LaMotta (left) and De Niro together in 1981, the year after Raging Bull’s release.
You know you are a legend when it takes not one but two cinematic masterpieces to encompass all your greatness, your controversies and your personality – inside and out of the ring.
And Jake La Motta was, indeed, a legend.
Born Giacobbe LaMotta on July 10, 1922 in New York’s Lower East Side and later raised in the rough and tough Bronx of the pre-depression era, Jake was a street hustler since his earliest childhood who learned the basics of his future profession by roaming the streets alongside a colorful crew of characters that included future fellow great Rocky Graziano, among others.
After completing his apprenticeship in boxing in the youth correctional facilities of his day, LaMotta made his pro debut at age 19 in 1941. He quickly developed a reputation of having a granite chin, absorbing massive amounts of punishment while dishing it back with gusto.
LaMotta was a 25-5-2 fringe contender in 1942 when he faced all-time great Sugar Ray Robinson for the first time in a six-fight series that would define LaMotta’s career. The following year they fought twice within a 21-day span in Detroit, with the second fight being an instant rematch after LaMotta had handed Robinson the first loss of his career. Robinson would later stretch his once-beaten record to 129-1-2, an extraordinary accomplishment that included no less than four additional wins over LaMotta including the infamous “St. Valentine’s Day massacre” in the final chapter of their rivalry in 1951.
In that final fight against Robinson, LaMotta lost the Ring middleweight belt he had wrestled away from France’s Marcel Cerdan back in 1949, a title he defended twice in 1950 against Tiberio Mitri and Laurent Dauthuille. In 1952, he lost by stoppage against Danny Nardico in the only fight in which LaMotta visited the canvas in his 13 years and 106 fights as a professional. He proceeded to retire after a short-lived comeback in 1954.
In a career that was marked by ups-and-downs, unfair decisions and refusals to throw fights for the mafia that ran boxing back in those days, LaMotta still managed to beat world-class fighters ranging from welterweight to light heavyweight, including names such as Fritzie Zivic, George Kochan, Tommy Bell, Bert Lytell, Jose Basora, Bob Satterfield, Holman Williams and Tony Janiro.
His larger-than-life persona outside the ring, with his criminal past and his seven marriages and his late-life stint as club owner and nightclub performer, earned his “Raging Bull” biographical opus a consideration for a motion picture production with that same name. The result was what is still considered the best boxing-themed movie of all time.
Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece was produced in 1980 and went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards, with Robert De Niro winning Best Actor for his portrayal of LaMotta. Another movie called “The Bronx Bull” starring William Forsythe as LaMotta and Paul Sorvino as his father was later produced and premiered to include all the extraordinary moments that “Raging Bull” had not portrayed, including LaMotta’s testimony before Congress in their hearings to investigate the mafia’s involvement in the boxing industry.
After a life that pretty much defined the word “fame” within the context of boxing, LaMotta was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1990.
LaMotta died on September 19, 2017 in Florida, at the age of 95.
Diego M. Morilla writes for The Ring since 2013. He also wrote for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and other outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com. Follow him on Twitter @MorillaBoxing