Jake LaMotta, a brawling middleweight champion whose epic battles with Sugar Ray Robinson defined non-heavyweight boxing in the 1940s and early '50s, has died, his fiancee said Wednesday. He was 95.
LaMotta, known to many only as the conflicted hero-antihero in "Raging Bull," the movie based on his autobiography, was a busy fighter who posted an 83-19-4 record in his 14-year, 106-bout career. He fought Robinson six times — twice in a three-week span in 1943 — winning only once. In their final fight, a gruesomely intriguing slugfest known as boxing's version of the St. Valentine's Day massacre, he lost his hard-earned (and some would say ill-gotten) title.
Robinson won when the referee stopped the fight in the 13th round of that Feb. 14, 1951, bout at the old Chicago Stadium, while a pounded and helpless LaMotta hung on the ropes. But LaMotta, proud of his ability to take a punch, never hit the canvas and, as Robinson was declared the winner, said, "Ya didn't put me down, Ray; ya didn't put me down!"
LaMotta had Robinson pinned in a corner and nearly finished the match in the 11th round, but Robinson escaped and turned the tables.
"I ran out of gas," LaMotta later told the Associated Press. "It was my last barrage. I couldn't raise my arms."
Although battlers in the ring, he and Robinson were friends outside it, with Robinson serving as best man for LaMotta's sixth wedding and LaMotta responding whenever asked, "The three toughest opponents I've ever been up against were Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Robinson. I fought Sugar so many times, I'm surprised I'm not diabetic."
They fought first in 1942, with Robinson winning a 10-round decision in New York. Then, on Feb. 5, 1943, LaMotta handed Robinson his first loss after 40 pro victories, knocking him out of the ring before winning a 10-round decision in a Detroit fight that had promoters scrambling for a rematch. The rematch occurred exactly three weeks later and was won by Robinson, again in 10 rounds.
With Robinson heading for World War II service in the Army, LaMotta turned to other opponents — he fought Fritzie Zivic four times in less than a year — but they got together again twice in 1945, with Robinson winning 10- and 12-round decisions. Robinson then set his sights on the welterweight title and won it, but LaMotta, despite impressive performances against some of the best fighters in the business, from welterweights to light-heavyweights, couldn't get a middleweight title shot.
"I wanted to make it on my own, but it took me a long time, and I had to throw a fight," LaMotta told England's Birmingham Post in 2006. "I tried to do everything on the up and up, but time was running out and I was getting older."
So, in an effort to curry favor with the underworld figures who controlled boxing at the time, LaMotta agreed to take a dive against Billy Fox, who was being groomed for bigger things.
The fight, staged in New York's Madison Square Garden in November 1947, was a fiasco. Fox won on a fourth-round knockout, but the fighters were so inept that everyone quickly realized the fix was in. Purses were withheld, and LaMotta was suspended by the New York State Athletic Commission.
In his book "Raging Bull" — his ring nickname was "The Bronx Bull" — LaMotta later wrote: "The first round, a couple of belts to his head, and I see a glassy look coming over his eyes. ... A couple of jabs and he's going to fall down? I began to panic a little. I was supposed to be throwing a fight to this guy and it looked like I was going to end up holding him on his feet. ... By [the fourth round], if there was anybody in the Garden who didn't know what was happening, he must have been dead drunk."
Despite his willingness to go with the flow, LaMotta didn't get his title shot until nearly two years later and then had to come up with $20,000 for then-champion Marcel Cerdan.
Cerdan dislocated his left shoulder early in the fight on June 16, 1949, and LaMotta won when Cerdan quit after the ninth round. LaMotta quickly agreed to a rematch, but the French Algerian was killed in a plane crash en route to his U.S. training site, and LaMotta successfully defended his crown only twice before again running afoul of Robinson, who'd given up his welterweight title for a shot at the middleweight belt.
LaMotta fought through 1952 — he finally was knocked off his feet by Danny Nardico on Dec. 31 that year — and was inactive in '53 before retiring after three fights in 1954.
Giacobbe LaMotta was born July 10, 1921, in the Bronx, and grew up fighting. As a youngster in his Italian neighborhood, he was urged by his father to fight other kids while adults threw pocket change into the makeshift ring. His father collected the coins, using the money to pay household expenses.
"I used to fight on the streets a lot," LaMotta told the New York Daily News in 2006. "We were always fighting, either for real or for fun or for money. ... That's how I learned to fight."
Boxing instruction during a teenage stint in reform school for burglary — boyhood friend and fellow fighter Rocky Graziano was there at the same time — smoothed his style, and LaMotta was fighting professionally when he was 19.
In retirement, he ran a nightclub in Miami Beach, where he was the in-house stand-up comic and singer. He also testified before a Senate inquiry into boxing on the fixed Fox fight, served a short prison term on a morals charge and appeared in several movies (he was a bartender in "The Hustler" with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason). In addition, he introduced a food products line, starring LaMotta's Tomatta Sauce, and, with Joseph Carter and Peter Savage, wrote his "Raging Bull" autobiography, later serving as coach and advisor to Robert De Niro, who played LaMotta in the movie.
Said LaMotta of the film, "I told the producer I wanted to play myself, but he said, 'Jake, you're not the type.' "
Kupper is a former Times staff writer.