When the legendary pug Jake LaMotta -- better known as "Raging Bull" -- died the other day at the tender age of 95 my first reaction was to wonder how such an incomparable rascal and incorrigible roughneck could have possibly survived 95 years. Others, no doubt, said to themselves: "I thought that bum died 50 years ago."
Both sentiments are viable. If ever a man lived a harder life it's doubtful he did so with more relish or enthusiasm. There was much that was immensely ugly about Jake but he seemed to revel in all of it which -- perversely or otherwise -- gave him a certain baffling yet extraordinary charm. This, Ladies and Gentlemen, was one helluva character, may I assure you.
His passing closes the door on an era of sports history that while unquestionably sordid was also compelling, even heroic. Jake was the last of the great champions reared in the 1940s who gave boxing -- then at its height of esteem and fascination in the culture -- a grip on our imagination that survives even as the game now sadly withers away.
Is there any longer an excuse for boxing? Not really! Yet I confess, if somewhat inexplicably, to missing it as once it was and will certainly never be again. Does that have something to do with the forward march of civilization? Given all that's awful that abounds in contemporary life the mere suggestion seems silly.
Anyway, if LaMotta was hardly an exemplar of the manly arts at their best, please believe this was one tough cookie. And when he wasn't in the tank he was as honest a warrior as ever stepped in a bloody ring. If he were still with us, the matchless Sugar Ray Robinson -- with whom Jake brawled six times -- losing "only" five -- would gladly attest.
"Raging Bull," Martin Scorsese's epic account of Jake's grim life and times is an almost perfect movie. But if it has a flaw it's with the depiction of Jake (played so memorably by Robert De Niro) as a human punching-bag who took far more punishment than he handed out and who absorbed the pain in some weird act of expiation. Actually, LaMotta was a highly skilled boxer, cagy and clever as well as savage when he had to be. This was no manic wacko in the ring. If you hoped to survive him you had to know your craft as Sugar Ray demonstrated five times, although every bloody one of those epic rumbles was ferocious.
But indeed Jake did tank a fight and it was a big one in 1947 against a totally mob-controlled if otherwise estimable light heavyweight named Billy Fox. He denied the fix fiercely only to admit it fully 13 years later; classic Jake. He did it to get a middleweight title fight, he would eventually admit, which is the way it too often worked back then, although preserving his well-being probably was a factor too. Serious hoods were linked with that caper. Vipers crawled all over the dodge back then. You messed with them at your peril.
He could have been banned for life and you might wonder if an appreciation for those 'extenuating circumstances' encouraged the pugilistic judiciary to let him off with a mere seven-month suspension. It was the break of his life. Two years later the gallant Marcel Cerdan gave him his long denied title-bout and he capitalized with a 10 round TKO. A couple months later Cerdan -- a hero in his homeland and the beau of France's fable songbird, Edith Piaf -- was en route to the States for a re-match when his plane crashed in the Azores leaving Jake to reign comfortably atop the middleweight division for two years, until Sugar Ray came calling again. He could have ducked Sugar. But that wasn't his style. Robinson won but at no little price and never did manage to knock Jake down.
In the ring, Jake had valor. Out of it was too often another story. He once called himself, "a good-for-nothing bum" and there were times it was hard to find dissenters. Son of an abusive Sicilian fruit-peddler, he was raised in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen landing in reform school for petty thievery as a teen where one of his mates was the equally unpleasant Rocky Graziano.
The pen probably saved both of them. It was there they learned how to box. In retirement in 1957 running a night club in Miami, he did more prison-time; six months on a road gang for allegedly encouraging a teenage girl to engage in prostitution. There would be other incidents, more embarrassments; most having something to do with his harsh temper. He was married six times, never for very long.
Whether he actually mellowed or merely succumbed to the vagaries of old-age is unclear, but he'd been out of the headlines the last 35 years or so. His last twirl with either celebrity or infamy having come with Scorsese's wonderful 1980 movie and De Niro's near mesmerizing performance. Some who knew him well say all that made him seem more awful than he actually was.
It's hard to know for sure because there was lots of "con" in his act. Jake could turn it on when he wished and become almost charming which was evident the one time I spent any time with him at a press-luncheon linked with the movie and staged by another boxing legend, the priceless promoter Rip Valenti.
Jake was great at such gigs, highly entertaining and good at making himself the butt of his own humor. "Was I really that bad," he liked to ask about himself with the answer invariably being, "Yup, probably." You can be wary of such characters but it's hard to really dislike them.
Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.
Recent articles in the Culture & Events section
Pushing back against evilFather Tadeusz Pacholczyk
Tommy, we hardly knew yeDick Flavin
Move to meet people with love -- even around the family tableLaura Kelly Fanucci
Fearlessness and the American bishops in RomeGeorge Weigel