“Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know. All I know is this: Once I was blind and now I can see.” These lines from the New English Bible accompany the closing credits of Raging Bull and are intended to remind us of the infinite potential for human salvation. They provide a powerful, but in the case of LaMotta, a false statement on the ability of the human spirit to rehabilitate itself.
It could be argued that Martin Scorsese should have borrowed instead the famous quote from nineteenth-century writer Ambrose Bierce: “Saint: A [dead] sinner revised and edited,” as his final proclamation on the life of LaMotta. A vital animalistic force whose ability to survive and ultimately prosper financially should not be confused with “salvation” or even acceptance of his past wrongdoings.
But, then, as now, only the myopic or perennially optimistic could apply any form of saintliness to Jake LaMotta: world champion, wife-beater, and confessed rapist. Even LaMotta would have had a hard time beatifying himself amid breaks from his usual paranoia and his endless, groaning, wisecracks.
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No one can deny that LaMotta was a hard man. Perhaps, there was a greatness to his hardness, the fabled chin and all. Still, there are too many blemishes on his character to completely revise or ignore. Any attempt to do so should result in a cutting room floor filled with the inconvenient detritus of a thousand X-rated spools.
Yet the menacing reality of LaMotta’s inner-life continues to be eclipsed by the dominating spotlight of the legend in the foreground. To the extent that it could be said, perhaps shamefully, that its seediness adds further fuel to the light.
Where any legend exists, there is a tendency to, if not “revise and edit,” then to ignore, excuse, or kindest of all, understand: to trim away the pieces of the picture that don’t fit the symmetry of our desired frame.
A world champion from 1949‒51, two successful defenses, and six legendary contests against the five-times superior Ray Robinson—and how that superiority must have irked him: “You never got me down, Ray.” He never said it, but it doesn’t matter. Like the movies, we create our own truths.
On a November evening in 2013, a helicopter plunged from the sky above Glasgow and killed all three of its crew members. It also claimed the lives of a further seven people on the ground enjoying a Friday night drink at the Clutha pub.
Steadily the Clutha rose from its literal ashes. As it was being repaired, its walls were embellished by murals of figures that had enjoyed its hospitality. From Stan Laurel to Frank Zappa and Spike Milligan, they are an impressively eclectic group. Among this company is former flyweight world champion Benny Lynch, with his name emblazoned across his vest, should anyone fail to recognize him.
The image is iconic and lives through the pages of a thousand boxing books. It never changes. Lynch is taking aim as he works out in the ring in front of the blurred faithful—men in jackets, ties, and flat caps.
His hair, outside of the ring, often slicked to one side like a schoolboy on photograph day, now wet, bedraggled, and tumbling down his forehead. His face is imprinted with the steely focus of a champion. Poised and ready, he prepares to throw a right hand that lands somewhere in the forgotten past, lost beyond the camera’s shutter and the artist’s faithful reconstruction.
In 1998, when the International Boxing Hall of Fame, finally saw fit to honor Lynch, they did so with the following citation: “Widely considered among the finest ring men below lightweight in the pre-World War-II era and generally regarded as the greatest fighter ever to come out of Scotland.”
Some would dispute the final part of this description and point to Ken Buchanan. But it doesn’t matter. Lynch is a legend who cannot be tumbled from his eyrie, possessed, as he is, of all the perfect constituent parts for eternal worship: tragic, flawed, a genius. Lynch was a man broken and dead at thirty-three, a victim of the bottle, of life, his environment, and, most of all, himself. If boxing had a ’27 Club of the young, lavishly talented and lost, then the little Glaswegian would be in it, allowing, of course, for age.
Lynch’s equilibrium, so perfect and composed in the ring, was ultimately beaten horizontal outside of it by alcohol. When disconnected from boxing’s disciplines and the safe counsel of his mentor Sammy Wilson, the booze drank him in long dehydrated gulps, and when there was nothing left but the last bitter, twisted dregs, it spewed him back out onto the street beneath.
The bottle took a once unbreakable champion and reduced him to a helpless victim. A husk, so diminished that at the final reckoning when there was nothing left to respect but his record and the pawned titles, death reset him permanently as a “legend.”
And like LaMotta, Lynch’s legend was darker than most.
Benny Lynch fought 119 contests as a professional, winning 88 times, losing 14, and sharing 17 draws. The statistics are impressive but insufficient to do justice to a career that lasted just a couple of weeks short of seven years and was over before his twenty-sixth birthday. Born in 1913 in the tenement slums of the Gorbals, he was condemned to fight from his first breath.
His parents both came from across the Irish Sea, and despite seeking better outcomes, ultimately found themselves in a part of the city defamed as one of the worst slums of Europe, where 85,000 people crowded into an area that occupied just two percent of the city.
Florence Street, where Lynch grew up, still exists, but the overcrowded nineteenth-century tenements of his day have long since faced the post-war wrecking ball. At the end of its new landscape lies Adelphi Street and the River Clyde. Across its famous banks resides the Victorian grandeur of the Peoples Palace and its abundant gardens. To a young Lynch, its leafy green open spaces must have felt as if they were located in another dimension compared to the chaotic, urban sprawl across the water.
The Peoples Palace chose to remember Lynch last year with an exhibition of his life. ‘The Little King of the Gorbals’ they still refer to him as; a plaque in a block of flats honors him, as does a mural in a subway beyond the river.
For many, these unprepossessing reminders are insufficient. A campaign group, ‘Statue for Benny Lynch,’ continues to work towards its target of raising money to erect a statue at Glasgow’s Central Station, where eighty-four years earlier, Lynch had returned triumphantly with Scotland’s first world championship belt among his possessions.
Twenty thousand people swarmed the station to meet him at his homecoming from Manchester in 1935. He had earlier knocked down local favorite Jackie Brown eight times in a brutally effective four-and-a-half-minute annihilation. Another one hundred thousand celebrated on the streets outside, all the way back to Lynch’s Gorbals home.
Curiously, the city itself didn’t welcome or honor the new champion. It’s often suggested that Lynch’s Irish Catholic roots didn’t sit well with the city patrons, but there appears to be little value now in picking apart the decaying carcass of sectarianism.
Whatever the truth is, this lack of recognition lit the flame of a fire that still rages, and gives continued heat to the fact that Lynch is the “people’s champion”—from them and belonging to them. Like the message that Lord Roseberry conferred on the Peoples Palace at its opening in 1898, his memory remains: “Open to the people forever and ever.”
Few alive today could have seen Lynch fight in person. But those that never witnessed his deeds directly—beyond the flickering realms of ancient newsreel—continue to guard and eulogize his second-hand memory.
This is the memory of a man that began his fighting life at local boxing clubs like LMS Rovers and the now anachronistic fairground boxing booths of Glasgow Green. He turned pro just a couple of weeks after his eighteenth birthday and fought seventy eight times over the next three and a half years on his way to securing the Scottish flyweight title through a fifteen-round decision against fellow Glaswegian Jim Campbell on June 27, 1934.
A win the following year against Birmingham’s Tommy Pardoe set him up for the historic title win against Brown. Winning the NBA flyweight title from Brown was a success that cemented Lynch’s status as a legend but culminated in a parting of ways with the savvy old street bookmaker, Sammy Wilson, a confidante and mentor who guided Lynch like a father to a son throughout his career.
The fame and rewards that came with being a champion contributed to Lynch’s tragic undoing. Lynch was loved everywhere in his home city, and there was an endless number of people determined drink with the champ.
Predictably, there were also those from the seamier sides of town that sought to ingratiate themselves with Lynch and separate him from his trusted and stable connections. An argument over a purse forever ruptured his relationship with Wilson, and he was left with nobody but his new avaricious acquaintances to guide and bleed him.
Three successful world title defenses followed, permanently sealing the “fighting” part of the Glasgow man’s legend. They included a bitter, evenly contested fifteen-round decision over titlist Small Montana on January 19, 1937, at the old Wembley stadium, a fight described at the time in the press as: “One of the most even and hard-fought matches ever witnessed in England.”
A victory over power-punching English prodigy Peter Kane followed at Shawfield Park, Glasgow. In front of a vocal home crowd, Lynch vanquished the nineteen-year-old Kane, who had been unbeaten in forty-one professional fights. Kane had started strong, but Lynch used ringcraft to weather the storm. As the fight reached its final third, Lynch increased the tempo against the sagging challenger, before unleashing a barrage of punches in the twelfth on his almost defenseless foe and ending it by knockout in the next round. It was seen by many of those present as the greatest fight ever to take place in Britain and perhaps the greatest flyweight contest anywhere at that time.
From this zenith, Lynch’s career was spent in less than a year. Already hitting the bottle, his talent and fighting heart was enough to see him through these battles, but his title was inevitably lost on the scales when he weighed in six and a half pounds over-weight against Jackie Jurich. With the added pounds more of a liability than an asset Lynch still summoned the resolve to knock out his American opponent in twelve one-sided rounds.
On October, 3, 1938, In the same week that Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes hit cinema screens, Lynch’s boxing career disappeared into memory. Against Aurel Toma at London’s Earls Court, he was allegedly seen drinking in his dressing room before the fight, and, entering the ring in appalling condition, Lynch was duly dispatched inside three painful rounds. For those present, it must have felt like viewing the Mona Lisa after it had been scrawled with colored pens. He was once a masterpiece—fleet-footed and with coruscating power in either hand—but the booze had soaked him.
The old newsreel shows Toma knocking the listless Lynch into the ropes and flat on his back with a jolting right hand. In what was perhaps a moment of heart-breaking self-realization at the sheer unforgiving ferocity of his descent, “The Little King of the Gorbals” rolls over to take the count and presses his face into the canvas to seemingly avert his eyes from the public shame.
Lynch died eight years later, estranged from his family, bloated and torn by alcoholism. Popular myth has him dying alone in the gutter like a drunk “Little Cesar,” but it isn’t true. Chronically ill, he presented himself at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital and died there of malnutrition and respiratory problems on August 8, 1946. Two thousand people attended his funeral, and more still lined the streets of his home city. It was as if the clock had been reversed back to those glory days when he had returned triumphant with the world championship belt.
The British Boxing Board had long since revoked his license, but the National Sporting Club, among others, had tried to help him. He spent time at a sanatorium in the south of England and another stint at a monastery in Ireland. Able to temporarily break the cycle of addiction, he regressed immediately on his return to his old influences. It seemed that Lynch could beat everything but the bottle.
This is the ‘Rise and Fall’ story of Benny Lynch as it is typicallyt recounted. The hero from the slums that shined briefly and brilliantly before alcohol ruined his talent and pride. Perhaps that is where it should be left, dark truths mercifully ignored.
To face these ‘truths’ now is to be faced with an uncomfortable, shameful list of wrongs. A set of criminal convictions that, through a twenty-first-century lens, becomes even more difficult to ignore and explain. The first among them is a physical assault on his wife, eleven-year-old sister-in-law, and three attending police officers. The court found him guilty and fined him £20. At the same time, an additional charge that Lynch attempted to gas his infant son over a stove, wasn’t proven. Convictions for drunk driving—involving hitting a telephone pole, injuring a twelve-week-old baby in its carriage, and failing to stop—are interspersed with fines for being drunk and incapable.
Later Lynch was found guilty of assault against two girls aged seven and ten in a cinema. At the trial, his lawyer argued that: “Men with drink are very fond of children and a wrong construction had been put on the case.” It’s comforting to think that this was a misunderstood act of confused drunken sorrow at the continued estrangement from his family. The motivation can now never be adequately pinned down, but it is horrible to think how these actions would be perceived from a modern perspective.
For some, the fact that every incident was accompanied by blacked-out drunkenness serves as a form of mitigation. Still, in today’s evolving “#MeToo” era, there are many gathering voices objecting to the traditional sympathy for Lynch and objecting to his wider commemoration—a view that makes sporting fame and self-inflicted personal misery a secondary consideration next to his unsavory acts and subsequent convictions for crimes against women and children.
From beyond the chasm of the intervening seventy-three years, it’s impossible now for anyone to unlock the puzzle of Lynch’s character and actions. We only have the ongoing struggle to separate the legend from the tragically flawed man.
Time has helped the legend gain permanence. The disreputable parts of the real man were allowed to rot and fall away.
Not a saint but a sinner, revised and edited, a painting on a wall, throwing a right hand that never lands.