The Dark Corner: Jake LaMotta, Survivor

Jake LaMotta defeats Marcel Cerdan for the world middleweight title in Detroit on June 16, 1949.

This excerpt comes from Carlos Acevedo’s first book, Sporting Blood: Tales from the Dark Side of Boxing, an expanded edition of which will be available from Hamilcar Publications September 6. Acevedo’s latest book, The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison, is now available from Hamilcar wherever books are sold.

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Even Jake LaMotta seemed fascinated by his own inner turmoil. LaMotta, “The Bronx Bull,” who died on September 19, 2017, at age ninety-five, kept volumes of Freud on his nightstand. He studied the psychoanalysts during the heyday of the Age of Anxiety, when “id,” “Oedipus complex,” and “libido” became part of the American lexicon. “In New York City in 1946,” wrote literary critic Anatole Broyard, “there was an inevitability about psychoanalysis. It was like having to take the subway to get anywhere. Psychoanalysis was in the air, like humidity, or smoke. You could almost smell it.” Indeed, the surrealist shaman of the subconscious himself, André Breton, whose movement was indebted to Freud, was based in New York City throughout the 1940s and his acolytes were scattered across the country during World War II: Yves Tanguy, Man Ray, Max Ernst, André Masson.

If LaMotta pored over Freudian texts for self-insight, he would, years later, use the knowledge he had gleaned from The Future of an Illusion and The Interpretation of Dreams for dramatic purposes. His autobiography, Raging Bull, was full of what can euphemistically be described as poetic license. Its main narrative hook—that LaMotta was masochistically driven throughout his career by the thought that he had killed a bookie named Harry Gordon—is probably fiction. In 1962, long before Raging Bull was published, LaMotta wrote an article for True magazine delving into his life and career. There, you can find a rough draft of his guilty-conscience-as-textual-generator conceit. After mugging a shop owner (not a bookie as stated in the autobiography) and bludgeoning him with a lead pipe, LaMotta flees the scene convinced that he has committed murder. Before he gets picked up for his crime, however, LaMotta is arrested for attempted burglary and sent to Coxsackie, a harsh reform school in upstate New York.

“Weeks went by, and months,” LaMotta wrote. “I had that man on my mind all the time I was in jail. When I got out of Coxsackie I just had to pass that shop again. It was a magnet. Passing the shop became a habit. I would slow down my walk, turn my head slightly and look at the desk. One day, when I was doing it for about the hundredth time, I saw him. He was paler than I remembered him, grayer and weak looking, but alive. I stopped and stared, unable to believe it for a moment.” The revised version, in which Harry Gordon pops up like a ghost at a post-fight party, was the controlling element of Raging Bull. Guilt, a prime mover in Freud as in Kafka, also a 1940s keystone, is what motivates LaMotta throughout the book. That it may be a literary device takes nothing away from an existence whose torrid days and nights mirrored a career remarkable both for its accomplishments and its pandemonium. No ordeal between the ropes, however, could compare to the all-year-round fracas that was his life.

Today the Lower East Side is just another overpriced neighborhood sprouting chichi bistros and million-dollar condos, but when Jake LaMotta was born there, on July 10, 1922, it was a slum that would have exhausted an army of muckrakers determined to expose its sordid injustices. For many, survival of the fittest and social Darwinism were not just concepts found in textbooks and the novels of Jack London or Frank Norris, but day-to-day realities dispiriting in their banality. LaMotta was a genuine Dead End Kid, with a future seemingly all used up before it had even arrived. “When I was eight I was already getting mad at people,” LaMotta wrote in Raging Bull. “I would clock them for talking to each other because I thought they might be talking about me.” A short stint in Philadelphia did little to improve the family fortunes, and the LaMottas returned to New York City, this time to the Bronx, for decades cultural shorthand for urban blight. In the Claremont section, which features a Park Avenue light-years removed from the opulence its name suggests, LaMotta ran the streets, fighting, stealing, and honing an outlook on life that was as bleak as it was violent. Under the abusive stranglehold of his father, LaMotta saw his sociopathic tendencies harden day after day in a childhood that seemed almost wholly devoid of joy.

During his time in reform school, LaMotta spent hours battering his overstuffed pillowcase in grim preparation for an even grimmer future in the ring. His juvenile-delinquent mates in Coxsackie included future welterweight contender (and murder victim) Terry Young and, for a few weeks at least, Rocky Graziano, whom LaMotta had known as a boy on the Lower East Side. After a short amateur career, LaMotta signed with Mike Capriano and soon turned pro. On March 3, 1941, LaMotta earned twenty-five dollars for his debut, a four-round decision over Charles Mackley at the St. Nicholas Arena on Columbus Avenue. In the World War II era, when dozens of top-notch fighters were drafted and the ranks of marquee pugs were thinned, LaMotta had a fast track to headline status. His brutish style generated one nickname after another, as if the sporting culture at large was having difficulty coming to grips with what it was seeing. “The Bronx Ripper,” “Mister Five-by-Five,” “The Atomic Bomber,” “One-Man Riot,” “Bronx Bull”—LaMotta had a ring style that exhausted the fertile imaginations on press row.

In a few short but violent years, LaMotta would be making $10,000 to $20,000 per fight and headlining throughout the East Coast and the Midwest. Because LaMotta refused to kowtow to the New York mob— then the most powerful organization in boxing—he was forced to take his bloody show on the road despite being a box-office magnet with potential. A championship shot, however, seemed out of reach. First, the middleweight title, then held by Tony Zale, had been frozen for the duration of the war. While LaMotta waited for an elusive title shot, he took part in one of the most famous series in boxing history, against Sugar Ray Robinson. Because of the war, championship opportunities were limited; so, too, were headline attractions who could generate box-office bonanzas. Under these circumstances, Robinson took a risk by facing LaMotta, a middleweight with decided advantages in size and strength, but who was also a hometown peer with a dedicated following. Their fierce rivalry took place over nine years—a time span longer than that of most boxing careers—and lit up New York, Detroit, and Chicago. During the 1940s, LaMotta and Robinson waged war five times. After losing a decision to Robinson in Madison Square Garden in 1942, LaMotta evened the score a few months later in Detroit, where more than eighteen thousand fans at Olympic Stadium watched him swarm over the future legend en route to a bruising unanimous decision. Jake LaMotta became the first man to defeat the incomparable Sugar Ray Robinson. This win, a shocker when it happened, became a milestone over the years, when Robinson forged a new winning streak, one that lasted until 1951. Robinson entered the ring against Randy Turpin that year with an absurd record of 129-1-2. And the only loss had come at the hands of LaMotta.

In their rubber match, only three weeks later, Robinson won a hairpin decision that left the crowd booing for the rest of the night. Two more grueling decision wins for Robinson—the last in 1945—left LaMotta financially stable but seething about his nemesis. Worse, LaMotta was no closer to a title shot, despite his status as a crowd-pleaser and wins over Fritzie Zivic, Jose Basora, Bert Lytell, Vic Dellicurti, Coley Welch, Bob Satterfield, and George Costner. Outside the ring, the concept of impulse control seemed beyond his ken. LaMotta physically abused his first wife, Ida Geller, once knocking her unconscious, and believing that she was dead, contemplated whether to dump her body in the Bronx River. He raped a neighborhood girl who happened to be dating his best friend, Peter Savage (born Petrella), the forgiving future coauthor of Raging Bull. To break an onerous contract he had signed upon turning professional, LaMotta hurled his manager, Mike Capriano, headlong down a flight of stairs. He repeatedly beat his second wife, Vikki, a teenage bride on par with Priscilla Presley and Myra Gale Brown; then, in a jealous fit of rage, he battered Savage, whom he wrongly suspected of having an affair with Vikki. There is no telling how many nights LaMotta spent staring into the abyss of his tortured psyche. “I was a mean, vicious, and cruel person,” he told the Boston Globe in 1985.

In late 1947, LaMotta made the fateful decision that would bring him his greatest joy and his biggest regret. After six years as a professional, with the middleweight championship nowhere in sight, LaMotta finally joined the wiseguys he had disdained for so long. Seeing his childhood partner Rocky Graziano, whose career was firmly in the grip of the mob, win the middleweight title a few months earlier must have stirred up the spleen in LaMotta. He agreed to dump a fight against manufactured light-heavyweight Billy Fox in exchange for a title shot somewhere down the road. LaMotta may have gone on to bit parts in films and even on stage after his career was over, but against Fox, his performance was unconvincing. In the fourth round, an exasperated LaMotta, conflicted to his bones at disgracing the profession that had given him his only chance at distinction, allowed Fox to batter him at will, until referee Barney Felix stepped in.

Years later columnist Arthur Daly recalled the fight for the New York Times. “A curious pride kept him vertical,” Daly wrote. “He was willing to sink low enough to be a party to a fraud, but not willing to sink to his knees.” Fox, a product of the Blinky Palermo fight factory, had a KO record as fanciful as anything you could find in the Sunday funny pages. He had already been stopped by Gus Lesnevich in a bid for the light-heavyweight title a year earlier and now his handlers had determined that there was still some blood money to be tapped from his veins. In addition to the betting coup the LaMotta fix brought them, Palermo and Co. also cashed in on a second title fight against Gus Lesnevich, who stopped Fox in one gruesome round only four months after the debacle at Madison Square Garden. Fox lost more than he won from that point on, and when his career was over “Blackjack” found himself tragically adrift.

By losing to Fox in such an obvious frame-up LaMotta saw his reputation, hardly unassailable in previous years, hit bottom. “I regretted it most of my life,” LaMotta would say years later. “But it happened, and I had a good reason for it. All I wanted to do was become champion. I wanted a shot at the title and I finally did after I did what I did. I think I was wrong. It could have ruined my whole life.” He was fined and suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission, which could not find definitive evidence of a fix, but punished LaMotta on the pretext of LaMotta entering the ring with an undisclosed injury. But La Cosa Nostra kept its word. From the bocce courts and smoky backrooms of social clubs, the dons grudgingly delivered—for a $20,000 fee—a title shot to the lone wolf who for years had bared his fangs whenever the Black Hand had approached it.

On June 16, 1949, LaMotta challenged international luminary Marcel Cerdan for the middleweight championship of the world at Briggs Stadium in Detroit. LaMotta was making his eighty-ninth start and was nearly twenty-seven years old, but nothing was going to keep him from achieving his magnificent obsession. “I wanted to be champ, wanted to be champ,” he once said. “Dreamed it, wished it, believed it.” LaMotta bullyragged Cerdan from the opening bell and whipsawed both hands relentlessly until the pied-noir superstar—long past his best but still no easy mark, even that night at Briggs Stadium—retired on his stool, citing an injured shoulder. In a photograph taken ring center after the fight, LaMotta, belt strapped around his waist, is surrounded by joyful well-wishers (including Joe Louis and Al Silvani). But “The Bronx Bull” appears seething, disconsolate, and moments away from weeping. “The road to the title,” he once wrote, “almost broke my heart.”

About Carlos Acevedo 44 Articles
Carlos Acevedo is an award-winning boxing writer and was the founder of The Cruelest Sport and is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Inside HBO Boxing, Undisputed Champion Network, Boxing News, Remezcla, Boxing Digest, and Esquina Boxeo.  His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO). Carlos is the author of Sporting Blood, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Carlos on Twitter @cruelestsport.