy Fox, before deposing Marcel Cerdan as NBA world champion in 1949.
After also winning New York State recognition against Tiberio Mitri, he fought one of his greatest battles for the universally recognised middleweight championship against Laurent Dauthuille in what The Ring magazine later anointed their 'Fight of the Year' for 1950.
In the 15-round title match, Jake was heavily behind on points and receiving punishment in the final round. Suddenly he rallied with an assault culminating in a left hook, the same left hook honed in the Lower East Side hangouts that played host to those child brawls, and the nation held its breath. Thirteen seconds remained; the Frenchman was floored.
Dauthuille failed to beat the count and again Jake had evoked the raptures from the thousands packed into the Olympia Stadium in Detroit just as he had from the handful of strangers in the Bronx backstreets as an eight year old.
Just eleven fights later Jake retired at the age of 32, boasting a record of 83 wins from 106 professional fights, but his days of fighting and entertaining were far from over. His battles outside the ring almost consumed him as the breakdown of marriages and heavy eating and drinking left him struggling to patch together a life after boxing.
Jake’s life was portrayed on the silver screen long after he had drawn the portrait of his life on the canvas in the 1980 biopic 'Raging Bull' starring the iconic Robert De Niro, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on his autobiography of the same name.
A large portion of the film’s plot is dedicated to Jake’s life after the noble art and the problems he faced. In the clubs and bars he later owned, no longer a fighter of boxing description he dealt with the ramifications of a personality so tumultuous and self-destructive that his unrestrained rage and obsessions destroyed relationships with the ones he cared for most.
But what the movie frames in tragedy was perhaps the most peaceful and enjoyable time of Jake’s life, as the dimensions of a persona that was laid bare in the movie was in fact cloaked by an innocently facetious demeanour. Jake became a stand-up comedian and minor actor, promoting his book and jabbing with his jokes wherever possible, ribbing and giggling his way across a leviathan of talk shows and drinking haunts.
LaMotta was again taking centre stage and his performance partners were not men in trunks and gloves but an audience as he connected not with punches but with the stories they had created. The blazing brawls professionally and personally became the basis for his anecdotal tales and the colour of his character unravelled. Instead of leaving people hanging on the ropes, those that joined him this time on stage were hanging on his every syllable.
Jake was married seven times but his true love lay in being loved by others. Well into his ninth decade the immaculately dressed and Stetson-sporting LaMotta would pose almost out of reflex for the flickers of the camera flashes that had evolved from the crash of light bulbs in his fighting heyday for adoring fans across the world on his many tours. He would stop for pictures and interviews while the old gags reeled off his tongue almost as fast as his wit conjured up new ones.
With a beauty pageant wife on his arm and a world belt fastened around his sculpted torso, Jake was boxing’s darling of intrigue in an age where wiseguys and razzamatazz ruled. He was adored by fans for his polarising talents of hellacious pugnacity and later his light-hearted musings on a life that was equally artistic and entertaining when at its most violent and also most mellow.
Jake joked he invented rock n’ roll as a young hoodlum due to his tendency to "hit you with a rock and then roll ya". Given his knack of thrilling those who flocked to watch him entertain them with his punches and his punchlines, there could have been more truth in Jake’s words than he ever intended.