Former boxing middleweight champion Jake LaMotta died yesterday from complications of pneumonia at the age of 95. During his impressive career, in which he was knocked down only once in more than 100 professional bouts, LaMotta was known for his iron chin and aggressive fighting style, which earned him the nickname “The Bronx Bull.” But despite his achievements in the ring, he will be remembered as much for his life beyond it, which was peppered with controversy and personal turmoil and has been the subject of various documentaries and feature films, including the 1980 classic Raging Bull.
Born on July 10, 1922, LaMotta came up on the mean streets of New York City’s Lower East Side and the Bronx borough. For the entertainment of friends and passersby, LaMotta’s father encouraged his young son to brawl, and the pocket change he earned for his efforts helped pay the family’s rent. But the fight this put in LaMotta never left him, and during his youth he frequently found trouble and spent a good deal of time in reform school. By his late teens, LaMotta was already hardened beyond his years. He had also become a skilled fighter, and in 1941, at age 19, LaMotta went pro, launching a career that would include 83 wins (30 by knockout), 19 losses, four draws and some of the most memorable fights in boxing history.
Fighting at the middleweight class, LaMotta plowed his way through his opponents en route to the big stage, winning his first 13 fights and amassing a record of 25–4–2 before facing his first truly formidable challenger, Sugar Ray Robinson. Their first fight took place on October 2, 1942, at Madison Square Gardens, and although LaMotta knocked down Robinson in the first round, he ultimately lost the decision, beginning a heated rivalry that would play out over the next several years, with Robinson ultimately winning five of their six meetings.
But with his unrelenting fury and improbable ability to take a beating and keep fighting, LaMotta set his sights on the middleweight championship and continued to mow down his challengers, winning 33 of his next 40 matches. Then, on November 14, 1947, in what is certainly the most infamous fight of his career, LaMotta stepped into the ring with Billy Fox and was knocked out in the fourth round. Suspecting that the contest was fixed, the New York State Athletic Commission later suspended LaMotta and withheld his prize money. More than a decade later, the commissions suspicions would be confirmed when LaMotta appeared before a 1960 Senate subcommittee on the influence of organized crime in boxing and admitted that he had thrown the fight and paid the Mafia $20,000 in order to get a title shot. Despite his suspension, that fight eventually came on June 16, 1949, when LaMotta battled French champion Marcel Cedan, winning the match by way of technical knockout and becoming middleweight champion of the world.
After successfully defending his title for more than a year, on February 14, 1951, LaMotta faced his archrival, Sugar Ray Robinson, for the sixth and final time. In what would be dubbed the “Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre” by the boxing press, Robinson unleashed a furious beating on LaMotta that resulted in LaMotta losing the match by technical knockout in the 13th round—and losing his title along with it. However, despite the loss—and the severity of the physical punishment he endured during the fight—LaMotta never went down.
For the next several years, LaMotta would continue to fight, but by 1954 it had become clear that his skills had faded and he retired from the sport. In his life after boxing, LaMotta managed to stay in or near the limelight, though not always for good reasons. In 1958 he was arrested and sentenced for six months on a chain gang after allegedly introducing an underage girl to men at one of his nightclubs, and in 1960 he made his appearance before the Senate subcommittee investigating the Mafia’s influence on boxing. But LaMotta also managed to make a career for himself as an actor during this time, appearing in various stage shows and as a stand-up comic as well as landing small parts in television shows such as Car 54, Where Are You? and films including The Hustler (1961).
In 1970 LaMotta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story was published by Prentice-Hall. A detailed and honest account of his professional accomplishments and personal failures, the book came to the attention of actor Robert De Niro, who encouraged his friend and collaborator Martin Scorsese to develop LaMotta’s story into a film. The rights were eventually purchased by MGM, and Raging Bull was released in 1980 to great acclaim. For his portrayal of LaMotta in the picture, De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Capitalizing on his renewed fame, in 1986 LaMotta published the second installment of his memoirs, Raging Bull II, and in 2012 it was announced that production had begun on a film of the same name. However, as the film had no connection to the Scorsese-directed picture, several months later MGM filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers, blocking them from billing the movie as a sequel to Raging Bull and forcing them to change the name. Retitled as The Bronx Bull, it quietly premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival in 2016 and was released a year later.
Jake LaMotta was the father of two sons and four daughters and was married seven times during his lifetime, most recently to actress Denise Baker, with whom he appeared in the 2012 stage show Lady and the Champ, which was penned by Baker and universally panned during its two-week run. LaMotta’s legacy, however, is unquestionably secure. He was ranked number 52 in Ring Magazine’s list of the 80 greatest fighters of the previous 80 years and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His achievements as a boxer remain an inspiration to fighters around the world, and his life beyond the ring continues to fascinate.